The NBA will broadcast more than 25 games in VR this season


They wont be free, but they will be ad-free.

The NBA is expanding its push into virtual reality.

The league announced Thursday it will broadcast at least one game per week — a minimum of 25 games on the season — in virtual reality as part of a new, multi-year partnership with VR production company NextVR.

The NBA has streamed games live in VR before, but the production value was low. In the NBA season opener last year between the Warriors and Pelicans, the game streamed in VR included only ambient noise and no graphics or announcers.

“To see the score, fans had to do the same thing as fans at the stadium: Glance over at the nearest scoreboard,” my colleague Ina Fried wrote after testing the experience.

Not this year. NextVR is producing each game in what sounds like a TV-style format. That means announcers, sideline reporters, multiple camera angles, replays and graphics.

“One of the big complaints [about VR] is you feel like you’re isolated,” explained NextVR Chairman Brad Allen on expanded production. “Trying to keep somebody engaged that whole time, especially during the timeouts and the breaks in the action, it makes it much more compelling if you’ve got somebody there that’s kind of talking to you while things are happening.”

It’s not exactly like TV though. Unlike an ESPN or Turner, in which the media company buys the streaming rights from the NBA, these streams are still owned by the league, not NextVR. The two sides wouldn’t discuss deal terms, but given NextVR doesn’t own anything, they’re likely getting paid a production fee.

In order to watch these VR games, you’ll need an NBA League Pass subscription, a $200 purchase, in addition to an VR headset.

There are also no ads, but the NBA would eventually like to give users “branded experiences” in VR that they can interact with during timeouts or commercials.

You also might find that you can’t watch your favorite team in VR. League Pass only grants subscribers access to out-of-market games, which means you won’t be able to watch your local team in VR if that team’s games are broadcast in your local market.

So it’s far from a flawless VR experience. But it’s early, and the NBA has been more progressive than any other league in terms of bringing its content to virtual reality. That’s because the NBA believes VR may very well be the future.

“We recognize that the market is very nascent,” said Jeff Marsilio, VP of global media distribution at the NBA. “But we want to be ready when it arrives.”

The first NBA game streaming live in VR this season is next Thursday, when the Sacramento Kings host the San Antonio Spurs. That game will be free, and won’t require a NBA League Pass subscription.

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