The NBA and Oculus made a small bit of history this morning, with the release of Follow My Lead: The Story of the 2016 NBA Finals, a 25-minute-long 3D virtual reality film documenting the seven-game series between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Produced by a company called Missing Pieces, and narrated by actor Michael B. Jordan, the film is, for a number of reasons, perhaps the most ambitious piece of VR footage yet produced. For one, it features quicker cuts than other VR films, which helps establish it as a new take on a traditional format rather than a standalone technology that's difficult to contextualize. Also noteworthy is the degree to which it’s a vessel for storytelling rather than just a way to show off some shiny new toys (though it does that, too).
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the story it’s telling was one for the ages. The Warriors, led by Steph Curry, had just finished a regular season during which they won more games, 73, than any team in the history of the league. The Cavs, led by LeBron James, who’d returned to the team a year earlier after a four-year stint in Miami, were looking to avenge their 2015 finals loss to the Warriors. If successful, they’d bring the city of Cleveland its first major sports championship in 52 years.
Spoiler alert: they did. After going down 2-0, and then 3-1, the Cavs forced and won a game seven in dramatic fashion. It’s as feel-good story a story as there’s been in professional sports in recent memory, even for those of us who really, really hate LeBron.
Follow My Lead benefits greatly from the extreme level of access granted by the NBA. Cameras captured footage from some super premium locations — right behind the basket, on the floor next to the benches, in the tunnels before each game — and the result is a clearer understanding of just how physically impressive these guys really are, whether they’re dunking, blocking shots you didn’t think could be blocked, or just walking by you in a suit you could never pull off. They are not like us, at all. The impact of VR in this particular space is heightened because it actually feels completely unreal in some ways.
(Also? You will gain an entirely new appreciation for how intricate all their weird pre-game handshakes are. Truly remarkable.)
The viewing experience — I watched on a Samsung phone slid inside the $100 Gear VR unit — is fun, but not without issues: namely, the audio didn’t always sync up with the video, and, more importantly, there was significant blurriness throughout. Ari Kuschnir, Founder of Missing Pieces, told me afterward that the screen technology hasn’t quite caught up with the world of VR just yet, but he assured me that in six months this would no longer be a concern.
Eugene Wei, Head of Video at Oculus, spoke to me about his love for the stylistic hallmarks of traditional sports documentary — the slow-motion shots, the voiceovers — and how he tried to incorporate them here. "Obviously in VR you can't do all those things, but you can do other things," he said. "So it's just, how do you take the strengths of that medium but try to be inspired by that type of sports journalism? The one great thing, and we're not there yet, is that at its endpoint, VR video is indistinguishable from reality. So this is our first baby step in the direction of showing people what's possible."
Were it not for the aforementioned blurriness, I'd argue that this is something far greater than a baby step. But alas, here we are, inching steadily, slowly along — breaking ground and forever meeting new challenges.
Follow My Lead is available for free download at the Gear VR store and as a Facebook 360 video.