Can the NFL push virtual reality into the mainstream?

One of the hurdles to virtual reality going mainstream has been a lack of hit content to lure the masses. The NFL and two former football players are trying to change that.

A few years ago, Troy Jones, who played quarterback in college, and Andrew Hawkins, a former NFL wide receiver, pitched the league and the NFL Players Association on a virtual reality video game. The duo, co-founders of StatusPro, won the licenses earlier this year and last week NFL Pro Era debuted for download on Meta’s Meta Quest 2 and Sony’s PlayStation VR.

“We know what it’s like to be on the field,” Hawkins, the company’s president, said in an interview for the latest episode of Business of Sports, a podcast series from Bloomberg Quicktake. Their goal is to “make sure every fan of the game also gets to experience that, and this technology is what made that possible.”

Adoption of virtual reality by consumers is picking up steam with retail prices for headsets declining, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. Hardware sales may triple to more than $7 billion by 2024, the researcher said. A game featuring NFL players, teams and stadiums could expand the audience.

One of the most successful franchises in the history of gaming is Electronic Arts’s Madden NFL, which has the exclusive video game licenses for the NFL and NFLPA. And just like Madden, NFL Pro Era has a star player — in Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson — to be the face of the game.

“Content goes hand in hand with any hardware and sports is probably what brings the most diverse group of people together,” said Jones, CEO of StatusPro. “I think a lot of people will try VR for the first time” after the launch of the game, he said.

Jones and Hawkins initially created a VR experience as a training tool. They won over coaching staffs by pitching the product as a way for players to get virtual reps in the offseason when rules don’t allow in-person practices. Defensive coaches first utilized the technology as a way to get players more experience identifying offensive formations and lining up before the snap of the ball.

“We sat in the lab, and we were like: ‘position-by-position, coach-by-coach — how do we make their job easier?’ said Hawkins, who played for the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns.

After seeing the positive response from players, the company saw an opportunity to bring the experience to fans. The gameplay puts the player in the shoes of an NFL quarterback who breaks the huddle, takes a snap and looks for receivers downfield, while trying to avoid getting sacked by the defense.

“You’ll gain an appreciation of when you see a quarterback have to break out of the pocket, extend a play and find a receiver downfield with 280-pound guys running and chasing them down,” Jones said.

While time will tell if this game speeds up adoption of VR headsets, StatusPro is already contemplating expansion.

“We want to create these experiences across sports, not just football,” Hawkins said. To make games “that make people say: ‘I wanna try VR. I wanna put myself in this scenario.’”

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