LOS ANGELES—Virtual Reality (VR) comes once again to the boxing ring Saturday (Nov. 14) with Fox Sports’ production of the Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) fight pitting Amilcar Vidal against Edward Ortiz.
Facebook Watch will present the VR fight via its Venues app to users of the Oculus Quest VR headset. Quest wearers tuning in for the fight will experience the match as if they were onsite witnessing the sights and sounds for themselves.
The fight, the first of three VR events Fox Sports will produce for Facebook, will be shot with 4K cameras dedicated to the VR production. Oculus Quest users will be able to interact with one another in the VR environment and watch replays in virtual windows in their environment.
“You as a virtual reality viewer become an avatar in this virtual environment,” says Michael Davies, senior vice president, Technical and Field Operations, at Fox Sports. “You are watching the fight from a kind of virtual amphitheater that you can move around in.”
“Just in front of you is this great big screen, essentially, that is the virtual reality programming. So, it is a mixture of VR and interactive elements,” he says.
Boxing is particularly well-suited to good VR production because “the playing field is so small,” says Davies.
“Years ago [in 2016], we did a boxing event and right at the beginning of our package we used NextVR,” he says. “We learned some things about shooting boxing in VR like the best camera placement.”
For Saturday’s fight, four 4K cameras will be used—one in a neutral corner, another ringside next to one of the judges and a third as a “wild cam” that can be moved around for shots of the boxers walking to the ring and other interesting viewpoints. The fourth, as of this writing, has not been assigned a location, says Davies.
The four cameras will feed a special VR production workflow that is separate from the linear show that will air on FS1 (Fox Sports 1) at 8 p.m. ET. Switching the VR production is similar to a standard video production with one important distinction: speed. “We do it a little bit slower as not to cause too much vertigo [for the VR viewer],” says Davies.
“What works better with VR is to allow the scene play out in front of you versus trying to follow the action too much. It just takes your senses a little bit of time to acclimate to each shot,” he says. “So, we’d like to find a good shot and stay on it for a while and only switch when absolutely necessary.”
Graphics are added to the VR production as are replays from the linear production. The VR show director views a typical multiviewer with video that’s “like a very stretched picture” to call the shots for the show. Another production crew member is in the VR experience to ensure not only the quality of the production but also that it looks good in the Venues amphitheater, he says.
Audio for VR productions is particularly important. “We learned, and I think everybody learned when we were doing VR for the first time a few years ago, that there still very much is a need for storytelling in VR,” says Davies.
The sound mix, including audio from the VR camera mics, natural sound from the linear show and announcer audio, will help keep VR viewers grounded in the environment and move the story of the fight along. However, unlike the linear show, the production will have no commercials.
To keep VR viewers engaged during commercial breaks, Fox Sports announcers will engage with Oculus Quest wearers to answer questions and talk over the fight.
Fox Sports then will hand off the VR production to Facebook to place into the Venues environment, says Davies.
Producing a separate VR show is a rather low-profile endeavor and poses no threat of interfering with the linear show, notes Davies, who adds that the evolution of virtual reality has been impressive.
“We’ve probably gotten about 15 or 20 VR shows under our belt over the years,” he says. “So, it’s satisfying to see that VR is marching along and improving with every manifestation. Boxing is a good place to showcase it once again and see what everybody thinks.”
(Editor’s note: Fox Sports and Facebook will also present two more PBC matches, to be determined, on Nov. 21 and Dec. 16.)
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