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Basketball Takes a Shot at the COVID-19 Puzzle with Virtual NBA Games

It’s been roughly five months since professional sports teams held normal spectator events. Overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic forced stadiums and arenas to shut their doors. As fans went into lockdown, the only option for sports entertainment were reruns or sports documentaries. But now, several professional sports leagues have resumed some resemblance of live competition. And the NBA is among the latest to explore how it will approach life after COVID-19. And for fans, virtual NBA games are experiences unlike any other.

The NBA resumed an abbreviated schedule for its 2020 playoffs on July 30th, 2020. NBA teams will compete within the “bubble” located at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Seed games will be played to determine which NBA teams will be able to compete for this year’s bizarre championship. And they will do so without any real fans being present in-person. Instead, fans will experience virtual sports events of their favorite NBA teams. And without question, the virtual sports experience is a bit strange for everyone involved.

“We wanted to create something that would bring our fans to the players. [NBA virtual games are] also a way to give fans the opportunity to feel like they’re interacting while enhancing the broadcast for everyone else at home.” – Sara Zuckert, Head of Next Gen Telecast, NBA

Virtual NBA Games and Their Challenges

It’s no secret that virtual sports events have their challenges. For the NBA, this has clearly affected the fans. Being unable to be present at a game in-person, there’s concern that the experience may not be worthwhile. This may not be true for the avid fan, but for many, virtual NBA games may simply not have enough appeal. Technical delays and streaming lags can be frustrating and distracting. Likewise, the inability to hear players, coaches and other fans interact undermine the overall experience. These were issues the NBA knew it had to address.

At the same time, NBA players had a number of challenges as well. The most obvious one was related to life inside a bubble where social distancing could be better guaranteed. This did not guarantee the safety of players from COVID-19 completely. In fact, some players opted out of the 2020 playoffs this year for that reason. But also, virtual NBA games lacked the energy and enthusiasm of live fan-attended events. Teams that had earned home playing court advantages no longer had a significant edge. Here too, the NBA had to determine how they could provide virtual sporting events with these issues in mind.

“This new experience—the first to go live as a result of the NBA / Microsoft partnership — gives participating fans the feeling of sitting next to one another at a live game without leaving the comfort and safety of their homes.” – Jared Spataro, Head of Microsoft 365

The NBA and Microsoft Connection

Faced with these issues, the NBA chose to partner with Microsoft in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The multi-year alliance between the two strives to enhance fan engagement platforms to create a more personalized broadcast for spectators. While many other developments will likely evolve, the immediate impact has been the use of Microsoft Teams. Using this platform, fans are able to watch and participate in virtual NBA games from the comfort of their home. Appearing on 17-foot LED screens around courtside, virtual images of fans are projected onto seat images. As a result, these virtual sports events have a little more in-person feel.

For each of the NBA virtual games, there are a total of 10 sections around courtside with 32 virtual seats. One section is reserved for players’ families and friends. But others are provided for season ticket-holders, some other selected fans, and some A-listers. Even Lil Wayne and Shaq have appeared at these virtual sporting events. Fans in attendance can scream, cheer, and even pretend “high-five” each other at the game. And their input is blended together and pumped into the arena to create a more realistic feel for the players. It’s a work in progress, but certainly better than having no fans at all.

“…Our expanded relationship with Yahoo Sports will offer a variety of unique ways for fans to engage with the NBA. With everything from fantasy games, sports betting integrations, gaming-focused content and NBA games in VR, there will be no shortage of opportunities to get closer to the game.” – Bill Koenig, NBA President, Global Content & Media Distribution

Taking Virtual Sports Games Beyond

The NBA has been innovative in its use of technology for many years. Thus, it’s not surprising that they were adept in managing the post-COVID-19 landscape than others. With this in mind, Microsoft is not the NBA’s only current partner in advancing virtual NBA games. They have also partnered with Yahoo! Sports in an effort to create a more comprehensive platform. This won’t encroach upon the AI, cloud and computing technologies that Microsoft is providing. But it will involve the use of VR and interactive tools to enhance fan experiences even more.

Some dudes playing a virtual basketball game
Virtual NBA games may be basketball’s answer to the COVID-19 riddle.

While Yahoo! Sports will serve as a marketing partner for virtual NBA games, another company is worth noting. RYOT, a VR production partner, is an innovation studio. RYOT will produce live NBA games in VR and transport these games to fans at home via their Oculus devices. Fans will likely be able to select just how much VR they wish to have within the scope of the real game. From this perspective, it appears that COVID-19 may have simple accelerated virtual NBA games into the near future.

The New Virtual Culture of Sports

The NBA is not the only professional sports league trying to determine how to best approach virtual sports events. Major League Baseball has embraced several new innovations this year to better engage fans. Likewise, other production companies are trying to provide added content to enhance the virtual fan and player experience. ESPN and Turner Broadcasting have added new camara angles and even microphones to capture “sneaker squeaks” for NBA games. And fans at virtual NBA games must abide by rules like no foul language or visual disruptions. Otherwise, a section security staff member will virtually escort them away. This is the new virtual culture of sports, and it’s unfolding right before our eyes.


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