Throughout history, people from all walks of life with little in common have found ways to unite in neighborhood parks and filled stadiums to put those differences aside for the sake of the sports they love. Sports, and sports fandom, is a source of global unity, and perhaps fewer events in the world can generate such a wide range of emotions quite like a live match.
As the design of stadiums evolves, so does the technology that accompanies it, and more team owners are pairing up with designers to explore ways that spectators from afar can feel like they’re a part of the action. Especially in the age where COVID-19 has put a pause on large gatherings, the ability to host thousands of fans in compact arenas feels like a thing of the past. But now, the stadium experience is bring brought out of the arena and into our homes to allow fans to cheer for their favorite teams in a whole new way. The Dallas Cowboys are no longer just “America’s Team”, and Real Madrid is no longer only the pride and joy of Spain. Top players in every major sport are projected into the global fan base of superstardom, and new technology keeps that collective sense of belonging alive, regardless of where fans may reside.
Stadiums are committed to creating an event that is as much about the entertainment experience as it is about the match itself with halftime shows, audience participation on the big screen, and an abundance of small scale interactions. One of the biggest debates around implementing Augmented and Virtual Reality (shorted to AR and VR, respectively) is whether this experience of being in a sporting venue should be replicated, or if a new experience should be considered so that fans can participate in something that’s customized just for them. The tech and design industries have leaned towards the latter, considering the progression of arriving at a venue, walking through the stadium, and ordering food and drinks is something that is unique to an in-person event. On the other hand, the future of in-home reality might generate certain features like player profiles, 3D rewind ability, and the option to voice-text with other fans in real-time.
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With the AR and VR market expected to grow as much as 23% globally by the end of this year, popular European football teams including Manchester City and Juventus have already been experimenting with these mixed-media technologies. They join other professional leagues by setting an example for the evolution of this field by creating interactive apps for fans that can be used in Oculus headsets. The 2018 FIFA World Cup displayed just how compatible AR technology and sports are through collaborations with Snapchat and Facebook. A series of photo filters and country-themed backgrounds gave fans a different way to show their pride for their team, and see how others around the world were pleading their allegiance. The NBA also launched their own VR experience for the 2019 playoffs to bring fans into the action. The new software was developed in partnership with Intel that offered a variety of panoramic camera angles, real-time visible stats, and on-demand replays- luxuries that fans in the stands aren’t even able to enjoy.
During the first session of a two-part virtual conference called World Comes to Congress, numerous sports media executives spoke about utilizing the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to reshape the fan experience and innovate on Virtual and Augmented Reality experiences. They discussed how fans have been deprived of sports for the last few months and are eager to see live-action, even if it means that it comes in the form of empty arenas with only players and staff on the field. Although a live broadcast of a game with no fans and no noise might seem a little eerie, the conference attendees noted that team owners are exploring voice transmission tools where the sound generated by the fans at home will project through the stands.
These digital narratives will only become more popular in the sports sector, and seamless software integrations will become the new standard. The surface has only been scratched and the limits of experiencing sporting events can be as innovative as fans imagine it to be. Will we eventually see holograms of players in our homes? Will we have the ability to order sneakers worn on the court? Can we see live streams of remote audiences? If you haven’t experienced it yet, it is coming. There will soon be even more ways to display your pride for your favorite team even if you’re a thousand miles away from the game.
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