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Moving up a gear

Insight | Analysis

5G is coming, and it’s going to change the sports experience forever, says DataArt’s Russell Karp.

Anyone who has attended a major sporting event knows that mobile use is so high that it strains the cell phone infrastructure. Sports and mobiles go hand in hand. 5G, in combination with virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR) is set to revolutionize the mobile experience, and the sports industry is likely to be among the earliest adopters. So how, exactly, will sports be changed? 

There will be more interactive experiences at events
Interactive experiences at major sporting events are growing. Auto racing fans can watch stretches of the circuit that are out of sight on their phones. At Super Bowl LII, Verizon was testing AR and VR applications designed to improve the experience of the audience. And, of course, such virtual experiences may not be limited to those who can physically attend the event. 

At a more basic level, the increased bandwidth of 5G will allow plenty of space and prevent the cell system from becoming overloaded during major events, ensuring that people can upload their videos and photos and send social media posts without a problem. While not everyone will want to don a VR headset in the stadium, AR brings the prospect of access to graphic overlays through smart glasses, checking stats without taking your eyes from the action and continuing to watch the game while waiting in line for a beer. 5G will make these experiences seamless. 

You’ll be able to watch the game from anywhere
Improved mobile streaming will increase sports viewing from locations other than homes, hotel rooms and sports bars. 5G speeds are faster than most home broadband, so the use of phones as hotspots to enable the use of larger screens is likely to become more mainstream. The option of using VR goggles for the in-stadium or on-field experience may force stadiums to offer more to fans in order to sell tickets. 

Ultimately, 5G speeds may even allow games to be displayed holographically. Imagine your Super Bowl party is you and your friends gathered around a table watching the entire game as if it was live, with no latency. 

Content itself will be more interactive, enabling viewers to get a ball’s eye view of the game. The helmet cams already used to provide driver POV in auto racing may be extended to horse racing. And VR technology will allow personalization. What if not everyone in the room wants to see the same view of the game? Not a problem.

Athletes will benefit too
5G and VR technologies will initially change how athletes train, then trickle down to the consumer level, benefiting not just the elite but everyone. Athletes will be able to train indoors using VR headsets, and practice with teammates who are out of town, or with people from other teams. For football players, virtual training may be conducted with less physical contact and thus lower risk of injury. Soccer players sometimes get micro concussions from too much heading of the ball, something that could be significantly reduced by training with virtual balls. 

Coaches will be able to show players multi-angle video replays, so they know where to improve.

Likewise, the same technology could be used by referees and officials to reduce the number of false calls (although not the number of armchair officials arguing about said calls!) 

As 5G becomes ubiquitous, this technology will become affordable to everyone. Right now, a helmet camera costs about $200, and that price is coming down. 5G-enabled cameras could be worn by all team members.

Esports will explode
Esports is already the big new thing and, for an esports player, network connectivity is as important as talent. In some parts of the world, teams go on training trips to places with better internet—South Korean team MVP. Hot6ix even flew to Singapore to play during one tournament. 

Combined with new AR and VR hardware, the 5G experience may allow for virtual reality games that combine both physical sports and esports. Right now, AR games are limited, but imagine a game in which the players travel through a real city on a virtual scavenger hunt, perhaps using VR to ‘shoot’ targets or collect objects at specific locations. Some new 5G handsets will be specifically designed to play games. There are already some gaming-optimized phones, but 5G is likely to make them more common. The words ‘professional gaming phone’ are not yet in the vocabulary, but they could be. 

Sports betting will go truly mainstream
Fantasy games are already going mobile, and VR technology could allow for actual ‘games’ played using the stats of real players in a virtual reality format. When 5G goes mainstream, so will sports betting.

At the track, more and more pundits are already using apps to place their bets rather than going to the window. Mobile gambling reduces the risk of failing to get a bet in time or of missing something while talking to the teller. Low-latency and higher connectivity open a door for more diverse in-play betting options, such as casual voting on whether a certain player will make a certain shot. That is exactly what real-time sports gamblers want. 

Sports betting platforms will be able to integrate video streaming into their apps, letting fans watch live games as they bet. Likewise, sports media and broadcasters might add sports wagering to their list of interactive features. Inevitably, with the resulting increased availability of gambling, there will be increased complexity and it will be important to keep this gaming activity above board and legal.  

5G will start to roll out for real in 2020, and it might well be that the next Olympics will be the first sporting event with full VR and AR support. From there on, things will get very interesting. Sports coverage was a driving factor in the development of cable television and is set to have the same impact on 5G adoption and development. Strap in for the ride. 

Russell Karp is vice-president of media and entertainment at DataArt, a global technology consultancy that designs, develops and supports unique software solutions for its clients.

Recognized for deep-domain expertise and superior technical talent in creating new products and modernizing complex legacy systems, DataArt has been partnering with global sports betting companies for almost a decade. During that time, the firm has helped operators significantly change  the sports betting market by offering broader choices and better pricing to their customers. Clients include Paddy Power Betfair, Evolution Gaming, Glück Games and Playtech.