Pro athletes and amateur gamers alike look to VR for real-world advantages in improving sports training and skills to make the perfect play.
Before making one of the greatest comebacks in sports history during 2016’s Super Bowl 51, the New England Patriots spent countless hours training. Unlike most teams, not all this training was done on the field or in the weight room. Much of it was done in virtual reality (VR).
New VR technologies are revolutionizing how players train, with hockey teams, golfers, baseball players, soccer players and more taking advantage of the virtual world to improve their performance in real life.
VR also gives fans a chance to live out their sports-star fantasies on a level (if not entirely real) playing field.
“Sports is the holy grail for virtual reality,” Brad Allen, executive chairman of NextVR, told Sports Business Journal. “I’ve never seen so many chief executives, commissioners, people at that level, all get excited about the same thing.”
That excitement is changing everything about how sports are played, and one day, it may even blur the lines between players and fans.
Athletes Train Like Gamers
VR can help athletes train both their minds and their bodies in ways traditional methods cannot.
“From a physical standpoint, there is only so much time to get on-field repetitions. The human body can only take so much while also trying to stay fresh,” explained Derek Belch, CEO of STRIVR Labs, an immersive performance training company that works with NFL teams, including the Dallas Cowboys, New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers, as well as college and professional players in baseball, hockey and golf.
“As a result, reps come at a premium, and many times teams will only run a play literally once or twice during the week and then expect to be able to run it effectively in the game.”
When using VR to train, athletes can practice more field reps at a lower intensity, instead of running a play at full speed on the real field, said Belch. Even athletes with injuries can use VR to get practice time, giving them a mental edge when getting back into the game.
Athletes often spend hours reviewing film, analyzing how plays worked (or didn’t work) during practice or actual games. Virtual reality can improve that process too.
“From a mental standpoint, traditional film study is often viewed from angles that are completely unrealistic relative to what a player actually sees on the field,” said Belch.
Researchers at Stanford University found that quarterbacks improved decision-making by as much as 30 percent and shaved almost a full second off their decision time after using VR to simulate defensive coverages.
“When providing players with a VR simulation, we can give a first-person perspective of what the player sees on the field,” said Belch. “As such, they are able to learn their position and study their opponents through a more likely vantage point.”
The technology is quickly catching on beyond football, with both coaches and players already reaping the benefits of VR training.
“I really saw a difference in my jump shot and free throws,” Washington Wizards NBA forward and STRIVR user Kelly Oubre told ESPN. “I could see my mechanics, what I needed to do right.”
Gamers Compete Like Athletes
Gamers, whose on-the-field antics are typically relegated to computer screens and gaming consoles, are also benefiting from advancements in VR.
“What VR does particularly well is extend the wish fulfillment part of gameplay,” said Lisa Wong, CEO of Binary Bubbles, a transmedia company that develops interactive VR and augmented reality (AR) experiences.
“Most of us will never be a professional athlete with cheering crowds. VR enables this. It’s very good at giving the player a sense of being someplace else.”
For some, this wish fulfillment means channeling their favorite professional players in virtual versions of sports like basketball and hockey using Oculus Rift’s VR Sports Challenge. Or smashing the ball like a tennis pro or a ping pong master in Virtual Sports from Vive Studios.
Free Range Games, the company behind Virtual Sports, relied on extensive research and development to create a virtual sports experience that could compete with a real-world match, making gamers the real star of the game.
“All the other sports games and experiences we researched seemed to use game engine physics tuned for swords and space crates. For ping pong, that works well enough if you are just pushing the ball back and forth, but we found that with real players, it just wasn’t enough,” explained Free Range Games’ president and CTO Burke Drane.
After studying how pro-level ping pong players smash the ball, Drane’s team found that they had to calculate the physics for ball movement and racket collisions every 30,000th of a second. This high speed collision simulation cuts down on drag, creating an intense table tennis experience rivaling the World Championship of Ping Pong or even a spirited rec room match.
“We also model the paddle to ball interactions, magnus force and transfer of energy in a more realistic fashion, so that good players are quick to mention how immersive it is,” said Drane.
For other gamers, feeling like an all-star means breaking new ground and dominating in sports that don’t exist in the real world — “vsports” or virtual sports, combine the competitive and physical nature of traditional sports with the immersive experience of VR.
One such vsport, Sparc, is the brainchild of veteran gaming company CCP Games.
Set to debut this year for the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR, the sport is like a one-on-one version of futuristic dodgeball.
“After our early experiments with standing VR gameplay, we were excited by the idea of building an original sport designed for the current generation of VR hardware,” said Morgan Godat, executive producer at CCP Atlanta.
“We’ve designed Sparc so that players can express and improve their skill through their physical actions.”
A Future of Merged Realities
As VR technology continues to evolve, the line between athlete and gamer could blur.
The same technology that allows the pros to train smarter could eventually allow them to compete smarter. Former NFL player Chris Kluwe even predicted that future players could wear AR-equipped visors to see everything from ball speed to the seconds left on the game clock while on the field.
Meanwhile, the success of esports competitions such as Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) may help in spawning vsports competitions centered around VR versions of already popular sports like football and basketball or even new vsports like Sparc. IEM draws more than 100,000 spectators to Katowice, Poland, home of the world’s largest esports event.
As for whether virtual sports may ever be able to generate the same kind of widespread societal engagement as real-life events like the Super Bowl, STRIVR Labs’ Belch isn’t ruling it out.
“My first reaction is ‘no way,’ but with the current popularity of video games and esports, it’s definitely possible.”