The sports industry has long had strong connections to the gaming audience, with teams and leagues partnering with best-selling game series such as NBA 2K and FIFA. As the connection between gaming and the metaverse becomes clear, sports companies are leaning into their gaming roots to establish themselves as early leaders in the virtual world to come.
These days, sports teams and leagues offer their fans a multitude of ways to engage with the brand from the comfort of their homes. The NBA has been broadcasting select games in virtual reality for years and launched a dedicated Horizon Worlds space in May; the NFL opened a Roblox experience in February; individual sports teams such as the MLB’s Atlanta Braves have created digital twins of their stadiums for use as virtual event venues and meeting spaces.
This influx of metaverse activity is a reaction to the threat posed to the sports industry by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID was horribly disruptive to a lot of businesses in Major League Baseball in particular, in which teams are entirely dependent on ticket sales, merchandise sales, food and beverage sales to make money as an enterprise,” said Josh Rush, CEO of the metaverse design studio Surreal Events, which built the Braves’ virtual ballpark, paraphrasing his conversations with Braves management. “So we can’t have this kind of disruption to the continuity of our business ever again — and we see a potential here to grow our fan base by building a campfire, if you will, in space where nontraditional baseball fans are already hanging out.”
Shortly after Travis Scott’s seminal Fortnite concert in April 2020, Braves management reached out to Epic Games to explore how the team could make its own play in the metaverse. Although the Braves ultimately did not activate inside Fortnite directly, Epic connected the team with Surreal Events, whose platform uses Unreal Engine, the same game engine used to build Fortnite and a multitude of other popular titles.
Given the long history of overlap between the sports and gaming industries and audiences, it’s not surprising that sports companies are taking cues from games to develop their metaverse strategies. But the increasing metaverse involvement of the sports industry comes at an opportune time. As longstanding relationships between game developers and sports companies break down or end, sports companies have the opportunity to bring their metaverse strategy in-house.
“Sports organizations have been very close to games, but they outsource everything — that’s why we are probably now seeing Electronic Arts and FIFA breaking relationships, as FIFA wants to do more game-oriented things, but they were licensing the rights to EA,” said Matias Rodriguez, vp of technology at Globant Games and Metaverse Studios, which has designed virtual experiences for sports leagues such as the NFL, NHL and UFC.
Despite the gaming focus of many sports companies’ metaverse plays, teams like the Braves are also paying attention the blockchain-based, Web3 side of the metaverse, and it’s only a matter of time until they begin to more thoroughly incorporate technologies such as NFTs into their virtual spaces, particularly as the question of monetization becomes more urgent. “We view Digital Truist Park [the Braves’ virtual stadium] as the hub where all this comes together,” said Greg Mize, the Braves’ vp of marketing and innovation. “We have plans for the ability for a fan to purchase NFTs in Digital Truist Park — to use crypto to purchase digital goods and services, to purchase a skin for your avatar. We’re very much bullish on the intersection of digital goods and physical goods.”
The involvement of the sports industry is a good sign for the development of the metaverse as a whole. Sports are an effective avenue through which metaverse-building companies such as Epic Games and Meta can convince users to try their platforms — and, ideally, start to use them for socialization and entertainment beyond live sports.
“One thing I always thought was really interesting when we started doing the NBA was that, even with people who were big basketball fans, after 10 to 15 minutes, it turned into almost being more about the social experience,” said Tim Walker, a virtual world producer for Media.Monks, which has designed virtual-reality events and experiences for the basketball league. “I hate to say this — but we almost forgot the game was going on.”
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