NBA video games in digital actuality have potential. This is what watching one is like

Jabari Young wears the Oculus Quest 2 device.

Source: Jabari Young

Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka emerged from the team bench and before I knew it he was blocking my view. Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle was close enough that I could see his Cole Haan boots and I saw a Lance Stephenson 3 pointer from an angle I had never seen before.

These are just some of my recent experiences watching an NBA game while wearing a virtual reality headset.

The National Basketball Association is offering virtual courtside courts Meta‘s $299 Oculus Quest 2 devices. The headsets were one of the most popular Christmas presents in 2021, showing that people seem more willing than ever to try virtual reality. And companies are trying to keep tabs on their content by creating VR versions of their apps and games.

An Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headset and controller captured on September 28, 2020.

Phil Barker | future | Getty Images

The NBA experience is free and available on Meta’s Horizon Venues platform, which is a free software download for the Oculus headset. People appear as digital avatars, much like cartoon versions of their real selves, watching an NBA game from the perspective of the court. It’s not Jack Nicholson’s seat of the Los Angeles Lakers Crypto.com Arena or Spike Lee’s seat in Madison Square Garden, but it almost replicates reality.

From a business standpoint, the deal could give the NBA new media rights, which is important when regional sports networks struggle.

Meanwhile, Meta — the company formerly known as Facebook — is leveraging its partnership with esports providers like the NBA, WWE, and the Premier League to give people new reasons to try virtual reality.

Mark Zuckerberg’s company is investing $10 billion in the Metaverse, a virtual world he believes will become the standard for social networking, gaming, and even work.

Meta sent CNBC the Oculus 2 headset last month. I witnessed the January 10th game in the NBA between the Celtics and the Pacers. Here’s what you need to know.

Celtics Jaylen Brown drives to the basket in a NBA regular season basketball game at TD Garden in Boston on January 10, 2022 between Pacers Jeremy Lamb (left) and Myles Turner (right).

Jim Davis | Boston Globe | Getty Images

The experience is not “garbage”

First, you should know that if you live in the market where an NBA game is being televised, you are prohibited from watching. The NBA uses RSN feeds from their League Pass product, and local markets are subject to the same pesky restrictions you encounter elsewhere.

Once in game you will immediately notice other avatars participating in live discussions. The closeness of the plot also catches your attention. This is where you immerse yourself in the experience, as it actually feels like you’re sitting in a pitchside seat, right down to the level of engagement with fans nearby.

There are two levels in the digital space where you can follow the game. The first level is usually where the crowd watches the chatter, and that evening I counted about 15 people in the room in the first quarter.

The balcony level is quieter for a more private setting and the view is ok.

Don’t be afraid to start a conversation with an avatar with their mic on, especially if you need help navigating what looks like two levels of a private social club.

When the Celtics were leading 23-18 in the first quarter, an avatar approached me and asked for help watching. I was confused at first as my stream was fine but it became clear that the real person behind the avatar had a bad connection or was restricted due to local lockdown rules.

That prompted him to call the NBA’s Metaverse experience “garbage.” Moments later, I asked another avatar standing next to me what he thought of the experience.

“That’s dope,” replied the avatar named “TUtley.” “You have to get that for football.”

The scenic views of Boston that emerged during game breaks were also quite impressive and made me feel like I was in the city where the game is being played.

The minuses: interference and picture quality

“Yo man! Are you okay?” I heard one avatar ask another.

The avatar in question was slumped and unresponsive. It almost seemed like the Metaverse character was having a fit.

The avatar eventually regained its form and began to speak, but that mistake was certainly odd.

The controllers are your hands in the metaverse, so it can be weird to see avatars nearby with their hands and arms misaligned with their bodies.

In the fourth quarter, Stephenson pinned a 3-pointer and Pacers forward Torrey Craig then converted a layup to reduce the Celtics’ lead to three, 71-68.

Witnessing the tight sequence was fun, but the relatively poor image quality eventually made itself felt. TV and video providers have spoiled viewers with high definition games. Every small difference in quality is quickly noticed.

The NBA is partnering with a VR production company Media Monks to show the games on the Oculus platform.

During the NBA’s pandemic “bubble” season in Orlando, the company used Sony’s FX6 cameras, which cost about $6,000to shoot VR games. This season, however, games will be shot using Sony FX9 cameras, which cost about $11,000.

However, Meta often experiments with the resolution and frame rates of the VR games, which are still technically in “beta” or test mode. Media Monks places five cameras in NBA arenas, but added a sixth for the Celtics-Pacers game to capture a sense of spaciousness.

An FX9 camera is located at the presenter’s table and provides the front row view. FX9 cameras are also located on each back panel. One is used to capture distant shots and another to move around.

The cameras switch angles throughout the game, which can be annoying but necessary when coaches accidentally block the view. For example, Udoka’s leg was in my face every time he went to Center Court.

The featured presenter is former NBA forward Richard Jefferson, but the comments are boring at times. And the trivia questions don’t help.

Meta uses former NBA players like Jefferson to interact with avatars that participate in the court experience. And for some contests, commentators could appear in the room as real avatars to chat with fans.

We’ll see how exciting that actually is when the time comes.

A screenshot of Jabari’s splash screen reminiscent of an NBA virtual reality event on the Oculus Quest 2 platform.

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Finally, the selection of games could be better. Celtics pacers was ok but tent games would be more attractive and could attract more people making it an even more social experience.

The next two NBA VR games on Oculus are coming up January 17th – Allowing Covid postponements – with the Oklahoma Thunder playing Mark Cubans Dallas Mavericks. the 22nd of January VR experience has played the Sacramento Kings against the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks.

These aren’t necessarily must-see games.

What’s next

I missed the Celtics pacers renewal because my Oculus headset battery died. But given how many people were on the first level at the end of Q4 and more coming out of the venues lobby, it’s fair to say that the NBA VR experience was popular in the metaverse that night.

Three days after attending the game, I spoke to Rob Shaw, Meta’s director of sports leagues and media partnerships, to understand how far the court experience has progressed and where it is going.

Shaw was reminded of comments made to CNBC in 2020 when he said the NBA’s Oculus concept was “still in the early stages.”

Meta’s Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headset.

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Shaw said the new Oculus Quest 2 and its adoption have made a big difference since then. He noted that the device is lighter, has better optics, and is cheaper than its $399 sister device, making it more popular as a gift.

“Now we’re in the fundamental moments of building and learning the experience,” Shaw said.

I asked if the NBA experience would remain free, and Shaw didn’t rule it out.

“I think the business model can be redefined,” he explained. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be pay-per-view, but an economy that can be built around the viewer experience.”

He added that if the VR experience can really evolve to mimic pitchside, “I see they want to put a price point on a ticket. But that’s a decision that has to be made by the league and the media company.”

Ultimately, it’s up to the NBA to charge consumers. The league did not provide an official for CNBC to discuss it.

While the NBA is silent on the matter, Meta is looking ahead.

Shaw envisions immersive VR displays and allows users to purchase avatar jerseys at a Metaverse NBA store. Then, for an additional fee, private live screening options. There are ideas centered around a sports bar seat experience and VIP options that include watching games with an NBA legend or celebrity.

“I think sponsorship can be redefined,” Shaw said. “Brand activation, historically limited to the venue, suddenly becomes more accessible and customizable for the Metaverse.”

— CNBC’s Steve Kovach contributed to this article.