The metaverse, the blockchain and the future of live sports experiences.

The tumult of the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated some compelling medium-term trends in the sports industry. With stadiums closed, first to everyone and then to spectators, the questions asked most often in the early months involved how to remake collective experiences in digital worlds.

Many fans turned to esports as an outlet or spent more time gaming themselves. In both cases, sports organisations and their sponsors saw an opportunity to bring audiences and athlete talent closer together, with leading stars dropped into digital set-pieces to draw popular attention and exercise their own latent competitive instincts.

As professional sport resumed, broadcasters also pushed forward with ‘watch together’ features that reunited fans confined to their homes. These concepts will find their place in the media landscape as full-capacity events return but already there is an appetite for further experimentation.

Fervent industry interest in web3 applications like the blockchain and the metaverse has driven considerable investment in the next generation of shared experiences. Several of these take their cue from existing creative platforms in gaming.

Online multiplayer titles like Fortnite have set the tone by staging entertainment launches and one-off events for the past few years. In February, the National Football League (NFL) expanded its partnership with Roblox, the youth-focused game creation network, introducing official avatars and a new NFL Tycoon feature which was linked to Super Bowl LVI. Companies like Nike have also introduced their intellectual property to those environments, giving users a chance to buy in-world items.

Others are building a more bespoke presence in the metaverse. Premier League football champions Manchester City and Sony’s Hawk-Eye Innovations arm are designing a digital version of the Etihad Stadium where fans can meet, go behind the scenes and, in time, watch live games together.

A similar initiative is being undertaken by World Series champions Atlanta Braves, who became the first Major League Baseball team to enter the metaverse through their partnership with Fortnite developer Epic Games. That will result in an immersive digital recreation of Truist Park.

While metaverse-style offerings remain at an embryonic stage, there is an expectation that unique, tradeable items, issued as blockchain-enabled non-fungible tokens (NFTs), will play a significant role in web3 economies. In the meantime, those products are helping to connect real-world sports events to digital spaces.

For all the mixed coverage of NFTs as an investment opportunity some of the technology’s most compelling uses so far lie that hybrid capacity. Ticket-holders at the Super Bowl at LA’s SoFi Stadium were granted companion NFTs. At February’s NBA All-Star Weekend in Cleveland, Ohio, which coincided with the league’s 75th anniversary, fans could buy NFTs by first scanning QR codes at a ‘city-wide gallery’ of locations.

NBA telecoms partner AT&T also used the occasion to showcase the potential of 5G technologies for fans inside and outside the arena. Visitors to the NBA Crossover event in Cleveland could generate 3D models of themselves using the company’s Playmaker app and then recreate spectacular plays like iconic LeBron James dunks. US broadcaster TNT also integrated holographic projections for interviews and 5G-enabled 360-degree views of the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.

The experience of live sports events is at a fascinating evolutionary point. It will go in more than one direction from here.

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