From sipping champagne in a virtual luxury box at the Camp Nou to sitting pitchside at Old Trafford from a hotel in Melbourne, Australia, the way we consume football is being reimagined by broadcasters and technology companies.
As clubs look for new ways to build and engage their audiences, bold technical thinkers are plotting a virtual-reality revolution. Forget 3D television, which failed to take off and was hugely expensive; VR is the next frontier of football entertainment. Some have already arrived.
In August last year, Bayern Munich's opening Bundesliga game of the season against Werder Bremen was shown live in VR, the first time such an experiment had taken place, while Fox Sports used virtual reality images To enhance their broadcast of an Eredivisie match between PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord in February of this year.
This is next-generation VR we're talking about. From the Oculus Rift to the Google Daydream, Samsung Gear or HTC Vive, new technologies are poised to transform football viewing as you know it.
But will virtual reality live up to its hype, or are those staking millions on it destined for an expensive reality check?
Miheer Walavalkar sits quietly in a Soho coffee shop. He takes his smartphone and slides it into a basic VR headset. While the rest of the world sips on lattes and flat whites, I am ushered into the world of virtual reality.
Walavalkar, born in India but residing in the U.S., is one of the brains behind LiveLike, whose introduction into the marketplace was one of the stories of sports VR last year. The company has raised $5 million in funding thanks to former NBA commissioner David Stern and a group of venture firms led by Evolution Media Partners and Elysian Park Ventures—created by the owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team.
LiveLike are powering a new app for Fox Sports, called Fox Sports VR, which has already been busy impressing customers, notably showing a college football game between Oklahoma and Ohio State in virtual reality. They also have a partnership to create VR content with Manchester City—and this week the company will team up with Fox to show the CONCACAF Gold Cup in VR. Bruce Arena's United States versus Panama on July 8 in virtual reality in LiveLike's "virtual suite".
The company has tested its VR capabilities with the Premier League and at the biggest club game in the world, El Clasico, which was watched in VR by an estimated 37,000 people on less than a week's notice behind a paywall.
Headset on, I'm reclining on a virtual sofa with a Premier League game happening in front of me. Sergio Aguero is nearly on my lap and David Silva is just further afield. Tilting the head one way changes the camera angle and allows the viewer to move behind the goal. Tilting it the other way allows them to watch from the stands.
There's a stats table you can flick through with just the smallest head movement, giving you the latest possession numbers, passing percentages and everything you could want as a football fan. Replays are freely available—you just need to move your head slightly to initiate them. You can watch the same incident from three or four different angles.
It's intuitive, easy to use and, after the first five minutes, it's easy to forget that you are sat in a busy London coffee shop with a headset on. Occasionally, when the ball is swept away to the far side of the pitch, it is difficult to see the action, but a quick glance up a the large virtual screen keeps you abreast of what is happening.
For Walavalkar, who grew up watching the Premier League from India, the opportunity to share the beautiful game with millions back home remains a huge driving force.
"For us, live sports is the mecca," Walavalkar tells Bleacher Report. "We have done a few live events that have gone really well and got good feedback. It's all about the user experience and social features—the ability to teleport the user into an experience.
"We've been able to integrate statistics and replays, while making it a much more social experience. We want fans to feel like they're right in the heart of what's happening."
For LiveLike, the U.S. and Asia are two of the biggest target markets. As noted, the app has already won deals with Fox and Manchester City, but competition is fierce. Anyone who stands still for more than a minute faces being left behind.
Let's take a look at the VR sport market as it affects the major players.
The TV Companies
Few know the potential for success in weaving together television and VR like Fox Sports' Mike Davies, senior vice president of field and technical operations. Davies is the go-to man when it comes to combining live broadcast and the virtual-reality aspect of the channel's coverage—and it's paying off handsomely.
Showing Bayern Munich's league opener in VR was just the start for football. "We worked really closely with the Bundesliga on this, and they were great partners," Davies tells Bleacher Report. "We tried two big different things, as NextVR has a lot of experience with live soccer.
"One of things we took was to add specialty commentators to the VR broadcast so we didn't take commentary from the linear broadcast. That helped the viewer feel like they had someone co-piloting with them in the experience. The other thing we tried was showing replays at half-time in VR. I think that one of the big things we've been looking at with LiveLike is having the ability to go back and re-experience instances in VR."
Outside of football, Fox has trialled VR at the U.S. Open golf tournament, the French Open tennis tournament, Daytona 500 and a number of other events, including Monster Trucks.
"I've been playing around with VR for the past few years and actively involved in public-facing events," Davies said. "It has been a very quick evolution. With the advent of products that make live VR possible, utilising cell phones, Google cardboard, it has been very quickly attainable technology in terms of being something everyone can consume, at least in theory."
The Bayern Munich VR broadcast went down well with fans and organisers alike, but the nature of football and its suitability for such coverage did raise some questions.
The length of the field was a challenge, with NextVR having to employ more cameras to cover the area. There were also resolution problems to consider, particularly when the ball was on the far side of the pitch.
"When the play was happening close to you, it was dynamite—it was like they were on your lap," Davies notes. "But when it was somewhat further away, because of the resolutions of the phone, it was very difficult to see the ball. I think that large playing field will require more resolution for people to see that."
Davies says he's keen on weaving in augmented reality elements—highlighting the ball or tracking player movements: "The way we're working around that is with additional cameras, tracking data and augmented reality to help you feel like you are part of the game.
"We can also integrate the linear broadcast into the VR with a Jumbotron, so if there is something that is particularly hard to see, then you can look at the screen—just as you would in the stadium."
For clubs like Bayern, with one of the largest and most engaged fanbases in football, the move into VR was a no-brainer. Stefan Mennerich, who heads up Bayern's digital media department, has been working on VR and 360-degree coverage with big success.
Mennerich sees VR as another avenue to bring fans together, particularly those who cannot get to matches at the Allianz Arena or live thousands of miles away in the U.S. or China, the two big target markets for the club.
In 2015, Mennerich began to see the benefits of VR after spending time at Facebook HQ and sampling the Oculus Rift, which is one of the market leaders in headsets.
"I thought that we would have to offer something like this because football lives off the possibility of fans taking part, and so I thought we have to do it," Mennerich tells Bleacher Report. "I think VR is a very good way to let the fans take part in the event and emotions.
"I spoke to [NBA teams] the Orlando Magic and Golden State Warriors, and what they are doing is very forward-thinking, and we want to establish the same experience for our fans. But I can't say what financial effect it will have in the future. It is the same as with social media was in the beginning. You do it because it's fun, it has good content and the aim is to reach the fans."
Mennerich says the Bayern VR broadcast received encouraging feedback, though they may have been aided somewhat by the fact Bayern cantered to a 6-0 victory. While he remains cautious over the long-term viability of VR, he is optimistic for now.
"I think the first thing we have to do before making a decision is to wait until there is a big-enough audience to enjoy the content because not everyone has VR glasses or headsets," he says. "After that, once we bring in good content, we have to think about how we can monetize it."
If Bayern need advice on monetizing VR, Brad Allen would be a good man to consult.
Spend five minutes talking to Allen, executive chairman of NextVR, and his passion for VR and sport is obvious. NextVR is one of the major players when it comes to live VR broadcast—there aren't many sports it hasn't shown in VR; they produced a highlights package on each game of the recent NBA Finals between Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, while those without headsets could view highlights via the company's app. For Allen, this is one of the most exciting times in the business.
He believes VR will provide the perfect complementary form of coverage to live television and that the experience can be a highly engaged, social one.
"What you might see in the future is the chance to build your own luxury box outfitted with your team's gear, and you could invite all your friends," he says. "You look over there, and there are all your friends, avatars of them, or maybe they want to look like someone else, but you are all sitting there in the luxury box even though you are all sitting at home in your VR glasses."
Allen sees an e-commerce aspect coming into play, with the virtual suite offering up a chance to buy team merchandise, such as shirts and personalisation options. He accepts the world has changed dramatically in recent years and believes VR is a great way to bring new fans into the game.
"You have an aging population in some places and where maybe the millennials don't care as much because the amount of entertainment on offer is unprecedented, especially with esports and video games," he says. "How do you bring those fans along?
"You can do it with new technology that is unique and different and appealing to them. That's why everyone is interested in this and connecting directly with their fans to give them an experience like nothing before."
Allen likens the scene to that of when cell phones first entered the market with the big, brick-like models. The emergence of Google's Daydream, the Samsung Gear and Facebook's constant investment means the importance of VR is not being lost on anybody. The technology is only going to get better.
"Goggles will move to glasses—LG has already brought out its first version," Allen says. "I think they weigh 120 grams. They are tethered to your mobile device, but soon that will be Bluetooth, and all the power will be through the mobile device, and eventually the glasses will turn into something like Oakley wrap around glasses.
"They will have little ear buds that will come down so you get your audio, and eventually we'll have contact lenses. That will be bizarre because you are not going to know whether that person is watching something or talking to you. We've got the biggest companies in the world when you consider Google's Daydream. They're probably going to be the biggest mobile winner in the space."
Allen talks of "a hundred companies in China" that are making headsets and believes it is only a matter of time before Apple enters the VR space.
But for all the technology and millions being spent, can VR ever compete with the real thing—being at the game? How can it match the noise, the smells, the anticipation, the palpitations and the authentic matchday experience?
Can VR truly generate the stadium buzz so many football fans live for?
Perhaps not. But for those who live thousands of miles away from the stadium, it could be the ticket they have been waiting for—being able to watch Manchester United from Macau, Bayern from Brisbane or Tottenham from Tahiti.
"I don't think anything can beat being there in person just because of the energy," Allen says. "You’re high-fiving somebody next to you whom you didn't even know because the team you're both fans of scored a goal. It really won't ever replace that. But what do you do about the 300 million fans who will never be able to get to the stadium? This is the closest thing they'll ever get to being there.
"We have a big strategy around Asia and China in particular; they are huge sports fans over there. People wake up at 3 a.m. to watch Premier League games because they are passionate fans like we all are."
Allen says a combination of geography and the difficulty of getting tickets to major games has driven demand for a more immersive TV viewing experience. "This is their answer. It's the virtual ticket to being there."
*All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.