Rodgers ducks in under center and surveys the defense. First-and-goal inside the five-yard line. He takes the snap, fakes the inside give to Aaron Jones and roles left. He stops, reverses field and directs a receiver with his off hand.
Everson Griffen gives chase from behind and Rodgers has to take off. He reaches out for the pylon as he takes a shot from Anthony Barr.
Normally, only 22 people would see a play like that up close. Maybe another half dozen with security guards and ball boys/girls.
But thanks to a partnership with NextVR, the NFL will allow fans to be right in on the action, starting with Green Bay’s tilt with the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
The game will be one of five VR experience the NFL will offer this season, the second of the league’s experiment with the emerging tech space. The league and its corporate partner spent a test season without producing content as well.
This season Elika Sadeghi, who has been a host and contributor for ESPN and FS1 in the past, will join former running back Reggie Bush at the games to offer fans VR highlights on site.
That Rodgers touchdown could happen right in front of the user.
“Essentially we’re teleporting fans to the sidelines,” explains NextVR’s head of content Danny Keens.
“You feel like you’re standing in the end zone when a touchdown happens right in front of you. We’re essentially taking you right onto the field of play,” he says.
“Highlights have traditionally been consumed on a flat screen. And really what we’re doing is allowing people to step into the screen for the first time and really feel immersed in the experience.”
But VR remains a niche technology. It requires specific, and relatively expensive equipment to use and there is a dearth of content, particularly compared to our standard television or internet viewing experience.
The NFL sees an opportunity to push that growth forward, much the same way live sports helped advance television technology.
“If you think about the growth of HD, I would argue a lot of that had to do with fans wanting to watch live sports, and hopefully a lot of them live NFL in that richer experience,” insists William Deng, Director, Media Strategy and Business Development at the NFL.
“I would say the same for VR ... Creating the best content that we can create and making sure that when fans do experience VR content and NFL content, it’s compelling enough for them to tell their friends to get it and help incubate and grow this space.”
That’s even how Sadeghi was convinced to host the show. She hadn’t experienced this type of VR before, but when she saw some of the highlights from the first season, she was sold.
“Getting to view NFL highlights in NextVR was the next best thing to actually being on the sidelines,” she says.
And the NFL understands the risks of making it so easy to have this experience without actually going to the game — and more importantly, without paying gate prices to do it.
“Nothing beats the fan being at a live game, but if you think about it more broadly, not every fan gets to do that,” Deng says.
“So how do we bring that experience to a broader group of fans?”
Few fan bases know this burden better than Packers fans. Cheesehead Nation spans the globe, one of the most popular teams in sports. With a season ticket waiting list a generation long, tickets can be seriously difficult to come by.
But the NFL’s business model still relies on fans actually wanting to go to games, a problem plaguing some of the league’s markets. The Chargers, playing in a stadium half the normal size of an NFL arena, had to tarp over seats because they couldn’t sell tickets in their temporary home in Carson.
Still, the league understands it’s simply not feasible for every fan who wants to go to a game to actually make it. One day soon, according to NextVR’s Keens, the technology could allow full games to be broadcast in VR and the league wants to push toward that possibility.
“I think the natural path is to eventually get to a point where you could imagine someone watching an entire game live in VR,” Deng explains.
“We have many international fans for whom its difficult to come to a game. And it’s easy to envision a fan in China or Spain to experience a game like they’re sitting at the 50-yard line. I don’t think we’re there yet, but I think there’s a path if the technology and the storytelling gets there eventually.”
The post-game highlights show, one that Sadeghi insists won’t be a traditional studio show, represents the next step in the evolution of a league embracing VR technology.
And what better time than to start with a division matchup featuring the best player in the world?