Future of Football: How VR, AR and the metaverse could change the fan experience beyond recognition | Football News

Imagine the scene. Sat in the stands, you are locked deep in debate with your mates about how well your favourite player is doing. There is no chance of an agreement, so you whip out your phone, point it at the pitch, click on his head – and up pop all his stats from the game. In real time.

You can already do exactly that in certain parts of the world and widespread adoption is not far away. That is just the tip of the iceberg heading towards a culture where virtual reality, augmented reality and the metaverse are only going to become more influential in the years and decades to come.

Apple’s recent mix of all three through its ‘Vision Pro’ headset won global headlines when it was announced, but there is far more to this emerging industry than looking like you are wearing oversized swimming goggles.

What are VR and AR?

Virtual Reality (VR) is an entirely virtual, simulated world which users wear some form of glasses – normally in the form of a full headset – to experience.
Head movements are tracked, but anything from hand movement to full-body tracking can also enhance the experience.

Augmented Reality (AR) is a blend of the real and the virtual – where computer-generated images are superimposed onto a user’s view of the world.
This is normally accessed through a phone camera, smart glasses or a full headset.

Exactly how the trio develop within sport is something no-one can confidently predict, but Sky Sports have spoken to some key players working on the future of technology in football to find out how your afternoon in the stands – be that real or virtual – might look in 2043.

Some fans have already had a taste. American football and baseball supporters in the US are well-versed in enjoying added match-day bonuses when they pick up their smartphones.

They can toss virtual items onto the pitch, while watching others do the same, or pass the time during stoppages by watching digital versions of their favourite players dance around their home stadium, as though it is happening right in front of them.

That may sound like child’s play… And for the moment, it largely is. But these fans are growing older, and bringing this different way of ‘consuming’ sport along with them.

Rafts of studies have shown attention spans are rapidly shortening, and just as short-form video has captured young people’s imagination through TikTok, Instagram and YouTube Shorts in recent years, the next generation of sports fans are unlikely to sit through two 45-minute halves without something to pique their interest.

Football will not be behind the curve forever. The potential financial rewards for getting on board with VR and AR will be too alluring to resist before long, as football finance expert Kieran Maguire told Sky Sports.

“A lot will be determined by how football generates money in 20 years,” he said. “At the moment, it’s ticket sales, broadcasting and commercial income.

“Looking forward, there is talk of the rise of the metaverse, VR and AR to bring a match day to people’s homes.”

So will you be sat in a stadium watching a goal through your smart glasses, as the virtual celebrations covered in digital adverts unfurl around you? Do not bet against it.

Stats, games and… sponsors: How things change at the stadium

How AR will change things for fans in grounds is impossible to know for certain. But, as we have mentioned, there is already a growing list of examples already in existence, and that will only get bigger as more companies get involved and the underlying technology advances further.

Barcelona have seen exactly how important tech future-proofing will be to the club and have made it a major part of their ongoing Nou Camp redesign. Head of business development Alex Barbany told Sky Sports the redevelopment would be “a trigger for the next decades to come” as they look to make the most of both AR and the metaverse going forward.

Nou Camp
Barcelona are aiming to future-proof the technology inside their redeveloped Nou Camp, which is due to re-open in 2026

Populous, one of the world’s largest stadium architects, are also well on board and are already in discussions with their partner clubs about how stadiums of the future can best use AR to meet the changing demands of fans.

Managing director Chris Lee told Sky Sports: “We as consumers of sport consume more and more data. We want to understand more and more what our players are doing all the way from what they called in some of our earlier projects smart uniforms, understanding where people are moving and what their heart rates are.

“What’s happening to the player about to take the corner all the way through to predictive AI. We are beginning to see what the potential moves could be as a play is happening live in front of you to some of the discussions we’ve been having about the great thing of how we start mixing live and remote audiences into one space.”

He believes football could follow in the footsteps of the likes of the Abba Voyage concept, where fans do not need to use phones or wear glasses at all to mix the real with the virtual courtesy of advanced holographic imagery.

Lee said: “I think you can see the evolution of the wearable, almost back to the Google Glass, and also the latest hybrid reality headsets by Apple.

The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, opened in 2019, was Populous' biggest recent footballing project
The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, opened in 2019, was Populous’ biggest recent footballing project

“But I really think the future, if we are talking 10 to 20 years, is about how we can have hybrid reality without wearables, and I think that’s what we will see in the next two decades.”

Whether that is the future, or whether fans can be convinced en masse to use wearable technology – anything from glasses to the goggle-like Vision Pro – inside stadiums instead could yet play out as another VHS vs Betamax, or Blu-ray vs HD DVD debate.

Start-up firm ARound, who are behind some of those US-based AR projects we mentioned, have made wearables a key pillar of their future strategy. Founder Josh Beatty told Sky Sports he is confident it is the right approach.

He said: “We know wearables are going to become more and more prevalent. They have two clear use cases – living room and stadium, those are both safe spaces where you want to couple the action, the excitement, with other people.

“We think our view of shared AR is one of the most clear use cases of a wearable device. It’ll be interesting what Apple does with the Vision Pro, with how they’re trying to create presence within sport – we know we can layer on top of that.

Apple's upcoming Vision Pro AR device could help drive fans towards using wearables in stadiums
Apple’s upcoming Vision Pro AR device could help drive fans towards using wearables in stadiums

“Whether that’s giving you that feel while you’re still seeing the streaming, those are nuances we’re still working out.”

Few companies have developed such sophisticated technology for sports fans as ARound. Their apps are used by the LA Rams NFL side and Minnesota Twins in the MLB to give something extra to supporters, through American football mini-games or the ability to track the trajectory of every shot in a baseball game on their cameras.

“It starts with people coming to events to feel closer to the action, to the players and other fans,” Beatty said.

“Especially with younger fans, they’re coming from a gaming background where they like to participate, and we see ourselves as turning the smartphone into a gaming controller for live events. The coupling of the physical and digital is something which is already happening and for young kids, they’re already used to that so they jump in like – this is how it’s supposed to work.

“People have always wanted to get closer to players – that’s why we’ve had playing cards and things down the years, and why live sports are such a strong driver. This is that next step where we now allow people to interact, see other people’s interactions, see that energy and excitement and extend that.

“Baseball is aging up, for example, and has a real need to bring in a younger audience. Fandom is created really between the age of seven and 11, and we allow that audience to become educated, entertained and engaged. At that age, you can create life-long fandom.

“NFL sides are pretty well set with their fans so they’re looking for a return on investment so they can couple not only what’s happening in the stadium, but what they’re trying to achieve with sponsorship and revenue opportunities.

“When there’s a goal or anything that happens, we could automatically drive content associated with it – making brands really come to life and be a part of key moments within a space which can happen automatically.”

Those financial incentives are slowly dragging football on-board too. In 2021, Ligue 1 side Marseille trialled a service by French firm Immersiv.io where fans can use their phone camera – or smart glasses – to click on players on the pitch and unearth a world of metrics, all up-to-the-second, including their best passing options, game heat map and stats like distance covered and dribbles completed.

It all looks very futuristic and exciting – but there is one major hitch.

To make sure that Marseille experiment would work, it was held in an empty stadium. As anyone who has tried to use the internet in a ground on a normal match day will know, getting a signal can be like trying to find a virtual needle in an AR haystack – and these apps would grind to a halt in that environment.

Before that changes, it’s a major challenge for developers.

“We’re rushing really fast into the future of technology, but we still have such limited bandwidth we’re trying to deal with,” warned Beatty. “As much as the introduction of 5G was hyped, we haven’t seen any true progress from where we were five years ago in terms of public bandwidth.

“We’re just focusing on how to be efficient working within the limitations, and not assuming they’re going to open up, unfortunately.”

Much like implementing AR itself, sport will find a solution – especially with the potential revenue streams available through virtual advertising and sponsorship – but the road through the next decades already looks hugely complex.

At home, in the pub… In a replica stadium?

So what about the changing needs of fans who cannot make it to the ground?

The idea of bringing a match day experience to the thousands, sometimes millions of supporters who may never get to the likes of Anfield or Old Trafford is something that has been on club executives’ minds for years, but without the technology to make it a reality.

This is where the rise in VR can come into its own. Where Apple’s Vision Pro headset thrives by overlaying technology onto the real world, alternatives like the Meta Quest or HTC Vive build their own, so you barely believe you are sat on your sofa or in the pub rather than in the stands of the Matthew Harding Stand, for instance.

What is the metaverse?

The “metaverse” is an as-yet hypothetical future version of the internet within as a single virtual world, which users can access using virtual reality and augmented reality.

Manchester City have been working with tech giant Sony since late 2021 on a plan to recreate the Etihad Stadium in the ‘virtual world’ of the metaverse for fans across the world to explore, and potentially watch the treble-winners in action too.

“The whole point we could imagine of having a metaverse is you can recreate a game, you could watch the game live, you’re part of the action in a different way through different angles and you can fill the stadium as much as you want because it’s unlimited, it’s completely virtual,” Nuria Tarre, City Football Group’s chief marketing officer told the i newspaper.

“But also you’re in control of what you want to be watching at that time. There’s not one broadcast point of view, you can look at it through any angle of the stadium. That’s the sky – the limit.”

From a club’s perspective, the investment makes sense. While the real Etihad will accommodate just over 60,000 people when its upcoming expansion is completed, the virtual stadium has no maximum. The amount of tickets they could sell for a ‘virtual’ version of any Premier League game, if they could acquire the rights, is limitless.

For supporters, there is the attraction of being able to interact with other fans – as the proof of concept made by City and Sony you can watch below shows – all while enjoying the best possible views from around the stadium of a Kevin De Bruyne stunner or a questionable penalty decision, in perfect real-time.

One of the more bizarre-sounding predictions of the future which has been mooted could see thousands of fans in different parts of the globe attending watch-along VR events together, either sat wearing headsets or within a physical replica of a stadium itself. It all feels a bit Matrix.

Football finance expert Maguire said: “Why couldn’t Man Utd, for example, have some form of match taking place at Old Trafford physically, and simultaneously being broadcast in some 3D format to New York, Lagos, Melbourne, Beijing and 50,000 fans attending there, other people wearing headsets, with those people willing to pay the equivalent of $30-40 to be in a stadium or $10 to have that experience at home.”

These offerings might not appeal to everyone, but they do present an alternative to being at the game itself. And much like the lure of AR in stadiums, they fit into the next generation of supporters’ growing desire to watch sport on their own terms, with the opportunity to easily mix in games, statistics or other add-ons.

That is a challenge affecting broadcasters too, including Sky Sports. Sky first launched a VR service back in 2016, and in November 2020 streamed its first Premier League VR broadcast, where viewers could switch instantly between four camera views to act as their own match director.

Things have stepped up a gear since then, and will continue to do so as companies take more notice of the potential of these technologies to get ahead of the curve for attracting fans.

Matt McCartney, head of immersive technology for Sky, believes a happy middle-ground will end up as the most accommodating way for viewers to enhance their own experience.

He said: “AR is accessible through just about every smartphone on the planet – and I think for us, if we can work out how to blend the AR components and the data presentation with the broadcast, then it doesn’t break the big screen experience, it complements it. I think that is what that will win in-home ultimately.

“That will bring along the younger audiences and making that more exciting, putting those amplified data elements into it, whether it’s AR overlays, whether it’s creating game-like experiences, whatever it is.”

Without the same infrastructure demands as in a stadium, how far away is mass-adoption of VR and AR for watching sport in the home?

Even with the advances of recent years cost is still a major factor given Apple’s Vision Pro, which made sports broadcasting a cornerstone of its presentation in June, is set to retail at more than £3,000 – but that won’t always be the case.

“I remember when the Blu-ray players first came out, they were about £1,500. Now they’re pretty much free with a box of cornflakes, but that’s what tech does,” McCartney said.

“It comes out expensive and then it works out how to manufacture everything cheaper, and all of a sudden smart wear in 10 to 15 years time I suspect will cost £300 for something very high quality, where everyone can buy it. It won’t be far off the look of a normal pair of glasses.”

The limitations of VR, AR and the metaverse within football are clear – but so are the opportunities.

And though even among the experts we spoke to, the predictions and views on how exactly they will change the fan experience varied considerably, there is no doubt that they will do so, and in a considerable way.

But just as the predicted death of physical books, vinyl records and filament light bulbs were greatly exaggerated, there will always be a place to take in the beautiful game as it was first intended.

As one well-known broadcaster’s marketing slogan once said, ‘It’s only live once’. No matter how many angles you can watch it from.