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The Drum takes a look at some of the most innovative sports stories changing the fan experience. 

From the recent howls of derision from aggrieved football fans over the use of the video assistant referee (VAR), you’d think that the intrusion of technology into sport could only produce negative results. The reality is that – wrong offside calls aside – the employment of technology in sports is creating new experiences for fans, entirely original and often game-changing ways for them to interact with sport.

Those experiences range from the transformational – allowing audiences to sit 
within the cockpit of a Formula 1 car through consumer-grade virtual reality (VR) headsets – to the practical – allowing for constant checking of odds via one of many gambling apps, or smooth viewing for audiences with poor internet connections, to assisting clubs in their pre/post-match analysis (see box out). Regardless of how revolutionary the technology behind the experience, each new development is altering the fan experience.

Altered realities

To date, the reality of being a sports fan has been accepting that the particular experience of the sportsmen and women was a world apart from their own. The dream of physically walking out on to the pitch at Wembley or taking a hairpin bend at Silverstone would always be that – just a dream. With VR, however, that dream is a huge step more attainable.

Formula 1, for instance, partnered with tech provider DreamVR to allow fans to view an immersive 360-degree view from select moments of a race, from completing a lap to the pit walk itself. In practice it’s all very reminiscent of the work done by early VR game makers. Following in the footsteps of racing games such as TrackMania and WipEout, putting fans in the actual cockpit feels like the future of racing coverage. 

Samantha Kingston, the co-founder of VR agency Virtual Umbrella, points out that such experiences are becoming more common: “DHL, working with Bright Partnerships, has created a number of VR experiences related to different sports… [including] a VR racing simulator for when DHL sponsors Formula E [and] a competitive box-stacking game for when DHL sponsors ESL.”

There are practical considerations to putting viewers in the cockpit or boots of their sporting heroes, however. Both weight concerns and viewer nausea are practical impediments to in-action VR that as yet lack universal solutions. Taking cues from fighting games like Tekken, however, it is possible to recreate the feeling of being in the arena or trackside by providing a VR vantage point to fans who can’t attend in person. Even Nintendo, which has been notably reticent to invest in VR, added that option to its flagship Super Smash Bros. Ultimate fighting game.

Similarly, that option is more viable for real-world sports: Fox Sports’ Mike Davies, senior vice-president of field and technical operations, has previously told Bleacher Report that “with the advent of products that make live VR possible, utilising cell phones, Google cardboard, it has been very quickly attainable technology in terms of being something everyone can consume, at least in theory”, and Premier League teams including Manchester City have experimented with VR to let fans get closer to the experience. Sky Sports made sure to include sports content alongside other entertainment in its Sky VR app.

Behind the black

Beyond those flashy alternatives to how audiences experience sport, technology is revolutionising how teams, brands and events manage their relationship with audiences. For this year’s Wimbledon, for instance, IBM and the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) invested in tech that ensures people in areas with less stable internet connections can watch the matches. Sam Seddon, IBM’s Wimbledon client and programme executive, explains: “For 30 years, IBM’s technology innovations have been at the heart of our efforts to continuing our journey towards a great digital experience that ensures we connect with our fans globally wherever they may be watching and from whatever device that may be.”

While technology is altering the ways and means by which audiences reach out to their heroes, track player statistics, gamble on outcomes and watch their favourite sports, fundamentally the core appeal of sports remains unaltered, as we’d all hope. 

Even the new breed of competition is rooted in audiences’ desire to watch the events live, surrounded by like-minded fans. Daniel Chung, director at eSports team MnM Gaming, explains: “I always find that a live eSports crowd is so much more electrifying than a traditional [online] eSports crowd, because the games are faster-paced, and the people who go to watch eSports aren’t affiliated to just one team: they’re there to watch the beauty of the game. No matter what happens in a game, if there is a massive play, the crowd always reacts positively.”

The collision of technology, then, far from damaging the appeal of sports content, is enabling fans to experience it in wholly original ways, that transform their understanding of the sport itself, while tech works subtly behind the scenes to expand the number of fans in total.

IBM and RFU

In October 2018, IBM signed a new four-year deal with the Rugby Football League to provide tech that was designed to deepen the RFU’s relationship with its fans. IBM’s data analytics, AI and Cloud services are employed in the service of delivering a more personal and relevant experience to rugby audiences. That extends to making the game accessible even when audiences are outside the stadium, through in-app experiences that offer alerts, access to statistics and personalised offers. 

eSports

From niche interest to global phenomenon, the inexorable rise of eSports viewership numbers has led to mainstream brands investing in advertisements and sponsorship deals that sit alongside competitive gaming content. 

The largest tournaments attract audiences in the millions worldwide, from fighting game festival franchise Evolution Championship Series (EVO) to the official ePremier League, which has seen investment from Premier League teams including Manchester City. In fact, marketing analyst Newzoo expects that 2019 will be the first year in which global eSports revenue tops $1bn.

Crucially, livestreaming platforms such as Twitch, which cater primarily to gamers and those interested in gaming, have transformed the way in which people interact with eSports stars. In August 2019, Fortnite superstar Tyler ‘Ninja’ Bevins made headlines when he left Twitch for an exclusive streaming deal with its rival Mixer, despite reportedly making $1m for leveraging his huge online following to promote the game Apex Legends, by playing it at a salary of $50,000 per hour. Those numbers are based solely on the direct interaction between eSports star and audience, in an effective form of influencer marketing, and, while traditional broadcasters including the BBC and ESPN now carry eSports content, that interaction adds a new dimension which older mediums will find hard to replicate.

Tokyo 2020

Next year’s Olympic Games, taking place in Japan, have a particular focus on making sure that viewers will be able to enjoy the action across all devices in the best possible form. Advances in entertainment technology mean that audiences are now primed to consume the 3,000 hours of coverage across 339 events in whichever way is most contextually suited to them, both while the events are live and in pre- and post-event form.

Tokyo 2020 will be the first Olympics at which eSports is expected to have a significant presence – even if they’re not yet included on the official roster of events – as game publisher Konami’s 12-storey eSports arena is set to be opened in November, ahead of the Games themselves.

IBM Watson and Leatherhead Football Club

IBM Watson has been used to assist some of the world’s biggest companies and help tackle some of humanity’s greatest threats. Now it’s being used to assist Leatherhead Football Club, a team that plays in the seventh tier of English football and is made up of delivery drivers, car salesmen and shop assistants. 

Most semi-professional teams go into their games with relatively little information about their opponents. In contrast, Leatherhead has been able to utilise IBM Watson Discovery to gain an upper hand. IBM Watson Discovery explores match reports and social feeds to gather information and analyse the opposition to provide a comprehensive view of their recent games. Example details could include the most influential players, tactics for attacking and the balance between the left and right wings.

The key challenge was how to introduce complex technology to users who are not the most tech-savvy. The tool was used weekly by the management, providing them with insights and evidence that they can then feed back to the players through team talks and into the training sessions.

With Watson’s assistance, Leatherhead ascended 12 spots up the league, rounding off an incredibly successful 2018/19 season.

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