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How the NBA envisions its future with live virtual reality broadcasts

The NBA is enjoying its progress with virtual reality broadcasts so far.

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NEW YORK — After New York Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek met with the media on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, NBA Digital and NextVR distributed headsets in the press conference room to showcase the upcoming virtual reality broadcast.

To viewers, Hornacek appeared an arm’s reach away. The VR broadcast appeared from the vantage point of a person seated at the scorer’s table at midcourt and showed Hornacek yapping at an official after a second-quarter foul.

It didn’t take much for most folks who tried on the Samsung Gear VR headsets to be wowed. One man noted how he could even see the referee run right by the courtside camera. All that was missing was the breeze when that actually happens.

Remarked one reporter as he watched the Knicks play against the Portland Trail Blazers through the headset, “This is the future, huh?” That is very much what the NBA hopes.

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“I think eventually every game is made available in some form of VR,” Jeff Marsilio, the NBA’s vice president of global media distribution, said as he added that he thought that was a few years away from happening.

The Knicks game marked the fifth NBA League Pass game that NBA Digital and NextVR have broadcast as part of the first regular schedule of VR games from a sports league. The broadcasts are only getting better, according to Marsilio.

“If I look at the first games, there were moments that were a little disorienting,” he said.

But now, the director and producers in the NextVR truck outside the arena are improving the camera angles selected for the viewers to see. There were seven cameras at the Knicks-Trail Blazers game, and generally as the game was being played, viewers could see the game from a stanchion’s view on either end of the court plus that prime midcourt location where a referee might stop by for a drink of water or Damian Lillard might get ready to check in.

The directorial choices are getting better with identifying the right moments to switch camera angles. For instance, when Carmelo Anthony hoisted up a prayer as the first-quarter buzzer sounded, the camera angle was switched with the ball mid-flight to the behind-the-basket angle.

During breaks in the action, dedicated announcers were able to offer insightful commentary. They turned to replays—or V-Plays—which NextVR spent months making that feature happen. While the traditional television broadcast went to commercials, NextVR’s Julianne Viani was giving on-camera sideline updates. Former NBA player Antoine Walker was assigned to the game to provide commentary. There is pre-game audio that can be played during breaks in the action. Viewers can also see VR-like graphics along with real-time stats.

Marsilio left the door open to add more games than the 25 scheduled for live VR broadcasts this season, but emphasized that efforts would be focused on the current slate of games. The NBA would not release viewership numbers. But the league is already liking the progress it sees.