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Mixed reality is boosting the live sports experience

Whether buying season tickets to watch your favorite team, organizing a viewing party for the Super Bowl, or playing a friendly match at the local park on the weekend, social interaction is an inherent part of the sport sector’s appeal. The adrenaline that comes with live action is also a major factor – with each play potentially keeping spectators on an emotional roller coaster as they wait to see who will be the eventual winner.

While augmented and virtual reality technologies have been billed as one of the most exciting digital breakthroughs in recent years, we aren’t yet seeing widespread or habitual adoption except in a few niches. However, the sports sector is one area which has seen a suite of new applications and, crucially, positive uptake from target audiences.

This success is down to developers tapping into the social drivers that help immerse fans ever deeper in their passion, and drawing them back to both the sports and the software experiences on offer. The story is an interesting juxtaposition that highlights how brands can improve their digital transformations by making sure improvements provide a digital experience that both works well on its own, but also the fits the needs of the audience.

The interactive arena

Stadiums have long been committed to creating an event that is as much about the experience as the match itself – halftime entertainment, audience reactions on the big screen and an array of refreshments are all standard business. Now, the experience is being taken a step further for those lucky enough to get tickets to their favorite sporting events.

Cited as the most connected events arena, the Golden 1 Center (home of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings) is showing how it’s possible to digitize a sports stadium atmosphere and change the way fans experience the show.

From entry to exit fans have the chance to bring up live data interactions covering everything from digital agendas, facts on players and ordering refreshments and merchandise to their seat. Gamification also plays a major role – using AR software overlaid on the actual court, spectators can host their own mini-matches with friends or other attendees during half-time. By tapping into fan’s group affiliations these gaming elements can seriously up the satisfaction level of the overall experience.

To make these immersive experiences function smoothly during live events, 5G connectivity must be a part of the infrastructure to ensure stadiums can cope with the millions of spectators trying to use the services. However enjoyable the feature is, sluggish service is a surefire way to lose the interest of fans.

Building global fan communities

NFL football is no longer the sole pleasure of the United States; Real Madrid is no longer just the pride of Spain; and top players in every major sport enjoy international celebrity status. As fanbases join the ranks of globalized culture, technology takes the role of keeping that collective sense of belonging alive — wherever the supporter resides.

Marketers over the past decade have notably targeted the sports fan psyche by using relationship-building marketing strategies. Rather than exclusively trying to attract new fans, they are attempting to build longer lasting, closer relationships with existing ones and digital integrations take this to the next level.

The FIFA World Cup 2018 showed just how well AR and sports work together to build fan communities through collaborations with Snapchat and Facebook. A series of temporary selfie-filters, background segmentations and player projections created a host of ways fans could don their team colors and pledge allegiance — and allowed FIFA to access the billions of active users on these platforms.

Even if your team is local, getting tickets for the most popular calendar highlights isn’t possible for every fan. The NBA launched a VR experience for the 2019 playoffs to bring fans closer to the action. The high-tech software produced in collaboration with Intel offered a choice of panoramic camera angles, real-time stats boards and playback highlights — creating a level of control that even those lucky live spectators can’t match.

As the how and the where of consuming content has changed, sports brands need to be agile to new user habits to make sure the expectations of multiple platform choices, on demand, globally, can be met.

Data-fusion and the need for knowledge

We already know that fans have a thirst for performance statistics on their favorite players and teams. Advances in data science, analytics and AR software are fusing data with real-time live broadcasts. We’ve seen this in action during football tournaments, athletic championships, and the Olympics, to such great success that ESPN have launched a permanent version for the NBA. Working with sports data intelligence company, Second Spectrum, “ESPN Mode: allows viewers to access continuous on-screen graphics and analytics.

This element also creates the opportunity for additional gamification and opportunities, as audiences can guess, bet, and comment during live-play. However, many software apps fall short due to poor UX or glitchy software – something which anyone who tried early VR apps will surely remember. Getting around this is essential to the success of integrating this new technology – brands need to ensure any digital transformation projects are seamless before being launched to fans, and with ready fanbases, there will surely be no shortage of volunteers eager to join a beta test of products to iron out any bugs.

The digital native fanbase

The diehard fan is a common concept, with many teams enjoying lifelong, even inter-generational supporters. Numerous studies showing the feel-good factor these fans experience highlight just what kind of longevity software that hits the mark can achieve.

As digital natives take up more of the market share in every sector, seamless software integrations will be expected as the new standard. While we’re seeing exciting progress in sports, mixed reality as a whole is just scratching the surface of possible integrations. Brands shouldn’t be afraid of exploring creative ideas that push the limits of technical innovation to grab fans attention – holograms of players in your home? Ordering new sneakers worn on the court? Video Q&A sessions where the audience is streamed in live? The ideas are only limited by our imagination — and sports providers and teams who don’t keep up with new ways to involve fans in play risk being relegated to the bleachers.

Mateusz Przepiórkowski is the VP Sales, Head of Media & Communications business line at intive, a software company focused on digital product engineering, with more than 18 years of experience.

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