Cyber Jockeys: Local sports teams enter new era with virtual reality technology

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What is it like to catch a fly ball, run the bases, take batting practice or face a major league pitcher?

The Arizona Diamondbacks are allowing their fans to find out using innovative virtual-reality technology the team recently unveiled at Chase Field.

Next door at Talking Stick Resort Arena, the Suns have introduced their season ticket holders to virtual reality with kits sent out in January. The team is also using the technology with some of its business partners.

The Diamondbacks added the Cox Connects VR Bullpen at Chase Field, which lets fans use provided virtual-reality headsets to get an inside-the-scenes look at what it’s like to be a Diamondbacks player.

“Our goal with Cox Connects VR Bullpen is to really bring fans as close to the action as possible,” says Graham Rossini, the Diamondbacks’ vice president of special projects and fan experience. “So with the headset, we basically put them in the middle of major league workouts (to experience) what it’s like to be in the batter’s box facing great pitching, what it’s like to be fielding ground balls, fly balls, etc.”

The VR Bullpen is available to fans at each game from the time Chase Field’s gates open until the end of the seventh inning.

“Only a few people get a chance to say they were a Major League Baseball player, so when you do get to stand in the batter’s box and get to understand how good (Diamondbacks pitcher) Taijuan Walker is, how fast those pitches are coming in, the movement of a breaking ball, it’s a really cool perspective,” Rossini says.

Five virtual-reality headsets are available, allowing several fans at a time to experience the technology. Scenes include going inside the bullpen, running the bases, fielding ground balls and fly balls and being inside the Diamondbacks dugout.

Two monitors in the virtual-reality area, which is located on the concourse in centerfield, let fans waiting for headsets see what other participants are experiencing.

“It’s really convenient,” says Sienna Villa, a member of the team’s in-game entertainment crew, the Diamondbacks Rally-backs. “A lot of people walk by, so it’s a good place to have it. People will walk by and say, ‘What is that?’ The curiosity will lure them in.”

Rossini says an average of 350 fans visit the virtual-reality area per game.

“It was so great to try it out,” Villa says. “It’s a great experience to be put into the situation the major league players are in. It’s cool to see them in the dugout when they are messing around before the game. It’s cool to be on the field with them while they are playing the game.”

The area has both HTC VIVE Virtual Reality headsets as well as Samsung Gear VR headsets. Rossini says as the virtual-reality technology improves, the team is open to trying out new devices.

Discussions about bringing the technology to Chase Field began early last season.

The initial VR content was created during Cactus League play at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale. The team positioned 14 cameras around the game field to capture 360-degree video from multiple locations.

“We had base-running drills where the camera was right in the middle of a rundown,” Rossini says. “We had the camera in the middle of the cage during batting practice. We were in bullpen sessions having the catcher’s perspective of what it’s like. The beauty of spring training is really that behind-the-scenes footage that you can’t get during the year.”

The content was captured and produced by R&R Partners, a Phoenix marketing firm. New content, shot at Chase Field, will be added throughout the season.

“We got some great footage at opening day of the opening day lineups, the giant flag, the flyover, the walkoff celebration,” Rossini says. “So as we have big moments over the course of the season, our hope is to capture those and make those available in virtual reality.”

Even the Diamondbacks got into the virtual-reality experience. Rossini says the players were curious about the devices during spring training, and as they became more comfortable with having the cameras around, they began interacting with them.

“The players are blown away,” Rossini says. “They give each other a hard time as well. They are pretty loose in the clubhouse and like to give each other a hard time whenever they can, so as they’ve had the experience (they’re) certainly talking about, ‘Hey, I can hit that pitch’ or, ‘Oh, how did you miss that ground ball?’ Kind of having some lighthearted fun with it.”

The Boston Red Sox are the only other MLB team to have a virtual-reality space in their ballpark.

“We saw it become a little more mainstream in sports, and so a couple other teams have done it,” Rossini says. “The NBA has been using VR, and not many baseball teams have taken advantage of it yet, so we really wanted to take advantage of the access we have at spring training and the fact that our players are really excited about the technology and baseball is such a unique game. There (are) so many fast moments using the technology to let fans look behind the scenes.”

Rossini says the team might even explore doing a virtual-reality game broadcast in the future.

“I think we are going to use this year to really test it out and capture a lot of content over the course of the season, make it available to fans month by month and then understand what the possibilities are moving forward,” Rossini says.

Suns aim for VR future to expand

The Suns are approaching virtual-reality technology in other ways, using it to market their product and those of their partners.

Suns President Jason Rowley says there are no plans for a virtual-reality area like the Diamondbacks have at Chase Field, but the Suns hope the technology can be another way to attract fans to games.

“It’s always that tension in sports, and we are not the only league or team to face this, but the at-home viewing experience is so terrific,” Rowley says. “You still want people to come to your game.”

“You have got to make sure you are doing the things in both areas of your business so that you are continuing to generate fan interest and fan affinity,” he says.

Rowley says there are so many NBA fans globally that only about 2 percent of the team’s fan base will ever actually attend a game at Talking Stick Arena. Knowing this, Rowley says there are advantages and disadvantages of trying to expand the virtual-reality access to those fans.

“Long-term, you want to develop obviously all of those relationships and be able to leverage that level of affinity,” Rowley says.

While virtual-reality access for all Suns fans is still a work in progress, the team’s first jump into the world of VR was distribution of kits to season ticket holders. Suns star Devin Booker is featured in the VR footage, urging season ticket holders to renew.

There are also VR clips of game and practice footage with a voiceover from Suns broadcaster Al McCoy. The content is all produced in-house.

“You have a pretty wide range of fans who are young and might have a better level of comfort with that type of technology, and then you have some older fans where it’s something that they are not quite used to,” Rowley says. “There was an education process, but overall the feedback we got was terrific, and obviously something we will continue to build on.”

The Suns are also discussing using virtual reality in a basketball setting as a recruiting tool for potential free-agent signings. Rowley says it is a vision in progress and, as with everything, the Suns want to make sure they have perfected it before deploying it.

“When you have guys across the country, it might be a slick thing just to send them a phone and the VR to show what it is like to play a game here in Phoenix,” Rowley says. “Not just here in the arena, but showcase the city as well. Go to some great locations, some restaurants, Old Town Scottsdale, the Phoenix Open, whatever, to showcase what it’s like to live here so that’s another utilization.

“As you start thinking about it, it just opens up an entire world of possibilities in terms of being able to communicate with people on a different level, remotely,” Rowley says. “It still feels extraordinarily immersive, and (demonstrates) what it’s like to be here in the building, in a game, or somewhere else in the market as well.”

 

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