Premier Boxing Champions on Fox Sports Lets Fans Roam Ringside in Virtual Reality

The broadcaster is working with Facebook for bouts on Oculus Quest 2

2020 has become a year unlike any before in the history of live sports production. In its third month of Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) after returning from the nationwide shutdown, Fox Sports is supplementing its linear broadcasts with second-screen applications. With the help of Oculus’s new Quest 2 headset and Venues initiative, fans can experience bouts in virtual reality within an interactive environment on Facebook.

Fresh Take: Facebook Partnership Offers Another Chance at VR

Virtual reality has undergone a transformation over the past decade. At the midway point of the 2010s, companies began offering VR as a more niche way for fans who wanted an unobstructed view of a game from the comfort of their own home. It has gained momentum in subsequent years, but the physical hardware that transmitted virtual reality needed improvement.

“There were a bunch of startups with the mindset of putting people into a virtual environment to see a basketball game from the front row. At the time, it got a lot of people excited,” says Mike Davies, SVP, technical and field operations, Fox Sports. “The problem was that the technology and electronics didn’t deliver that kind of experience.”

Fox Sports is dedicating a portion of its onsite staff for Premier Boxing Champions to produce a VR show for boxing fans.

Despite virtual reality’s previous inadequacies, Fox Sports ventured into this realm with VR offerings for Super Bowl LI in 2017. In 2020, the option has become even more enticing since fans are not allowed inside arenas. With the combination of heightened technology, the current state of live sports production, and an experienced company like Facebook, the concept has become a viable option and a perfect opportunity for Fox Sports to dive deep into virtual reality.

“We’ve been able to learn a lot over the years,” Davies says, “but, when Oculus came to us with their Venues platform, we realized that not only are you sitting there and watching the fight in this environment, you’re also watching it with other people. In some ways, it was the right time to bring VR back.”

From Walkout to Ringside: Four Cameras Offer an Untethered Experience

Although virtual reality transports fans into another dimension, the production involves a minimal amount of equipment and staffers. Providing the VR portion of the broadcast were four cameras dispersed throughout the venue: eager to vary the looks of the experience, the broadcaster stationed one of them near the neutral corner of the ring, one next to the judge’s table, and two as more free-flowing and active.

“One [of these last two] we call the Drop Cam,” Davies explains. “The operator could reposition and shoot from a finite number of locations, like the tunnel for fighter entrances, respective corners, and a beauty shot. The other camera was put onto one of our broadcast jibs, so this camera actually moved. In VR, the jury is still out in terms of what moving cameras look like, but that one seemed to work well. We’re still learning how to do it.”

Within a smaller setting, these four cameras offer a sense of immersion, taking fans around the arena and close to the ring apron. According to Davies, given its scale, the sport is tailor-made for virtual reality.

“Boxing is one of the only sports that you really don’t miss very much at all [in VR],” he says. “In fact, you might actually gain something, because you can follow the action and be immersed. It’s unlike some of the bigger-footprint sports like football or soccer, which are a little bit harder to do in VR because of the distances that are involved.”

In addition, the replays and graphics seen on the traditional broadcasts were added into the experience at appropriate times. It’s a lesson learned from the early days of VR productions.

“If there was a piece of replay that we wanted to show,” he says, “there’s this virtual videoboard that comes down and becomes full-screen [in the headset]. If you’re a viewer in VR, you’re also getting the benefit of replays and graphics.”

In-Arena Noise: Audio Portfolio Includes Nat Sound, Broadcast Commentary

From a sound aspect, viewers watching the bout through a headset heard the same ambient noise as those watching on television. Analysts and commentators, common on a regular broadcast, played an interesting role for the virtual-reality crowd. With action stopped between rounds, commentators actively spoke to Oculus users during commercial breaks.

“We thought that it was still helpful to hear the announcers,” Davies notes. “It was a combination of the audio from the regular linear broadcast. Between rounds, we had the announcers speak directly to the Oculus audience.”

This added feature was designed to further increase the immersion, but, on a platform that embraces its environment and engagement with fellow fans, audio is a production aspect that could be fine-tuned in the future.

“If users are going to be talking to other people,” Davies adds, “maybe some fans don’t want the commentary, or there could be an option to turn it on or off. We may try the next one without commentary or with limited commentary, because that’s a place where we can do better.”

Across the Street: Onsite Team Moves From Microsoft Theater to Staples Center

With the PBC schedule located in Los Angeles, Fox Sports was able to operate a majority of the tasks onsite. Aside from the four cameras used for the VR show, the entire camera complement came to 11 (seven deployed for the linear broadcast).

The VR operation was handled by six onsite staffers, but crew members handling graphics and other functions were located at the broadcaster’s Pico facility in Los Angeles. Since the sport’s return on Aug. 8, members of the onsite team have been working in a rotation of three mobile production units supplied by Mobile TV Group.

Although these productions are all taking place in the same city, the crew faced a scheduling conflict that forced operations to shift from Microsoft Theater to the famed Staples Center across the street.

“We’ve basically had residency for our eight previous shows in the Microsoft Theater, but they had an event,” says Davies. “We had to move our whole setup across the street to Staples Center and basically replicated the entire look that we had with our backdrops.”

Youth Movement: Virtual Reality Opens Up Boxing to Younger Audiences

Even though these improved virtual-reality productions are in their infancy, there is some potential to engage a demographic not known for watching boxing. With the Venues platform, younger viewers are more inclined to digest a match in VR than with previous iterations of the technology. Plus, the relatively low price of $300 expands the accessibility of the experience.

“I think that the best [VR] experience is dipping in and dipping out,” says Davies, “but, with the Venues platform, it probably lengthens the time that you can stay in there. Since this new headset is a lot more comfortable than they used to be, I think that [the time spent in virtual reality] is going to be longer.”

In the age of COVID-19, the broadcaster continues to face logistic and safety challenges. Eventually, when the pandemic subsides, VR productions have the ability to improve and display more behind-the-scenes vantage points.

“Access isn’t as great as we would want,” Davies notes. “For instance, you would want to be able to get into the dressing rooms, and, in a non-COVID environment, that could easily be done. When we come out of a restrictive environment, we’ll be able to do even more within these immersive environments and make it more interesting for the fans.”

With younger viewers cutting the cord and opting for digital/mobile devices over traditional television viewing, Fox Sports’ endeavor could pay dividends by opening up a new avenue of consumption.

“We feel that virtual reality is a companion production that we can do,” says Davies. “It’s a tiny subset of the audience that we would get on TV. But, at the same time, if there are people that want to lean into this kind of technology, it’s pretty cool that we’re there for them and providing some of the options that they’re used to experiencing.”

Virtual reality will not be an option when PBC on Fox Sports returns on Saturday, Nov. 21, but the application will be available for the final card of the year on Wednesday, Dec. 16.

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