Learnings from PGA TOUR VR Live at THE PLAYERS Championship

During the 2017 PLAYERS Championship, the PGA TOUR executed its first-ever, live, Virtual Reality and “360 video” coverage of №17 across all four days of competition. The decision to pursue Live VR coverage at THE PLAYERS was based on two key factors:

(1) testing the camera technology
(2) ensuring we were allowed to place multiple VR cameras in unique locations around the 17th hole

After four days and 30-plus hours of Live VR and 360-video coverage, we were both surprised and pleased with the results. The total number of live and VOD viewers across Twitter, Periscope, and Samsung Gear VR platforms was multiple millions, and the fan feedback was overwhelmingly positive. We are eager to expand upon what we achieved and learned at THE PLAYERS, and we may consider doing another event in 2017 toward the end of the season. See below for an inside look into our plans, preparation, and execution of Live VR at THE PLAYERS Championship.

TESTING

Following a brainstorming meeting in December 2016 at TPC Sawgrass, we decided that we wanted to try something innovative around Live VR at THE PLAYERS Championship. We also decided that if we were going to do anything VR-related at THE PLAYERS, then it would have to involve the most famous hole in golf, the island-green 17th. We wanted to bring fans a perspective of 17 that could not be experienced as a fan watching live on television. Our primary goal was to put a VR camera in the water, somewhere in close proximity to the island green. But first we had to test the camera technology.

At the 2017 Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club in February, we invited Intel Sports Group (formerly Voke VR) to come out with its cameras and production truck. Our goal was to use a green roughly the size of №17 at TPC Sawgrass (~4,000 square feet) to see how close we needed to place a water-based camera. We tested all day during the Wednesday Pro-Am, capturing footage from 10 feet to 70 feet, and we determined that the picture quality was “good enough” up to about 40 feet from a VR camera. Now we would have to convince our management team to put a camera someplace that had never been contemplated…

CAMERA PLACEMENT & APPROVAL

As we moved toward the Live VR program approval, we felt strongly that our ability to put cameras in interesting locations would make or break our decision to move forward. The plan was to execute a multi-camera VR production, so we chose to position three VR cameras in strategic locations:

  1. a camera on the tee box, close to players and caddies, which captured the “walk up” from №16
  2. a camera at the “drop zone,” providing a unique perspective of players as they walk from the tee to the island green, as well as close-ups of players who (unfortunately) have to hit from the drop zone after a ball finds the lake
  3. the camera in the water, mounted on a pole, as close to the flag as possible for each day of competition

We believed that the water-based camera would be the most controversial:

  • “What happens if a player’s ball hits the camera and bounces onto the green?”
  • “What if the camera falls in the water during competition?”
  • “What will this look like on TV?”

These were all questions we heard more than once, and we had to tackle them as we framed up the opportunity.

After one team member’s attempt to “mock up” what it might look like (see below), we decided that we needed to put the actual camera in the water to show our key decision makers what it would actually look like in each of the planned positions.

Mockup
Actual

After heavy socialization of the concept with various PGA TOUR groups (Competitions, Sponsorships, Broadcast, THE PLAYERS Championship tournament committee, etc.), we presented the idea to Commissioner Jay Monahan, who quickly approved based on our desire to “try new things” and innovate. The plan was approved on April 3, with only about four full weeks until PLAYERS week.

DISTRIBUTION

Once we were approved to move forward, how would fans actually experience the Live VR? Working closely with Intel, we chose to build a full VR experience for Samsung Gear VR, the platform with the largest headset distribution, and one which Intel had built for, and distributed on, in their past Live VR experiences. What we were more excited about, however, was social distribution, which we thought might drive more scale. After discussing the opportunity with a few key partners, we decided to go “all in” with Twitter as part of an exclusive distribution deal for 360-video (i.e. non-headset). For the first time ever, Twitter would acquire the exclusive rights to a live sporting event broadcast in VR/360. Working closely with our counterparts at Twitter, we brought in an external advertiser (Nike) to align with the 360 program, in addition to our Proud Partners (PwC, Morgan Stanley, and Optum).

On Twitter, the 360 video stream was distributed via the Periscope video player, which meant new fans could engage with the content either via Twitter or Periscope, via desktop, mobile, or tablet. The Twitter/Periscope app experience was significantly better, as 360 video is more intuitive when the user can move his/her device around to experience the 360 effects. On desktop, the quality was good, but it requires the user to use a mouse to move the view around. The Twitter/Periscope experience was a live, 360 stream of the “VR Cast,” which was a fully-produced stream of the three combined VR cameras. Audio and video from PGA TOUR LIVE’s coverage of 17 (as well as №12) was piped in and synced perfectly to the VR audio. Fan feedback was overwhelmingly positive, reaching many millions of users, tens of thousands of whom engaged with the content (i.e. retweet, share, comment, like, etc).

Here is a Twitter link to a 360 VOD clip of Adam Scott making a birdie: https://twitter.com/PGATOUR/status/863959879546847232/video/1

On Samsung Gear VR, we were able to further develop the user interface because the platform was truly built for virtual reality. Once a user downloaded the “PGA TOUR VR Live” app from the Oculus store, the user was placed into the VR Cast. From this environment, the VR producer would take you to/from each of the camera positions as the action played out. At about 30 feet, the players and action actually looks 3D … like you’re really there. If there was no action on the hole, the viewer could look up at the ‘picture in picture’ broadcast of PGA TOUR LIVE’s 17th hole (and 12th hole) coverage to stay up-to-speed on the tournament action. Additionally, Samsung Gear VR users could glance down at a navigation panel and switch back and forth between individual camera feeds from the three camera positions, as well as toggle a full leaderboard on/off to see who was making moves. Fan feedback on Gear VR was also overwhelmingly positive, as we worked with Samsung to distribute about 20 Gear VR headsets throughout executive and Proud Partner hospitality where a variety of people could experience the Live VR.

MURPHY’S LAW

One story worth sharing occurred on the morning of the second round of play. Knowing that we had to plan for dozens of “what could go wrong?” scenarios, there was one we had not considered. The Intel team went out in the boat to clean off the lenses of the greenside camera. After coming back in, with only about 15 minutes until the first group reached the 17th tee, the team in the production truck noticed that a spider had spun a web over one of the lenses, causing a major issue with picture quality. We did not have time to get the boat back in the water to clean it, so one of the Intel guys took a golf cart out to an ACE Hardware store about a mile away, bought a 12-foot brush, and wrapped a towel around it. Just as the first group of players were about to tee it up on №16, this was the solution to clean the lens:

Spider on VR Camera

LESSONS LEARNED & NEXT STEPS

At the conclusion of the event, we collated all of our feedback from the various stakeholders and partners, and we definitely have ambitions to do this again. Our three biggest learnings from the event:

  1. give ourselves more than four weeks to plan and execute
  2. focus on finding a truly unique perspective that fans cannot experience from other platforms
  3. there is real demand and scale on platforms like Twitter for a ‘360 video’ experience

We look forward to more Live VR later this year and next season.