ABOUT THIS ENTRY
The virtual fan experience offered fans “the best seat in the bubble,” rendering them an integral part of not only the broadcast but the live game experience.
How does this represent “Excellence in Engagement”?
This was a first-of-its-kind use of video co-viewing that allowed fans to watch live sports together in real-time. The round-trip latency, measured from cameras’ capture of live pictures in-venue to the output of fan reaction on the boards, was one second. To further enhance the broadcast and reduce the feel of the minimal latency for fans watching the broadcast, the NBA and its teams created new graphics and pre-recorded videos to briefly take over the boards before fans’ reactions were revealed.
Creating and executing this platform in a condensed timeframe was no trivial undertaking, and there was no precedent for games without fans. The demand for perfection for high-profile game broadcasts and the focus on creating a platform that fans would value required careful planning, advanced broadcast and software engineering, and the collaborative effort from hundreds of staff across the League, its teams, and its partners. The result was not only a first-of-its-kind fan experience, but an execution that defined sports engagement during the pandemic and that brought a bit of fun, humor, and most importantly, excitement to the summer of 2020.
Objective: On March 11, 2020, the NBA paused its season for over four months. When the season resumed in Orlando in July, the format was like nothing the League had ever seen: three courts, 22 teams, and a complete Bubble, safe from Covid-19 but also closed off from the League’s most passionate supporters, its fans. Our return to the court was an opportunity to uniquely reconnect with our fans and be a symbol of hope and resilience, for a world rebuilding.
The NBA was determined to ensure that the fans’ ardent support would still be visible to players in the Bubble and to viewers at home. In the 120 days between the beginning of the hiatus and the installation of LED boards in Orlando, the League focused its efforts on creating a technology-driven, interactive way for fans to be present in the arena. The result was a new digital version of coveted courtside seats: Virtual Fans, featuring about 350 fans per night shown live on 17-foot LED boards surrounding 3 sides of the court using cutting-edge, low latency technology. Through this platform, the NBA was able to replicate the in-venue experience for players, coaches, and viewers around the world.
Execution: For each game, fans were separated into ten distinct “sections” of 32 fans each, with each section placed together on the LED boards in the arena. Once “seated,” or logged in via computer or mobile device, fans could interact within their section in a replicated stadium seating layout branded for the home team. To further amplify the energy, teams and the League brought in mascots, hype squads, and special guests, engaging participants and creating a new type of celebrity spotting for fans watching on the telecast.
To ensure an authentic feeling for both the fans watching at home and the players, crowd reactions had to be harvested and broadcast in near real-time. ESPN and TNT, the NBA’s national broadcast partners, built on the platform to create new telecast enhancements, including capturing the boards from new camera angles, conducting live interviews with talent from within the platform, and creating fun executions, like allowing Shaq to “attend” 6 games in a day. The networks also featured guests including President Obama, LeBron’s I Promise students, Snoop Dogg, NBA Legends, frontline workers, poll-workers, media personalities, and more offering a meaningful and unique viewing experience for both those who attended and the fans at home.
Results: Players in the Bubble were able to play “live” for audiences of family, friends, and celebrities, bringing a new level of excitement and energy to the game.
While the majority of our global fan base will never be able to physically attend a game, the experience allowed fans near and far to virtually attend what for some was their very first NBA game, right from their living rooms. The virtual suites provided a similar atmosphere to attending a game in person with real-time cheers from both teams’ fans, but what made it unique was the community that it cultivated. The moderators created new engagement opportunities in the room such as trivia at halftime to keep fans engaged throughout the entire broadcast. With 172 games during Restart, the Virtual Fan Experience ultimately hosted over 50,000 fans.
In a post-attendance survey, we learned that 90% of respondents are willing to sign up again and 95% of respondents indicated an interest in more virtual events from the NBA.
National Basketball Association (NBA)