Ready or Not, a Sports Parallel Universe Is Around the Virtual Corner

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Today’s guest columnist is Rick Burton of Syracuse University.

I’ve taught sport management classes for the last 13 years, and while I’ve engaged with thousands of highly talented students, it’s rare when I think I’ve met a unicorn. A young Beethoven sitting down at his first piano. Tiger Woods crushing it pre-Stanford and the PGA. Breanna Stewart arriving at UConn and dominating women’s college basketball from day one.

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Prodigies are indeed rare.

I might have met one this past semester in my Syracuse esports class. His name is Justin Moskowitz, and it was quickly evident he’d become my teacher in numerous aspects of sports technology as I tried understanding what he was seeing “around the corner.”

Justin has a knack for detailing how augmented and virtual reality worlds will unfold and where organizations like Apple, Google, Amazon and Meta might take the sports industry. And I sensed he was looking into the pro sports wormhole just starting to open.

For those of you who don’t read science fiction or buy into the Einsteinian Back to the Future concepts like the space-time continuum, wormholes represent “a hypothetical connection between widely separated regions of space [and] time.”

Not following?

Try it this way. Wormholes are mythical vortexes, but if one existed, the coming pro sports wormhole might feature virtual places where the sports played today (on courts, fields and rinks) are quickly sucked into a parallel universe featuring bigger payouts and more fans.

In this virtual world, as described in the book Ready Player One, the important games play out in the Oasis (a flashier name for the Metaverse). This is where Justin comes in. Where he made me sit down and put on a Quest 2 headset to play Echo Arena or started lecturing about the VR Master League.

Never heard of the VRML? That means it’s still 2022 for you.

But in the not-too-distant future, you may spend a lot more time inside a VR world (or even check into an esports hotel). In fact, within months, Meta (formerly Facebook) will release its newest Quest headset. That’s the month Justin thinks we’ll begin to grasp the virtual sport tech “revolution” has started.

“I can see how the money moves around,” he said the other day during a Zoom. “And when you allow fans to invest in their involvement with sports … pro, college or anything else … they’ll want to get as immersive as possible.”

At least one league preparing for this “inflection point” is the NBA, where Meta Quest is a major sponsor. And in their esports league (NBA 2K), the NBA partners with Google Pixel. In this sense, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and the NBA governors are already moving quickly.

“Meta is already building out three areas,” Justin explained. “You’ve got Horizon Worlds (where you can build social environments with board game rooms, pool tables, TVs, music), Horizon Venues (where you can watch a concert like Post Malone or a sporting event) and Horizon Workrooms (which might offer 3D places for classes, work, or office space … with AR/VR reality which is known as XR when combined).”

In the “nearer” future, fans will enter virtual stadiums able to mirror the actual game they’re watching on TV, phone or tablet. Justin’s example used a Yankees fan in Los Angeles watching a physical game (say Yankees-Angels) on an Apple 16 device but simultaneously entering virtual Yankee stadium to sit in the dugout with Aaron Judge.  

Further out, esports, with enhanced AR/VR, will simplify the creation of games via highly immersive concepts, and intrigued fans will start building their own contests.

“You won’t need to learn how to code to build a new sport or game,” he said. “And when that happens, traditional sports, having lost the Baby Boomers who died or couldn’t keep up with the technology, will find fans migrating to more interesting options. Today that’s League of Legends or Mario Kart, Rocket League. But tomorrow kids will create their own games and leagues.”

Is Justin right? Hard to say. But as a professor trying to prepare college students for the future, this vision might soon worm its way into my leadership course syllabus.

Syracuse media entrepreneurship professor Sean Branagan summarized the discussion this way after Stadia Ventures’ demo day in Chicago: “The internet has spawned communities of all kinds. Some of those formed naturally and haphazardly. But as we transform from industrial workers to knowledge workers, from local citizens to global citizens, from more-physical humans to more-digital beings, we’ll see a new group of architects, builders, artists, and innovators creating new, and smarter, spaces in physically enhanced and augmented environments.”

“And don’t just watch the big tech firms,” he continued. “Companies like Nike and Gucci are in the mix, too. Plus, little startups like Sandbox VR. ReadyPlayer.me in Estonia is creating avatars based on the real you, capable of moving from game to game and from virtual environment to virtual environment. And in traditional sports—not just esports—startups like Credenza are leading the way with new uses of Web3 technologies, such as their digital/IRL NFTs.”

What will this multi-sense universe look like? He said we don’t know yet.

But then he offered up a Ted Talk parable offered by Sir Ken Robinson about a teacher asking a kindergarten student what she was drawing. The student said a picture of God. “But we don’t know what God looks like,” the teacher said.

Undeterred, the child, who might’ve already looked into the sports tech wormhole, said, “They will when I’m done.”

Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University. His new co-authored book, Business the NHL Way, will be published by the University of Toronto Press in October. He is also COO North America for the Australian sports tech firm Playbk Sports.    

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