I had one of the more memorable sports moments of my life last night, rooting for my favorite team in the crowd at an NBA game — without leaving my apartment.
My big takeaway: Microsoft and the NBA are on to something with their new tech-fueled virtual fan experience. I gave it a spin during Thursday’s Blazers vs. Lakers playoff game, watching the action in Microsoft Teams alongside other fans doing the same, all of us visible in the virtual stands on the live national broadcast.
It was pretty epic — well, not that epic, since the Lakers crushed my beloved Blazers.
But the viewing technology offered a legitimate glimpse at how we might watch live sports in the future. On a broader level, it sparked questions about how we’ll use technology in a post-pandemic world.
For some reason they put me with the Lakers fans. WTF!!
RIP CITY!!!! pic.twitter.com/Qwq6oALpDh
— Taylor Soper (@Taylor_Soper) August 21, 2020
The experience debuted just last month, born out of new cloud partnership between Microsoft and the NBA, and the fact that people aren’t allowed to attend games in the NBA’s “Bubble” due to the health crisis.
About 300 fans spread across 10 sections appear on 17-foot video boards surrounding the courts using the new Microsoft Teams “Together” mode, a feature for video meetings that places participants against a shared virtual background. The idea is to mimic the live game experience, giving the players and those watching the broadcast some semblance of an actual crowd.
Listen to this GeekWire Podcast discussion to hear more about what it was like watching the game on Microsoft Teams. And read on for my takeaways and analysis.
It’s a little wonky. The long list of instructions to get the stream working is daunting, especially for fans who aren’t tech savvy. This isn’t as simple as pushing a few buttons on your TV remote. You have to download Microsoft Teams and navigate your way around the app. It feels like too many steps for a slick consumer app. Having a moderator offering tips and answering live questions was a big help.
But it worked. A laggy stream can ruin any media consumption session, but the stakes are higher for live sports — missing a big shot as your feed buffers absolutely sucks. But Thursday’s game was smooth for me, aside from a couple small hiccups. Internet connection and computer performance are variables that can affect latency for each person. But Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing tech passed the test.
Make some noise? The audio aspect is an interesting wrinkle. At a live game you’re listening to crowd noise; when you watch on TV you listen to the broadcasters. Last night I was doing both at the same time. The broadcast audio is louder in the Teams experience, and fan noise in my cheering room was more like background noise. It is cool to chat with other fans during commercial breaks and timeouts.
I had fun. We attend live sports events because of the genuine camaraderie with our fellow fans. Watching alone at home is definitely a different experience, for better or worse. It was nice to be around people and chat about the game, even if most of them were Lakers fans. Being able to replicate that social aspect — at least in some ways — made my viewing experience better. I got a laugh out of the guy who said, “anybody doing a beer run?” at the end of the first half. And no one was unruly or mean. The moderator set ground rules at the beginning, including a ban on inappropriate language and holding up signs. “Everybody wants to see those beautiful faces on the broadcast,” quipped the moderator.
He's like a virtual Jack Nicholson, for the other team. @Taylor_Soper in the virtual stands for #NBAPlayoffs, cheering for his hometown @trailblazers against the @Lakers. #experientialjournalism pic.twitter.com/pClOCXGGLv
— toddbishop (@toddbishop) August 21, 2020
I was on TV! There’s something cool about hearing friends say they spotted you on the broadcast. The NHL and MLB are using cardboard cutouts of fans in the stands, but the live video makes a huge difference. It feels more real and authentic.
It felt special. Getting access to a virtual seat is not easy (you can try to win a seat here). I got a “press pass,” but the fans I sat with Thursday had connections to 2K, the video game publisher behind NBA 2K. There was definitely an exclusive feeling, similar to a courtside or suite experience at a real game. Former players, music stars, and other celebs have dropped in as virtual fans — rapper Lil’ Wayne was at Thursday’s game, for example. It’s cool to be in the same crew.
A pandemic-only novelty, or preview of permanent change?
Permanent or temporary? It’s the million-dollar question being asked across all industries as the pandemic accelerates the use of tech-enabled experiences from grocery delivery to online shopping to video conferencing.
We might still prefer actually going to a game when normalcy returns. I attended a Blazers playoff game last season, and my memories of walking into the arena, feeling that buzz of the environment, hearing the roars, just plain being there — that’s the best.
But being able to kick back in your own home, hang out with some fellow fans, show up on the broadcast, use your own bathroom, save money on food and drink, and avoid traffic jams isn’t a bad alternative. In fact, some opt for the at-home experience.
There are some compelling business opportunities. Leagues and teams could charge fans on a per-game basis; the NBA already offers this during the regular season for $5.99 per game. Perhaps a bunch of buddies could buy a group pass. They could even include grub and booze delivery to your homes.
These are actual possibilities as more people cut the cord and look for new ways to watch sports. Companies including ESPN and Amazon, which has a deal with the NFL and just inked a Prime Video package with the Seattle Sounders FC, are building out their streaming catalogs. A ton of money could be at stake as major TV rights deals expire over the next decade.
“While the race to build the next big entertainment streamer is getting tons of media attention, the sports streaming arms race is shaping up to be just as competitive, and potentially even more consequential to the future of live television,” Axios reported late last year.
Amazon is also innovating around the live sports fan experience. Back in 2018, Amazon-owned Twitch began live-streaming NFL games with new gamification features that could change how we bet on sports. Expect Amazon to roll out new features as NFL games will be played with no fans inside stadiums, at least at the start of the 2020 season.
A win for Microsoft
Microsoft’s Surface tablet deal with the NFL started off rocky but has turned into an impressive marketing initiative, with the device now a mainstay on the sidelines.
Now with software in the spotlight — the bread and butter of Microsoft’s business — the Teams experience could be a major coup for the Redmond, Wash.-based tech giant.
You can expect other leagues to follow the NBA’s lead, perhaps also relying on Microsoft to power their fan experience technology.
The games also show how Together Mode can be used in additional scenarios, such as the classroom, or for other live events including music concerts.
In some ways, the stakes are high for Microsoft. It must prove that its software can hold up in the spotlight as usage of productivity technology for the new generation of applications skyrockets amid the pandemic.
Even if Microsoft does have a Bill Belichick moment or a blue screen of death slip-up, there are plenty of potential benefits. The Teams integration with live games could also make a compelling use case for the company’s new two-screen Surface Duo device.
Microsoft’s deal with the NBA also makes the company the “Official Artificial Intelligence Partner” and an “Official Cloud and Laptop Partner” for the NBA, WNBA, NBA G League, and USA Basketball beginning with the 2020-21 NBA season.
The NBA appears to be a valuable testing ground for Microsoft as it looks to bolster its business and set the pace for creating new technology.