The continued absence of fans in sports venues has prompted everyone from teams and stadium operators, to agencies and sponsors, to seek out innovative ways of engaging consumers at home. And while spectators will eventually return, the lingering effect of Covid-19 means, for all organisations, the at-home strategy is here to stay.
Augmented reality (AR) looks set to be a vital tool for this approach. Through it, sports leagues and sponsors can unlock new ways to interact with fans via mobile, tablet or desktop, wherever they are. The potential of web-based augmented reality (WebAR) has already been showcased in music and entertainment, offering up enticing and distinctive ways the technology can make an impact in sports.
There is now the ability to turn famous faces into holograms, for example. Having already crossed over as a pay-per-view (PPV) boxing star, YouTuber JJ ‘KSI’ Olatunji recently joined musician Craig David to perform their new track – available to watch through AR wherever the user feels inclined.
Virtual portals are another possibility, meaning fans shut out of stadia can now set virtual foot back inside and explore the home of their favourite team. This also presents an ideal opportunity for branded environments. Notably, computer software company Nutanix used the technology to bring its conference exhibit experience straight to the consumer.
Fans still feeling unable to show their support can also ease those fears with AR face effects, providing an effective way to equip followers with virtual branded merchandise.
Add to that the fact that teams and leagues can now offer their sponsors interactive activations during broadcasts, thus giving the potential to turn a passive brand advert into a fully interactive TV spot or ongoing campaign, and it’s easy to see how AR can transform the sports entertainment experience.
With so much possibility at play, the need for easily obtainable, user-friendly technology is essential. Enter 8th Wall. Having launched in 2016, the California-based company uses its technology to power AR experiences and all without requiring an app.
“Augmented reality enhances the sports experience wherever the fan is,” Kevin Straw (right), 8th Walls’ director of business development, tells SportsPro. “AR can turn players into holograms so fans can interact with them at home. It can create portals so fans can teleport to the stadium to be part of the game. And it can create new ways for fans to show their fandom such as digital face painting and virtual merchandise.
“It can also give sponsors ways to complement live broadcasts and bring the spirit of on-premise activations to a user's home to create a truly personal AR experience.”
Rather than an app, 8th Wall’s award-winning technology works in the user’s browser. To experience AR, they simply click a link or scan a QR code with their smartphone to interact with the content. As Straw explains, there are several benefits to this.
“As WebAR can be accessed via a link, it can easily integrate into the existing marketing mix, distributed via digital ads, sent as part of SMS or email campaigns, or integrated into signage or mailers in the case of QR codes,” he says. “8th Wall’s WebAR can also be embedded in existing websites alongside other rich content such as photos and videos.”
At the forefront of 8th Wall’s app-free offering is accessibility. Indeed, the company’s mission is to make AR a ‘reality for everyone’. It makes sense, then, to harness the power and freedom of the web. The space is already a familiar place for users to discover and engage with new content, while also negating the reluctance of consumers to download yet another app.
Brands can now be given the tools by 8th Wall to create and publish AR content online. This, in turn, not only provides them with complete control over their AR experience but also allows users, as Straw puts it, to enjoy “a truly friction-free experience”, overcoming what is otherwise a common barrier to entry.
With the music and entertainment spaces having eagerly adopted AR, it is perhaps natural that sport would look to follow suit. In October, La Liga side Valencia became the first club in Spanish soccer's top flight to integrate AR content into their mobile app. Spain’s top tier joined them later that month by bringing in a new raft of on-screen AR features for live broadcasts. In the US, Major League Baseball (MLB) expanded its partnership with Snapchat to integrate the short-form video platform’s AR functions into the league’s Ballpark mobile app for the World Series. November also saw Manchester United mark their launch on TikTok by creating exclusive AR content for users as part of a new technology trial.
Beyond its eye-catching capabilities, though, Straw points out the commercial value AR can bring to 8th Wall clients.
“The agencies and brands which utilise our platform to create augmented reality content see value in WebAR’s potential reach, time spent and engagement, along with benefiting from PR and social buzz,” he says. “8th Wall WebAR has a reach of nearly three billion smartphones across iOS and Android devices and 50 per cent of users spend more than two minutes engaging in WebAR content.”
To date, 8th Wall’s AR escapades have spanned all four of North America’s major leagues. MLB’s Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies, the National Football League’s (NFL) Los Angeles Rams and Tennessee Titans’, the Denver Nuggets of the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers National Hockey League (NHL) franchises have all had their AR experience powered by 8th Wall.
“Our technology has also powered AR experiences for European football clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain and Bayer 04 Leverkusen,” adds Straw. “8th Wall WebAR has also been used by sponsors such as Red Bull, Formula 1, Champions League Play, Heineken, Nike and Adidas, to name a few.”
Evidently, the marketing industry’s initial push to use AR to reach more users and achieve greater return on investment (ROI) meant sport would want to tap the technology sooner or later. That said, sport has much catching up to do in order to keep pace with those already more versed in utilising WebAR.
8th Wall WebAR has a reach of nearly three billion smartphones across iOS and Android devices and 50 per cent of users spend more than two minutes engaging in WebAR content.
Despite this, current restrictions on attending events and the resulting prevalence of home entertainment means AR is an area ripe for opportunity.
“Sponsors, sports leagues and teams are all looking for ways to engage fans while agencies are looking for proven software tools to create these experiences for their clients,” says Straw. “Covid-19 has caused all industries to look for new ways to engage users at home and we expect an at-home strategy to be an ongoing need for organisations post-pandemic.
“AR is well suited to meet the goals of an at-home strategy. Particularly within entertainment, we are seeing a dramatic uptick in the use of volumetric video within WebAR to bring celebrities into the homes of fans as a hologram in lieu of an on premise meet and greet or performance.”
In sports broadcasting, the use of AR is already growing in popularity. Speaking to SportsPro in November, BT Sport’s chief operating officer Jamie Hindhaugh stated there was much more to come from the UK pay-TV network’s AR-driven content output, having already added features like augmented match statistics to its broadcasts.
“It’s absolutely poignant because it’s about giving people that matchday experience that they are either missing or can’t go to watch with their friends,” Hindhaugh said. “None of the products are gimmicky...all of them give you something that replaces the fact you can’t physically be there. I think that they are all credible products and they are all future-looking.
“I think that you are only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we are able to do here, collectively – both for our audiences and also our own production.”
While Hindhaugh was not speaking for the entire industry, the current state of play across sport suggests it is ready to make up for lost time on the AR front. Indeed, as mobile becomes a cornerstone for fan engagement, AR’s presence within the sector is one set to endure and evolve as the industry bids to keep fans entertained in the ‘new normal’.
“The future is bright for mobile AR,” insists Straw. "The smartphone that we have been carrying around in our pockets for a decade continues to get more and more powerful with each generation, making it an augmented reality machine that is already in the hands of the masses.
“We expect to continue to see more and more brands and organisations adopt AR across all sectors over the coming years and, more importantly, for users to come to expect augmented reality experiences as part of any brand's content offering.”
To find out more about 8th Wall and its AR technology, click here.