The Highs and Lows of Watching an NBA Game in VR

Always wanted to sit courtside at an NBA game, but can’t stomach the wallet-busting ticket price? NBA League Pass VR lets you do just that. Sort of.

Each week throughout the 2017-18 NBA season, the league is broadcasting a game live in virtual reality, in partnership with NextVR, a broadcaster of such live events. If you have a VR headset like Samsung Gear VR ($130) or Google Daydream View ($99), you can watch these games for free. The league is also making one game per month available for free; other VR broadcasts require a League Pass subscription.

To get started watching, you’ll need a headset like mentioned above, a smartphone (we used the new Google Pixel 2 XL) and the NextVR app. When you fire up the app and select the game to watch live, NextVR gives you the option to “sit courtside”--your position is fixed on the sideline at mid-court--or to follow the action through camera changes, much like a normal broadcast.

At either location, the headset gives you a trippy experience, as you truly can see the 3D spacing between players when they run past and collide with each other. It’s not quite like real life,though. I spent a decade working for the Detroit Pistons and in the NBA league office and have seen basketball games from every angle imaginable. Sitting courtside at a real game, you realize just how big, fast, and athletic NBA players are--they are quite possibly the best all-around athletes you’ll find. And even in a jam-packed arena, you still hear the dialogue between players, instructions from the coaching staff, and banter with officials. All of that is, largely, missing when viewed through a VR headset currently.

But, with the app and headset separating the image each eye sees independently, it renders depth you can’t get from traditional broadcasting tools. On your big screen at home, the playing field is compressed because of the long-range lenses required to get you close to the action—it’s why, in a baseball game, the pitcher and batter are both in focus and seem to be nearly on top of each other. Viewing the game through VR, players cutting to the hoop for a backdoor layup appear like they might actually land in your lap. Watching two big men battle for a rebound, you get a clearer view of exactly who touched the ball last before it was batted out of bounds.

For now, however, there are still some glitches and quirks that make the experience difficult.

First, the image quality isn’t on par with what you can get from even a standard HD flat-screen and digital antenna. Everything seems a bit grainy and blurry, a problem we also experienced more than a year ago watching a film about the 2016 Finals produced by the NBA and Oculus.

We also experienced too many hiccups in the stream, especially early in the game. After the opening tip, we could only watch for a few seconds at a time before the screen froze. We were watching on a Verizon Fios 50/50 Mbps connection and, while that’s not blazing fast, it’s enough for our everyday Netflix viewing and is faster than what a large percentage of the country has piped into their homes. (Another viewer Tweeted to us during the game that he was experiencing issues on a 300 Mbps connection.) After enough headache, we turned away to watch the Yankees-Astros in Game 7 of the ALCS. The stream was greatly improved after halftime. Then again, by that point, the Rockets were up on the Mavericks by more than 20 points, so maybe viewers turned away? Data delivery issues like this could be a barrier to wider adoption.

In any case, there’s a little bit of a learning curve to watching a game with the headset. One is that you control the scene by turning your head, which can lead to some disorienting “jump cuts” where you lose track of the action. For example, when the Mavericks are dribbling the ball up court, you follow from the sidelines panning your own head from left to right. But, if Yogi Ferrell flicks the ball to a teammate in the bottom-right corner on your screen, you’re looking the wrong way when the broadcast cuts to the camera under the basket--because your head is turned to the right, you’re looking at the opposite corner, away from the ball. After enough back-and-forth, you get used to it and anticipate the pass. But it’s still strange.

Another problem: With a headset on, you’re largely alone. It’s definitely a different experience than getting together with buddies to watch a game. You’re always aware that you’re basically blind. Which also means you have a high likelihood of dumping your Bud Light all over the living room carpet if you don’t remove the headset to take a drink.

So, for now, watching a game in VR is more about the novelty. It’s fun to see the action from different vantage points. But if the quality of hardware and images continues to improve, we could all be watching live sports in virtual reality.