Manchester City position themselves at the forefront of innovation with live virtual reality matches

Manchester City is experimenting with how fans watch games in VR as part of ongoing efforts to positon itself as an early adopter of new technologies.

The Premier League club have been working with LiveLike VR and Sky to create an array of virtual experiences as part of an experimental testing phase. It’s worth noting that the technology still has some catching up to do in terms of the 4k resolutions which many TVs now offer and so while the visual may not be ground breaking the lessons being learned could be.

“We as a club are always looking into how we can be early adopters of new technology that can enhance the fan experience,” says Manchester City’s director of marketing and media, Diego Gigliani.

The club makes a point of using innovative digital services to differentiate the way it promotes itself to fans, being amongst the first in the sport to really explore immersive experiences. Last August, it became the first club to install a 360-degree camera in the players’ tunnel, giving fans access to an area that is usually closed off at other stadiums. The response from fans to the stunt was positive, encouraging Diego and his team to look for more ways to use emerging technologies.

“We wanted to look at some match related and some none match related content so we went ahead with the ‘City VR’ app. The approach there was to do a VR for the masses first so we got city branded cardboard devices and gave them away to a lot of our City members. We created 4 pieces of content for it such as placing a 360-degree camera in the middle of the pitch during training.

The content illustrated the technology’s potential and so naturally the club wanted to test it for live matches. Premier League officials were receptive to the idea and so connected the club with Sky, which is also eyeing up VR’s potential. The three-way partnership between Man City, LiveLike VR and Sky has so far yielded four matches in VR and now the trio are moving forward with live VR broadcasts.

The Drum was at the Etihad Stadium for Manchester City’s final home game of the season at the weekend (8 May) to test out the live VR broadcast of the game against Arsenal. A select group of City fans in London, New York and Melbourne were also chosen to watch the fixture via the Samsung gear headsets.

As Gigliani readily admitted: “I don’t think that the experience is ready to replace watching it live or even TV but it shows the amazing opportunities of what it can do”.

LiveLike VR’s chief business officer, Miheer Walavalkar, added: “There’s a lot that can be done but the biggest challenge in delivering the experience live is the technology because we need the fibre optic cables and the high upload speeds. We need the connectivity for the live world”.

Despite being a year old, LiveLike VR is already working with broadcasters from around the world already, including Fox Sports, and has covered sports including tennis, basketball and Nascar.

While the company has covered an array of different sports, Walavalkar maintained that “football is our forte” and with that comes completely different production demands compared to other sports.

Statistics is a huge part of football broadcast and so LiveLike VR is wokring with sports data provider Opta to integrate statistics into the virtual experience.

“LiveLike’s focus has been on the auxiliary data, making it a complete experience for fans while maintain that TV experience in the virtual world,” Walavalkar added.

Sky Sports’ director of production, Steve Smith, continued: “We’ve always been at the forefront of innovation, looking for new ways to deliver the best possible viewing experience.

“We are the first broadcaster to test live VR for Premier League football. Working in partnership with Manchester City and LiveLike VR has allowed us to push the boundaries once again. It is the next step in our VR story and the results are really impressive. Through our dedicated Sky VR Studio we will continue to explore opportunities across all genres of content in the Sky offering.”

As a broadcast rights holder Sky will want to commercialise VR games and Gigliani admits that he can see a future where fans can buy virtual tickets, whether on a match-by-match basis or for a whole season.

As for the immediate future, Gigliani says the club will use VR in a similar way to how it uses all of its digital platforms.

“Something that we’re trying really hard to do with the club is building this culture of early innovation and experimentation. I think over time it’ll all add up, especially if you build it and prove it in many ways,” he continued.

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Tony Connelly

I cover media, marketing and sponsorship news within the sports industry. This includes breaking news as well as writing feature pieces with insights from experts in the sports marketing world.

All by Tony