It’s no secret that the XFL has faced some major difficulties in recent years. As much as Americans love their football at all levels, the league has had some trouble sustaining itself –– and of course, COVID-19 didn’t help.
With that said, there are some signs of things turning in a brighter direction. And if and when that happens, the league might well benefit from taking a few chances on technology and fan engagement. We’ll look to explore this idea in this post, specifically with regard to virtual reality and its potential in the XFL.
Getting Back To Business
Things really are moving again in the XFL. A new board has recently been hired, with ESPN reporting that former executives from the NFL, NBA, and ESPN itself are involved. Furthermore, the league has announced a commitment to return to play in the spring of 2023, with February 18th looking to be the likely launch date. Granted, the new board will have its work cut out for it; franchises will need to be rebooted, officials, coaching staff, and players will need to be re-hired, and –– to the main point we want to discuss here –– broadcasting and fan engagement will need to be reconsidered.
A Need For Something New
In the last few weeks of the XFL’s 2020 season, viewing figures had slumped around 40% as compared to the opening weeks. And as tempting as it is to blame COVID for everything, the unfortunate fact is that with lockdowns in place, one could argue that more people should have been tuning in from home. The new board cannot simply count on a return to action boosting numbers to what they need to be in order for the league to sustain. And this is where, among other ideas and strategies, VR could be poised to play an interesting role.
If this idea seems a little out of the blue, it’s worth noting that after a bit of a slow rollout in the early years, VR is catching on among consumers. And while its use in XFL broadcasting would be bold and somewhat unorthodox, there are reasons to believe it could be successful at engaging fans in the league experience.
1 – Football Fans Are Accustomed To Mixed Reality
The first point to consider in this argument is that millions of football fans are already accustomed to the use of mixed reality technologies in broadcasting –– even if they may never have consciously realized it. As we’ve noted in the past when discussing potential marketing strategies for the XFL, mixed reality –– and specifically augmented reality –– already comes into play when fans see graphics superimposed onto fields.
This sort of action can take different forms. From a marketing standpoint, it means that sponsors can pay to have brand names and logos superimposed onto fields and their surroundings. However, AR is also in play when broadcasts and commentators use graphics to illustrate points in real time, or over replays.
What all of this means is that many who watch football regularly are already used to some of the effects that come with mixed reality experiences. That doesn’t mean they’re used to putting on VR headsets to watch games just yet. But the actual experience once those headsets are on might not feel so foreign.
2 – VR Spectatorship Exists
While it has not been used in the XFL yet, it’s also worth noting that virtual spectatorship for competitive events already exists –– and even thrives in some cases.
The most notable example comes from the 2018 FIFA World Cup, during which BBC Sport carried all 33 of its matches on its own VR viewing app. This enabled spectators sitting at home to watch these matches “direct from the stadium” (in a virtual sense), as well as to access VR highlights and special 360-degree video features. A little closer to home, we’ve seen some similar experimentation surrounding events like college basketball’s Final Four.
There has also been a great deal of virtual spectatorship making its way into the world of gaming. First and foremost, this has happened in the online casino space. While not representing true VR in the strictest sense, the live games on Gala Casino actually provide some of the earliest proof of people’s desire to experiment with virtual participation in competition and events. The games offer twists on classic casino content by providing video views of interactive game managers, real casino environments, and so on. Players get the sensation that they’re actually at casino card tournaments, or playing live table games, rather than just participating from home. And not for nothing, we’ve seen some similar virtual participation options experimented with in the ever-expanding world of eSports.
Given all of this momentum toward virtual participation in live events and competition, it’s fair to say that the notion of VR broadcasts for XFL games isn’t as out of the blue as it may at first seem.
3 – The Pure Potential
It’s easy to brush off VR concepts as gimmicks, and in some cases that’s just what they are. When you really think about what virtual reality could bring to the XFL though, it’s actually quite easy to get excited.
For starters, there’s the pure spectatorship angle. VR that really works –– and a lot of it is getting pretty impressive –– will truly give fans the sensation that they’re seated in stadiums, watching live football. Even beyond the basic spectator option though, there’s something to be said for experimentation, too.
Consider this question, for instance: What if the XFL fitted small cameras onto players’ helmets? It’s entirely plausible for VR viewing to offer fans the options of virtually “embodying” favorite players on the field. It’s exactly the sort of thing it’s hard to imagine the NFL doing –– but which the XFL would have nothing to lose trying
A Much-Needed Jolt
The bottom line is that when the XFL returns, it can’t do so without some big changes and creative ideas. VR alone won’t guarantee success. But inviting fans to participate in the action virtually would be one such big idea that could give the league a jolt.
The technology is in place for this to be feasible, and the league would be wise to consider it.
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