GUEST: Virtual reality is becoming an integral part of training in the NFL as well as other college and professional sports. The technology that was once a dream is now a reality and is proving to be an amazing tool for athletes. The 360-degree virtual reality image enables users to be in the game, try out new moves, practice in a “real” setting, master plays, improve reaction time, and more, while carrying no risk of injury.
Companies making headlines in sports VR
Strivr (Sports Training in Virtual Reality) is blazing a trail in the field of virtual reality in sports. Named the Sports Illustrated Innovation of the Year, Strivr is impressing players and trainers in a variety of sports, especially football. It’s the brainchild of ex-Stanford player and coach Derek Belch, who used the development of the technology as the topic of his master’s thesis, and ex-NFL QB Trent Edwards who helped fine tune the device to better service today’s game. As of September, only six NFL teams are using the virtual reality technology: the Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints, Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets, Arizona Cardinals, and San Francisco 49ers. Other teams may begin implementing this on a grander scale over the next few seasons.
Another VR company making waves in the NFL is Eon Sports. Its leaders include a team of football experts, including Terry Shea, a former offensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears and a longtime quarterback coach for college and pro teams. He offered to assist Eon create a more immersive experience for players. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have implemented Eon’s SIDEKIQ program for their young QB and rising star, Jameis Winston. Last year, Winston and the Buccaneers new head coach, Dirk Koetter, used this technology as a means to deal with the NFL’s rules around practices. Koetter, as the offensive coordinator, uploaded plays and defensive schemes to a virtual reality headset that helps simulate plays and puts his quarterback through the motions without using up any practice time. Eon Sports will surely be picked up by more teams as the Buccaneers rookie showed much improvement from Week 1 to Week 17, including a game vs the Eagles where he threw for five touchdowns.
How does VR help the game?
Virtual reality is poised to help the NFL tremendously in a variety of ways. As a training tool, virtual reality allows the players to be subjected to the intensity of the game in film study rather than just watching All-22 film as most teams currently do. Allowing these athletes to run through previous plays with the VR version of it is super helpful because they are able to see where they went wrong and where they can improve next time. This technology truly helps quarterbacks more than any other position as they are able to see the defense breakdown in real time and find openings in that defense so they are better prepared for the next time they are in that situation.
Players who are embracing the technology are discovering their own advantages. Quarterback Carson Palmer of the Arizona Cardinals is using virtual reality training to practice what he will see on the field and helps him find out how effective certain plays will be vs different defenses. He claims that it helps his throwing motion as well. With the VR headset he can practice plays from every possible angle and see the results of differing arm and elbow placement. It is a high tech way to look further into the biomechanics of the quarterback’s throwing motion and helps scouts and talent evaluators better assess a player’s ability at the next level.
Scouts are currently using this to dive further into a QB ability to perform and also the players ability to think. Physical talent means very little at the QB position if the player can’t keep up with the game mentally. With all of the split second decisions and play anticipation needed in today’s game, the mental part of the game is what leads to 70% of a player’s success. We’ve seen guys like Vince Young fall out of grace in the snap of a finger because the game was just too fast for them. Unfortunately, talent evaluators didn’t have a way to prove this until now. Virtual reality simulates actual games and demonstrates that quick turnaround time which proves to be overwhelming for many players. Using the technology at the right time can help weed out the players that won’t transition well to the big leagues and will also help to coach up those who show real potential. It is also allows rookies and free agents the opportunity to learn how to play in their new team’s offense or defensive scheme and game plan, despite not even taking the field yet.
Don’t think that the only people using this technology are NFL teams either. NFL rookies are already looking to this technology to better prepare them for the NFL. Traditionally, many college players struggle to make the switch in large part because the speed of the game is much greater from what they are used to in college. Virtual reality gives them the opportunity to practice real moves reminiscent of some of the greats of the game, before they even here their name on draft day. In the 2016 draft last month, virtual reality videos of several hopefuls were presented, showing the preparation they are putting in already. This type of use for virtual reality has the possibility of transforming the game as we know it since players could come into the league so much more prepared for the speed change.
Another great use for this is helping a player stay in the game during recovery from an injury. While these player can’t make it onto the field, they can still keep themselves immersed in the game and on their toes. By simply putting the headset on and going through different blitzes, coverages, routes and play calls, they can stay “in the game” even though they can’t touch the field.
More than the game
The NFL is looking at virtual reality for more than physical and mental game prep. With numerous young players who regularly find themselves facing legal challenges, the NFL is working proactively to try to prevent such issues through diversity training. The league itself is in the planning stages of using virtual reality to teach players about discrimination and harassment and how to avoid these obstacles should they arise. The belief is that the sensation of walking in someone else’s shoes will impact players on a deeper level, potentially preventing legal problems that come from poor decisions. This can’t stop all problems, but the NFL’s view is that if they can help solve some, they have done something beneficial to the game.
VR for fans
VR will find more uses beyond preparing players. Soon, fans will have their chance to experience the game like never before as the NFL claims that the future of watching football is with virtual reality, a statement that surely has fans on the edge of their seats. How though? Simple really. A premium seat in the first row may be purchased by a virtual reality pioneer who is live streaming the experience to others who have chosen to experience it from home. The use of this virtual reality system may be expensive, but surely it can’t be as pricey as paying for a $1,000-plus seat each game. It’s also important to take note that cable companies are investing in VR. This may mean that in the next few years, the NFL could broadcast live games in virtual reality with the addition of a headset and a mobile device.
This is exciting news for football fans, but maybe we need to pump the brakes a bit. The NFL certainly has to realize that the ability to be “at the game” from your own home could have a very negative effect on ticket sales. This would mean that the TV deals for virtual reality-enabled games would have to far outweigh the price of admission to an NFL game. So while the technology is in place, this agreement could take a long time to be completed.
While you wait though, virtual reality for fans will likely also come in the form of video games where users can be the player and play in a real game or be part of a famous moment in NFL history. There are already a large number of sports themed video games on the market in which gamers choose to be the player, but what VR is offering is just another step further. Virtual reality gaming for fans is simply offering a more high-tech level of gaming. Nothing competes with the feeling of actually being the player.
Many aspects of football are poised to change with the increased use of virtual reality and these changes are likely to be positive ones for the game. The changes will result in better gameplay through: more preparation, improved training and practice, more NFL-ready rookies, better use of injury downtime and possibly even less head injuries as a result of better tackling mechanics. Forward-thinking coaches have been seeking this type of technology for decades, and now virtual reality is finally a reality for the NFL, its players, prospects, coaches and fans. What a time to be alive, huh?
Keegan Green is a Florida-based writer who loves blogging about sports and technology and whenever possible, a mix of the two.
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How VR is helping train NFL quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Jameis Winston
How VR is helping train NFL quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Jameis Winston