A Digital Revolution: How Technology is Transforming the Live Sports and Entertainment Experience
December 15, 2022
This article was originally published in Populous Magazine, our biannual publication featuring news and trends from the worlds of sport, entertainment, and major public events. Find out more, and subscribe for free, here.
A proliferation of digital technology – in streaming, online virtual worlds, virtual reality, augmented reality, NFTs – is revolutionising sports and entertainment. Populous designers are at the vanguard of this revolution.
The pace of technological change is faster than ever. Even for the programmers and engineers spearheading this digital revolution, it is difficult to predict which new products and technologies will stick, and which will quickly become outdated. Nonetheless, the world’s major tech companies all envision a future where virtual online environments play an increasingly significant role in how we live, work and play. How will these and other digital technologies affect the various sports, entertainment and public spaces that Populous designs for? In this article, the company’s designers analyse how this digital revolution is changing the way athletes, artists, fans, attendees, broadcasters and venues all interact with live sport and live entertainment – in both bricks-and-mortar venues and virtual venues.
Sometimes, bricks and mortar just aren’t enough. In the future, fans will be able to watch their favourite sports teams, musicians and entertainers through virtual online stadia and arenas, as well as real ones. The Los Angeles Rams is one sports franchise at the forefront of this. In 2022 the reigning Super Bowl champions launched what they call Virtual Rams House, an online venue where fans can attend virtual events and connect with each other online.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Manchester City FC announced plans to create a virtual version of its real stadium, Etihad Stadium. Although it is still at concept stage, the club hopes fans anywhere on the planet will eventually be able to visit an online version of the real stadium – all from the comfort of their own homes.
As a design practice, Populous commonly uses virtual reality technology to bring its venues to life, allowing designers and clients to virtually explore every nook and cranny of a building long before the first brick has been laid. “This engages our clients who can experience their venue in a virtual reality environment instead of poring over two dimensional renderings and plans,” says Nayan Patel, Populous lead in this field for the Europe-Middle East-Africa region. “And for us, as designers, it’s a huge leap forward. It means we can step into our designs and explore them as though they were a physical building. We perceive them in a different way, exploring elements we might not appreciate using traditional design methods.”
In 2022 Populous unveiled designs for a virtual elite training facility for esports team PWR, one of Australia’s leading forces in the video game Fortnite. The project was the brainchild of PWR’s founder and professional gamer, Lachlan Power, who oversaw the creation of a high-performance content and gaming facility hosted on the Fortnite Creative Gaming platform, where it could be fully tested, albeit virtually, before being built in the real world.
Anyone who thinks esports is a passing fad ought to consider the following statistics: video gaming as a sport generates almost US$1.38 billion in global revenues. According to research from gaming data company Newzoo, the audience of live streamers will reach 1.41 billion people by 2025.
Populous has been involved in esports for many years now, having designed the largest dedicated venues in both North America (Esports Stadium Arlington, in Texas) and the Southern Hemisphere (Fortress Melbourne, in Australia). Luke Woolley, the company’s esports lead for the Asia-Pacific region, is convinced that the next generation of augmented reality headsets will transform the experience for fans attending live events. Instead of simply watching a giant screen, fans will use these headsets to view simultaneously the video game action unfolding and the other fans and the arena environment surrounding them.
One of the leading manufacturers in this field is Reality Labs, with its Oculus Quest headsets. “With a headset on, you can see the gameplay in front of you through an augmented reality overlay,” Woolley explains. “But you can also walk around the arena and see all the fans around you having the experience together in a community environment.”
He believes a major catalyst in the development of enhanced headsets will be when esports are included in the Olympic Games. They have already featured as demonstration sports in the Commonwealth Games; and at the 2022 Asian Games (due to be staged in late 2023), eight different esports will be official medal events. “It’s only a matter of time before they feature in the Olympics too,” Woolley adds.
AR and VR in sport
A plethora of new digital technology – including drones, virtual reality headsets, wearables and smartphone apps – is helping spectators enjoy digitally enhanced sports and esports events.
Smartphones, smart TVs and computers are perfect for streaming what’s known as over-thetop media services, in which sports franchises offer exclusive video content unavailable through the traditional broadcast platforms. The demand for this is particularly strong in the United Sates where streaming services such as NFL Game Pass, NBA League Pass, MLB.tv, UFC Fight Pass and WWE Network are all ramping up their offerings.
One of the most innovative sports brands in this field is the NBA. The world-leading basketball league has teamed up with Google to offer basketball fans extra digital content through their mobile phones. Called the Pixel Arena, it allows fans to create their own avatars, watch digital replays, enjoy enhanced statistics, and take part in quizzes.
Sports officiating has benefitted enormously from digital technology, too. At the 2022 FIFA World Cup, for example, offside situations were monitored by a combination of computers, sensors inside the match balls, and cameras dotted around the stadia. (See page 16.)
As venue designers, being able to enhance the live experience for fans and spectators through integrating digital content – be that instant replays, player heartrates, match stats – is incredibly exciting.
What about wearable technology? A recently launched chess league called Armageddon is using heart-rate monitors to show spectators how players’ stress levels fluctuate during matches. And an Israeli company called MindFly has developed a chest-mounted camera that can be worn by athletes in any sport, and used to capture video footage from the field of play.
“We are seeing a blurring of the lines between the physical and digital experiences,” says Jonathan Nelson, Populous’s global head of digital. “As venue designers, being able to enhance the live experience for fans and spectators through integrating digital content – be that instant replays, player heartrates, match stats – is incredibly exciting. Augmented reality isn’t a new concept, but until now we’ve been held back by the technology. For a long time, wearable tech just wasn’t that wearable; it was clumsy and obtrusive. But we are at a stage now where we can legitimately make digital content part of the live experience.”
Demand for the world’s most popular bands and musicians is outstripping supply. The likes of Rihanna, Coldplay, Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran could perform every night of the year, and still sell out all tickets.
One solution to this problem is virtual concerts, enabling bands to perform in multiple venues, in multiple cities, on the same evening. In 2022, for example, American rapper Megan Thee Stallion performed through a virtual reality platform called AmazeVR at several movie theatres around the United States, while Swedish pop legends ABBA are currently performing at a purpose-built arena in London, using holographic avatars instead of their real selves.
Online virtual worlds have been staging concerts, too. American artists Marshmello and Travis Scott have both performed within the online video game Fortnite, while various online platforms have staged concerts for artists such as French composer Jean-Michel Jarre, Canadian pop star Justin Bieber, and American acts Billie Eilish, Foo Fighters, Post Malone and Imagine Dragons.
Populous has been developing similar technology for some time. Nayan Patel, a senior designer in the London office, recently created digital avatars of musicians from a real rock band, allowing them to perform concerts in virtual recreations of real bricks-and-mortar arenas the company had already designed.
The results were stunning. “The design of the atmosphere in these virtual concerts – everything from the lighting to the stage set and the look and feel of the venue – was really well received,” Patel explains. “People who thought they might not enjoy the experience of watching a concert through their computer or smart phone ended up totally engrossed.”
In the old days, when fans used to arrive at a sports or music venue, they would often purchase a souvenir programme as a memento of their experience. In the future, there will be fewer printed mementoes, and many more digital ones. With their unique identification codes, non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, for example, might be considered far more collectible than hard-copy programmes.
Already, NFTs have created a huge impact in sports and entertainment. Millions of dollars have been spent on NFT versions of a photo of basketballer LeBron James, for example, a digital trading card of the Argentinian soccer legend Diego Maradona, an album by American rock band Kings of Leon, and songs and artworks by Canadian musician Grimes.
Populous is ready for meteoric growth in the world of NFTs. The company has already teamed up with a professional esports team in the United States called the Kansas City Pioneers to create animated video NFTs, which were sold to fans.
One of the Populous senior associates on the project was Ezz Osman, in the company’s Kansas City office. He sees a future where NFTs are sold as a type of fan loyalty programme, allowing purchasers special access online to their favourite sports or pop stars. “Fans might be able to create their own avatars, and meet and mingle in a virtual world with avatars of their favourite athletes or musicians,” he explains. “It’s all about connecting at a deeper level.”
Another function of NFTs might be as tickets for live events. Luke Woolley explains how digital tickets with unique identification codes would simplify the ticket resale market. At weekend-long music festivals or day-long sports events, such as tennis, athletics or esports tournaments, fans with front-row seats might decide to leave the venue for a few hours. Using NFT tickets, they could re-sell their ticket via a smartphone, allocating it temporarily to another fan at the same event.
“For esports, for example, the event might be a full day of eight hours of gaming,” Woolley explains. “But you may only want to watch your favourite team for half that time. If you re-sell your ticket through blockchain, both you and the event organisers can get a small commission. Then at the end of the event, the NFT comes back to you as a digital souvenir to keep.”