Why Basketball Is The Perfect Sport for Virtual Reality

James Naismith invented basketball on this day in 1891. He couldn’t have seen VR coming

A VR image from behind the net in last week's Cleveland Cavaliers-Milwaukee Bucks game. Instagram: @NextVR

On this day in 1891, teacher James Naismith sat down and wrote out the rules for a game that he never could have expected would become one of America’s top sporting exports.

He came up with basketball to satisfy several needs, writes Donald S. McDuaig for YMCA International: the game needed to be easy to learn, playable indoors and it needed to involve many players. After some thinking, he wrote down the 13 rules that are the basis of basketball to this day. Those rules were immortalized in this Canadian broadcast commemorating Naismith, who was from Ontario.

Naismith wasn’t setting out to create a game that would become a multi-billion dollar international franchise. He just wanted something that his students would play. The same simplicity that made his students pick up the game is why courtside seats are so prized.

The first try-out of his new game took place a week later, on December 21. Naismith’s handwritten account of that game still exists today. “I felt that this was a crucial moment in my life as it meant [the] success or failure of my attempt to hold the interest of the class and devise a new game,” he writes.

Naismith lived to see basketball take off, even participating in the ceremonial tip-off at basketball’s first appearance as an Olympic sport at the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin. The sport continued to grow in popularity after his death. Today, in a moment where virtual reality is transforming sports, basketball is poised to have a whole new kind of audience.

Virtual reality is transforming the sports industry, writes Ben Dickson for TechCrunch. Nowhere is that truer than the NBA, which broadcast its first VR game--between the Sacramento Kings and the San Antonio spurs--in November. That season-long experiment is part of a larger campaign to use technology to attract fans from all over the world, writes Eddie Guy for Wired.

VR watchers tuned in on headsets that held their phone, and were able to see plays from angles like right underneath the basket. The footage was broadcast from eight camera points in different places, writes K.M. McFarland for Wired: “courtside at the scorer’s table, one under each basket, one in each of the team’s tunnels to the locker rooms, one above the lower bowl which allows a full-court view, and two roving cameras used in spot situations like sideline reports.”

NBA leaders believe that basketball is the perfect sport for this new medium, he writes, because it’s more intimate than the other three big major-league sports: baseball, football and hockey.

“It’s the only one where the players aren’t wearing a helmet or hat that’s a barrier to knowing them as a person,” Dan Gilber, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, told Guy.  “The closer you feel to the players, the more willing you are to further that connection.”

A sport like football lives and dies on technical details played out over a large field, he writes, so television is its perfect medium. But basketball is played on a much smaller space. “Putting a camera in that courtside seat… could give fans a VR experience that far surpasses the current broadcast, drawing them tighter into the league’s web,” he writes.

The NBA has already used social media to build a worldwide fanbase, Guy writes. “The high points of basketball are eminently shareable,” he writes, and the NBA has encouraged fans to share. It’s helped create a fanbase that will never actually be in the same room as a game, but loves it as much as if they were watching it live. Those same fans can be served by VR.

Basketball has come a long, long way since Naismith. But the simplicity he wanted is still making the game a slam dunk for sports fans.

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