Seeing sports in virtual reality

Seeing sports in virtual reality

Michael Berger (BSJ01) has worked at some of the biggest sporting events in the world. The Super Bowl. The Final Four. The Olympics. But after more than 15 years working in traditional broadcast/sports television, he was ready for a new challenge.

And he found one.

Today, Berger is the Executive Sports Producer at Jaunt VR, where he is bringing the excitement and drama of the sports industry into the world of virtual reality (VR).

Berger took time to talk about his current work, the future of virtual reality and sports, and how his Medill education helped get him where he is today.

How would you describe your job description?

I oversee our entire sports vertical and the production/distribution of 360/VR content for the networks, leagues, teams, and publishers with whom we have partnered. I’m also working to expand our sports footprint and leverage existing relationships to create new opportunities, particularly in the branded space.

What made you decide to make the leap into VR?

Frankly I was eager to take on a new challenge at the intersection of technology and content. Producing in a 360-degree environment can be both logistically and ideologically daunting, but the rewards are unparalleled if executed correctly. Not only that, the ability to tell a story in VR and connect with your audience in a fundamentally unique way was something I simply couldn’t pass up.

You’ve spent your career in sports; what do you think makes them such a compelling topic for VR?

There are just certain buckets that are ideal for VR — music, travel, nature, etc. Sports is obviously right at the top of the list. The ability to give fans, as we like to say, “the ticket they can’t buy” and put them inside the locker room or on the field is something that everyone — regardless of age or affiliation — can connect with. And that’s just the experiential component, to say nothing of the individual narratives that drive certain teams, players, and fan bases, all of which can now be brought to life in VR in a entirely new dynamic.

You all were nominated for a Sports Emmy this year. What was the piece you all did that drove the nomination?

One of our key partners is ESPN, and we worked with them last fall on a series surrounding their “College GameDay” franchise. The idea was to give fans a sense of what it was like to be at the biggest college football games of the year if they couldn’t attend in person. Well, it obviously doesn’t get any bigger than Michigan/Ohio State, which proved to be such a successful shoot that we would up creating two separate pieces of content — an experiential piece, and a narrative piece. The latter centered around Ohio State superfan Jacob Jarvis, who has been “adopted” by the football program as he battles Muscular Dystrophy. Through his relationship with Urban Meyer, Jacob is a part of everything the Buckeyes do, from the practice field to the locker room and even on game day. Luckily, we were able to portray just how important Jacob is to the team — and vice-versa — in a piece that was voiced by ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi. Because it was in VR, you were able to actually feel what it’s like to spend every day in a wheelchair, and the joy it brings Jacob to be a part of the Buckeye family. Again, this type of storytelling is what distinguishes VR from traditional mediums and why it can be such an effective tool.

How complicated is it to shoot and produce a sports piece in VR?

As is the case with many 2D productions, every VR shoot is different. Some are single-camera, others are multi-cam projects with different VR rigs. Our most recent shoot with Rob Gronkowski in June (pictured at the top of this story) used two Jaunt One cameras (our own proprietary world-class camera) and another 360 rig called a Z Cam. The most important part of the capture is always remembering that if you can see the camera, you’re on camera. It’s a lesson I’m still learning even after overseeing a number of shoots over the last several months.

As tricky as the capture can be, the post-production process is even more challenging. Our technology suite is among the best in the world, but stitching all 24 cameras together and then rendering out the footage can often be incredibly time-consuming. Not to mention, any edit/fix made in in a 360 environment is never an easy one. We also have to deliver different file formats across all the headset platforms (Playstation, Oculus, Google, Samsung, HTC, etc.) as well as YouTube and Facebook 360. That said, we can turn around footage if necessary in a day or two, but for the editorial process to fully run its course we prefer to have two to three weeks before final delivery.

What makes the cameras you’re using so unique?

We have our own stereoscopic camera (the Jaunt One), which is the world’s premier professional VR camera system for capturing cinematic VR experiences. Additionally, we have our own cloud-based stitching system and a full post-production technology stack, which includes a distribution platform through our app that is viewable on all the major headsets. In terms of the camera itself, it features 24 individual lens modules that can shoot 120 frames per second with 8K output upon delivery (4K per eye). We obviously prefer to use our rig given its capabilities, but Jaunt Studios (where I’m based in Santa Monica, Calif.) continues to embrace using other 360 camera systems (Nokia, Google, Nikon, etc) depending on the shoot and its parameters.

What do you think the future of VR and sports looks like?

Most of the questions I get asked about sports and VR surround live playback capabilities. As in, “when can I just sit on my couch and feel like I’m in the front row?” The truth is, you can do that right now, but the technology still has a long way to go. We’ve come to expect so much from our sports broadcasts — music, replays, graphics, social, etc — and the VR infrastructure simply doesn’t exist yet to be able to recreate that on a nightly basis. That said, it’s just a matter of time, but in the interim we’re having tremendous success with access-based, post-produced content that truly resonates with both fans and sponsors alike.

Looking back on your career, what would you say you’re most proud of?

I’m fortunate to have worked at some of the biggest events in the world. Those marquee productions require tremendous planning and effort from so many different people, and I was always proudest to share in the collective success with all of them upon completion. That said, I’m equally as proud of the two Emmy nominations I received this year — one for the aforementioned ESPN/Jacob Jarvis piece, and another for producing NFL Network’s flagship show “NFL Total Access” (I left the NFL to join Jaunt this past November). Again, it’s all about collaboration, and I was lucky to work with some incredibly talented people both at the NFL and in my current role.

How do you think your time at Medill helped prepare you for where you are today?

My Medill education was invaluable in helping shape my editorial sensibility. No matter where I’ve worked or what the project was, I’ve always tried to ask the right questions and constantly think like a producer, even when assigned the most menial of tasks. Even now as I navigate a brand new space that is changing by the minute, the foundation of a Medill education gives me confidence that I’ll be able to succeed.

What advice would you give to a journalism student who wants to be involved in the sports industry?

Identify a place that will let you tell stories — newspaper, magazine, blog, network, team, agency, etc. — and get to work. Find an angle or niche that you connect with and try to distinguish yourself accordingly. If you can’t latch on somewhere, work independently and keep knocking on doors until someone finally answers. And don’t be afraid to use a connection or someone already established in the industry to help you break through. We’ve all been there.