Football viewing in VR… Game changer or not?


Sensum wanted to find out...

Are you a football fan who loves the buzz of the live stadium experience, but rising prices and long travel distances reduce it to an occasional opportunity? Well, BT Sport may have just changed the football viewing experience forever.

For the first time in history, on Saturday 3rd June, football fans were able to watch the UEFA Champions League final live in virtual reality. This allowed sports fans around the world to be (almost) present at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff – where Real Madrid took on Juventus in the final of Europe’s most prestigious club football competition – right from the comfort of their own home.

With Sensum being experts in measuring emotions in the virtual world, we saw this as an excellent opportunity to find out how watching a game in VR would really affect people on an emotional level, compared to a normal viewing experience on TV.

What did we do?

At the Sensum headquarters, we brought together six neutral-supporting football fans to gather a full understanding of the emotional buzz around the Champions League final.

Three of our participants watched the game in virtual reality through Samsung Gear VR headsets, while the other three participants watched it on an TV. Numerous data streams were measured, including: heart rate, galvanic skin response, breathing rate and skin temperature. When these four body responses are measured and correlated against each other, it gives a great indication of emotional engagement levels.

What did we find?

Unsurprisingly, the results matched the original expectations that we had when we set out to complete the study. For participants in both groups there was an overall increase in emotional engagement, demonstrated by an increase in arousal while watching the game. The main difference between the groups was that the sizes of the changes in arousal were significantly higher in the virtual reality group, compared to the control group. This difference was particularly prominent at key moments within the game, such as goals, near-goal opportunities, goalkeeper saves, red cards and so on. One of the largest differences in percentage increase in arousal between the two groups was seen when Gareth Bale was inches from converting Cristiano Ronaldo’s cross in the 79th minute.

In the VR group arousal increased by 21%, whereas in the control group there was only an 11% increase. In the post-experience survey, participants in the VR condition reported the VR experience to be enjoyable, said that they would recommend it to others, and that it was a positive experience in general. Another interesting point found in the study was the placement of the 360° cameras. Some of them, such as those just behind the net and close to the pitch, resulted in greater engagement, whereas those placed higher up in the stadium had much lower levels of engagement. This was clearly apparent when the red card was produced. The location of the foul was very close to a 360° camera, resulting in a larger spike of arousal seen in the VR participants compared to those who were viewing the game in 2D.

One disadvantage of watching a football game live in virtual reality is that the 360° cameras are not of as high a quality as the cameras that provide footage for normal television viewing. However, this is something we can expect to be overcome by technology in the near future. Another negative point, and probably the most important one seen by our researchers, was that in VR the social interaction between the participants was greatly impeded by having to wear headsets and headphones. Social interaction plays a big part in viewing sport as a collective group, such as at a sports bar, and could ultimately put people off viewing games in VR.

And finally ... So what?

Although our study had relatively small sample numbers, the results suggest that BT Sport succeeded in their mission to bring football fans virtually closer to the experience from all around the world. This could provide BT Sport with even more potential for brand expansion in the televised sport sector, while the addition of a new content platform opens up potential advertising space for their partners. If they were to overcome the few negative points highlighted in the research, it could turn out to be a place with a huge volume of sports viewers. By improving the quality and placement of the 360° cameras, VR would have the ability to replicate the physiological feelings experienced when viewing a live game, even when you are not physically present...

... A potential game changer!