GeekWire Podcast: We tested Microsoft’s virtual fan experience at an NBA game — here’s how it works

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GeekWire’s Taylor Soper watches from the virtual stands as the Portland Trail Blazers take on the L.A. Lakers in the NBA playoffs on Thursday night. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

If you’ve seen fans appearing on live video on the sidelines of this year’s NBA playoffs, powered by Microsoft Teams, you might have wondered exactly how it works. So did we! GeekWire’s Taylor Soper got a chance to try it out this week, cheering from the virtual stands, and we talk about the experience on this week’s GeekWire Podcast episode.

Listen below, subscribe in your favorite podcast app, and continue reading for an edited transcript.

Todd Bishop: Hey everybody, it’s GeekWire Editor Todd Bishop here with Managing Editor Taylor Soper. This week, we’re going to talk about one story that I think has both of us really intrigued. Taylor, you just finished a unique experience, combining sports with the times that we’re in. You were in the virtual stands to watch the Portland Trail Blazers, your hometown NBA team, play against the Los Angeles Lakers. You were there, I saw you on TV, and yet you weren’t there. I have so many questions about this experience. But first, I just want you to explain what you did tonight.

Taylor Soper: Well, I went to Game 2 of an NBA playoff matchup, kind of. As you mentioned, it was a unique experience. Microsoft and the NBA signed a big partnership earlier this year. They implemented this pretty cool feature that takes advantage of Microsoft Teams and the fact that there are no fans allowed at NBA games right now. They’re playing in the so-called “Bubble” down near Orlando, Fla. So there are no real fans. But Microsoft and the NBA came up with the idea to use Microsoft Teams, their collaboration software, and allow fans to virtually be at the game. The end result is about 300 fans each game have their little head in the stands that you can see on the broadcast. And they take advantage of a feature in Teams called Together mode that just came out this summer.

All in all, it was a really, really cool experience. And I know you have tons of questions, and I would love to talk about this. There’s a lot of potential here.

Bishop: This is great. So I want to go through your experience, but I want to clarify, this is not the lame cardboard cutouts behind home plate in baseball. This is live video in the stands, you’re seeing fans react in near real time, it seems like, to what’s going on on the court because you’re seeing it on your computer screen. And there you are, basically your upper torso or your face or your head, you’re right there and you’re visible on the NBA broadcast. I froze it and it was like, there’s Taylor, there’s Taylor! So this is not the lame baseball thing. I want to make that clear. This is really interesting. I think the NBA has done something really cool here, at least from a fan-at-home experience. So Taylor, walk us through what it was like to be a virtual fan in the stands for this NBA game.

Soper: I worked with the NBA and Microsoft to get into the game. It’s a little bit difficult because there’s only 300 seats per game, but I got in. I got an email with instructions for what to do. I have to say, the instructions are quite exhaustive, especially if you’re not tech savvy, or even a little bit used to software, especially the new software that we’ve all been using more and more because of the pandemic.

You had to download Microsoft Teams, first of all, and then you had to go into the calendar and join the event that they had created. And then once you get in the event, you have to wait for the host to allow you in. And then once the host allows you in, you get into this section. I believe there are 10 sections per game with about 30 virtual seats in them. From there, you can pin the broadcast feed. So, what it appears like from the fan perspective is you’ve got the TV broadcast feed as one widget, right alongside the section of fans that you’re sitting with. It’s basically 30 little heads and you on one part of the screen, and then the actual live feed of the game on the other half of the screen, plus the chat stream on another little part of the screen. So it’s all right there.

Once you get in and you’re in, it’s really slick, really impressive. And if you have problems, there’s an NBA moderator in each room to kind of answer questions, which I thought was a nice touch.

Bishop: Did they purposefully seat you in a section with other Portland Trail Blazers fans?

Soper: I thought they might, you know, win some brownie points with me so I’d write good things about Microsoft, but in fact, it was the opposite. I was with Lakers fans. It was very annoying to experience the game sitting around virtual Laker fans. But you know, I was happy to just experience it and be there. It’s kind of funny to be that one fan, it was like as if I was at an away game, wearing the away team’s uniform and being the loud person that cheers and everyone else is pissed off.

Bishop: So the fans in that section could hear each other audibly?

Soper: That’s a good question. I was wondering about that going in. And yes, they let you mute or unmute yourself. You can hear everyone talking and you can interact with each other, which I thought was interesting.

The moderator lays down ground rules at the beginning: no cursing and no holding up signs because when the game’s going on the broadcast, they want to show the faces and if a bunch of people are holding up signs, you know, it’s going to look a little bit awkward. And so no signs, no foul language or the moderator will kick you out.

My experience was smooth. No one was causing any ruckus. It was really kind of funny talking to their fans before the game, during the game. The Lakers, when they did well, a bunch of people start clapping. When the Blazers scored, it was me and like one other person that were happy. It was kind of funny, watching the game but also watching the fans and seeing how everyone interacted. At one point, there were two fans sitting next to each other trying to virtually high five each other. That was pretty funny. There are all these new ways to interact with each other while you watch the game. But at the same time, it did also feel like you’re actually at the real game.

Bishop: It did? You’re saying it did feel like that?

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Soper: In some ways, when you’re with the fans, and you’ve got the game there and you’ve got the reaction. LeBron James has a big dunk and then the 30 or so fans, everyone’s cheering really loud and you kind of have that feeling of togetherness, if you will.

Bishop: Wow!

Soper: You know, that’s what sports is all about. It’s really an interesting experiment to replicate the fan experience in the arena. This has been tried before with virtual reality and other things. This is definitely a step up.

Bishop: Wow, Taylor, you’re giving this sports-loving geek goosebumps here. This sounds like I could feel what it’s like to sit in the stands at an NBA game again! I mean, let alone the fact that that’s not even possible in our city anymore. I should say though, I love the WNBA. It’s one of my favorite sports. Huge Sue Bird fan. I mean, I love those games. But even that can’t happen right now for anybody and you’re saying that this felt to you at least something like you would feel sitting in the Rose Garden or the Staples Center.

Soper: We go to live sports events partly because we like to have that shared social experience and you kind of lose that when you’re just watching at home by yourself. It wasn’t the exact same thing as going to the game, getting a beer, getting a hot dog, sitting down with your family or a friend and high fiving the guy next to you, or the gal next to you. But it was definitely closer than anything I’ve experienced in terms of just watching the game at home. And it really felt like the future in a lot of ways as we see games moving to streaming services versus watching on the traditional TV. You start to incorporate chat features and video conferencing software like Microsoft Teams or Zoom. I think companies and leagues have dabbled around this and done different features around this idea. But this is very interesting, especially considering the times that we’re living in right now where we can’t even go to the actual game.

Bishop: Was anybody mean? Because it can get pretty mean. I’ve been at Staples Center for a Lakers game, and I’ve seen a fight. I mean, were these polite fans or what was the mood like?

Soper: I was expecting some kind of trash talk or intensity, but people were pretty polite. People were kind of dancing around, just having normal chatter about the players, about basketball. It was light and it was fun. And the moderator was there. I think if it got nasty or there was foul language, you get kicked out. There were kids in there, kind of talking a little bit of trash. But yeah, it was fairly clean and smooth. I definitely had that concern. I think a couple times I chimed in and tried to ignite the flames a little bit, but no one really took my bait.

Bishop: What do you think it would have been like if the Blazers had been just trouncing the Lakers?

Soper: I would have been much more vocal for sure and instead I was quiet because it was the opposite. But yeah, people were nice. I don’t know if that was just because we’re sitting in front of our computer screens. Some might think that people would be more nasty because they have the computer screen and they’re not actually next to people.

Bishop: Right. That said, they are sitting on national TV, you’re a bit in the spotlight there and I can see where that would be something where’d you want to be more well behaved as one of 300 versus one of 10,000 or whatever is in an NBA arena these days.

Soper: To that point, that’s one of the special things about this experience. You get to be sitting virtually in those special almost-courtside seats where, you know, if you are sitting in those seats in a regular game, you call up your buddies: “Hey, I’m going to be sitting in like row 5, check me out on the broadcast.” This has kind of that same experience. And so during the game, people were like, “Hey, are you guys’ friends hitting you up about how you’re on TV?” and “Where are we on the broadcast?” Todd, you paused your stream, and you saw me there. That was awesome. So there was kind of that star feeling of like really being there. I think that just added to the experience of what this whole thing is all about.

All around, a lot of different, new, innovative things happening here. A win for the NBA, I would say, and for Microsoft as well. Microsoft has dabbled in various sports, perhaps the most known is the NFL with the Microsoft Surface tablets on the sidelines. This is an interesting software play, whereas the Surface is more a hardware thing. Really interesting. And it’s a good marketing play for Microsoft to promote Teams.

Bishop: That is really interesting. First off, that’s a great point, Taylor, about the distinction between software and hardware. This is much more Microsoft’s bread and butter. When the Surface tablets were getting thrown on the sidelines or the announcers were calling them iPads, it was a bit of a sideshow. That was not Microsoft’s core business, really. And hardware is not their thing.

But this is where they’ve got to prove themselves if they’re going to truly be this company that is essentially providing productivity technology for the new generation of applications, which Teams is. And this is a feature called Together mode that is going to be available to others as well. Basically it just places you against a common background instead of putting you into boxes, like you are in Zooms or other modes of Teams or other video chat and collaboration apps, like Google Hangouts, Google Meet. Instead of putting you in those boxes, it’s putting you against the common backgrounds, such as stands for the sports games, or they are also offering a classroom mode, so kids are going to get used to this. You got to really give Microsoft some credit here for actually doing something that has caught on in their core business. I think this is a real coup for the company, despite the fact that they seated you with a bunch of Lakers fans.

Soper: Yeah, big mistake there, Satya. I’ll forgive you on that one.

But yeah, to your point, the NBA is doing this and you might see other sports leagues asking Microsoft: Hey, can you do this for us? And then you start seeing maybe other companies that are holding big events or conferences or their internal events doing the same thing. It’s definitely a smart move here by Microsoft as part of their deal with the NBA, which goes beyond just this virtual fan thing. They’re doing a lot of work around Azure, their cloud service, and a bunch of other things. So this is just the beginning of a partnership between the two companies.

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Bishop: Yeah, now it is a high-profile, high-stakes kind of partnership, and there will no doubt be a blue screen of death at some point. It’ll be the virtual equivalent of Bill Belichick throwing the Surface down on the sidelines. It’ll happen. It’s bound to happen.

Soper: Good point.

Bishop: Do we know how everyday people can get in on this?

Soper: That is a question I’ve been trying to get an answer for, and what I’ve found is that it varies each game. How they’re doing in the playoffs for the NBA is they are still designating a home team. From what I understand the home team kind of has control over who gets access to these games. In terms of the virtual fans for this particular game I was in, in my section the crew was invited by 2K, the company that makes the NBA 2K video game. And so I think the teams dole out the seats however they choose whether it’s maybe season ticket holders or sponsors.

Bishop: Oh, these are the suites!

Soper: These are the suites. Another way for the teams to make good with a sponsor or those special fans.

Bishop: Season ticket holders, important people in the community. That makes total sense. It’s such a privileged thing. This is not democratic here. We’ve got to call that out. If that is really the way the access works. It sounds like it varies depending on the game, the time of the season, but still, this is a little bit elitist.

[Editor’s Note: Since recording the episode, we learned that fans can visit ultracourtside.com for a chance to win a seat. Microsoft and the NBA also extend offers and invitations to community groups, fans with NBA.com accounts, NBA TV subscribers and other fans.]

Bishop:  Is this the kind of experience though that you would want to have every game? I think that’s an important question. Is this more of a novelty to you in the end, Taylor? Or is it something that you’re going to miss the next time you watch a game on TV?

Soper: That is the million dollar question, especially as you look at technologies that we’ve adopted, or technologies that have accelerated in use due to the pandemic. I think the big question people are asking, you know, is this temporary? Or is this going to be a permanent change?

With this, I don’t know. I was wishing that I had five or 10 of my Blazers buddies in the same room with me there. I would even pay a couple bucks, or five bucks or something to be able to just have that experience with them. So when you talk about being able to customize the experience, and as we cut the cord, and we look for new ways to watch games that aren’t through our cable package, but maybe through YouTube TV or Prime Video on Amazon … you start talking about real possibilities of people paying money for these types of experiences that you can just fire up on your computer or your phone. I actually want to get into that a little bit later in terms of the form factor and how this experience changes when you’re on your phone versus your laptop. But, to your question, I don’t know if this is going to stick but I think the next game I watch by myself on a TV or computer, I’ll maybe be missing that experience of having other people watching with me.

Bishop: Wow. OK. I’ve got our next great startup idea, Taylor. Why aren’t Microsoft and the NBA offering this as a service? This is my startup idea. The thing you just said about your friends, you sitting in a virtual room, watching the game together. Wouldn’t that be amazing? And I know there are things like this, like RealNetworks has this service that spun out called Scener, where you sit there and you watch shows with your friends. But to me, having something like that for “Game of Thrones” or whatever, that’s obnoxious. I don’t want anybody yammering at me while I’m watching a show. I want to hear it, you know. But for a basketball game, this is perfect. It’s perfect. Somebody’s got to be offering this, right? I’m just missing it?

Soper: I thought this was our big startup idea. You’re telling the whole world.

Bishop: This has to be done. I mean, this sounds like a great thing. This must exist, right? It must exist.

Soper: The NBA started offering à la carte options a few years ago. For the regular season, at least, you can buy individual games. That was before this whole Teams integration and adding the experience of watching with your friends.

This is definitely something that people would pay for, being able to do it with your family and friends and firing it up really easily on your computer and having that social experience together. The big takeaway here is there are a lot of possibilities both on the tech innovation side, but also from a business perspective. When you think about how many sports fans there are and how people love their teams, and how we like to watch with our family members and friends and just fellow fans. You think about the possibilities here. Seems like Microsoft’s onto something.

Bishop: Just in general, this idea, obviously Microsoft did something interesting. I heard a whole presentation with Jaron Lanier, the virtual reality guru — many people call him the father of virtual reality — who now works in Microsoft Research. And he was one of the leaders of the research into this whole concept of Together mode and the benefits that people feel when they’re not confined in boxes, and they’re actually put up against the shared background.

I could see this generally being something that Microsoft adopts in different settings — like we said, schools, but also I just think this whole idea, I don’t think this is going to be exclusive to them. Eventually we’re just going to look across the room and we’re going to see the person’s avatar. I mean, that’ll be our shared background. So I think it’s just the natural progression of things is to get us out of these boxes.

Taylor, you mentioned earlier that the experience is different on mobile versus laptop. In what way?

Soper: They recommend that you do this on your laptop, I think probably for latency reasons. There could be lag if you’re just trying to run it on your phone, but also just to have the experience of the feed plus Microsoft Teams on the side, just having that bigger screen. It made me think of our podcast last week when we talked about Microsoft’s newest hardware, the Surface Duo, which is basically this kind of Moleskine, but it’s two screens put together. They don’t want you to call it a phone, but it’s kind of a phone. One of the selling points Microsoft is putting out about the Duo is to have two apps running at the same time.

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Bishop: Oh! Of course!

Soper: And so I was thinking, this would be a perfect application, where you have the game on one screen of the Duo and then you have the virtual fans on the other screen, right?

Bishop: They have to be thinking about this. I haven’t thought about this before, they must be doing this. If they’re not doing this, they would be crazy not to be coming up with … in fact, maybe it’s been already reported, and we’re just talking about something that’s already happening as if it’s some brilliant idea. I just got to say, having the game on one screen, and the beauty of that is then it’s on your couch. Or it’s out in your backyard — I guess maybe the more appropriate setting at this point. But at any rate, I think it’s very interesting. I would like that.

Soper: Experiencing the game tonight made me appreciate that form factor a little bit, when you have the two screens and two apps running. You think about being in the classroom, it’d be nice to have, the PowerPoint slides going by on one screen. I mean, it’s similar to how we work and a lot of people work today where you have an external monitor and your laptop. But I guess Microsoft’s pitch for the Duo is, you put it all on one device.

Bishop: Yeah, they’ve got to be looking at a variety of modes for Together mode with different applications: OneNote, streaming, games. This seems like potentially a very interesting app for the Surface Duo, the dual-screen device that they’re coming out with. That sounds like a killer app to me, if that is executed correctly, and if you can get from it the kind of feeling that that you were describing. So anyway, they really suggest that you do it on a laptop or desktop computer.

Soper: Yeah, I think primarily maybe for latency. I know some of the folks that experienced this earlier in the playoffs complained that the lag was pretty bad. I experienced a little bit of lag and it was definitely annoying when it happens, because you hear the broadcasters keep talking and there’s a little hiccup in the actual action and you missed the basket. Those kind of instances can make you never want to do this again. But it wasn’t that bad for me. I had TweetDeck and Slack and a bunch of other things running so that may have caused that. But overall, the stream worked pretty well for me. Teams was working well. I don’t use Teams really at all and it was fairly easy for me to kind of get around and figure out how it works.

I feel like we could just keep talking about this. There are so many different possibilities that you can envision here. And yeah, I love talking about it because it’s sports.

Bishop: So my last question for you, what really was the most compelling part of the experience for you? Was it seeing yourself on TV? Was it being around other fans, albeit Lakers fans, and the camaraderie you felt there that might be similar somewhat to being in the stadium? What was it that was most compelling about the experience to you?

Soper: As a tech reporter, and a geek who loves technology, the most compelling thing about this was just having the feed on my computer, with the virtual fans alongside. Combining all of these different aspects together in one screen versus the traditional way where you just watch the broadcast and that’s it. And I say that because Twitch, an Amazon-owned streaming service, they stream NFL games. They did something similar to this about two years ago where you could stream football games, and have a stat widget right on top of the feed. And you could place bets on how many points were going to be scored in the first half, or how many yards the running back was going to have in the first quarter. That really sparked my mind to, wow, in terms of when we talk about gambling being legalized with sports and making it really easy for people to bet on sports through their computer while they watch the game.

Point being, when you can incorporate these different features with the actual live broadcast happening, that’s when I think this really explodes. And I think a lot of people have been saying, you know, streaming is the future of live sports. And this is where you start to see the social aspects, the statistics that you can kind of incorporate. There’s a company called Second Spectrum that we’ve followed closely that Steve Ballmer is closely involved with, down with the Clippers in L..A, where they do animations and really cool augmented reality on top of the live game. So combining all these really cool, software-enabled features with the live game, you start to see this is what watching sports is going to be like in the next two, five, 10 years.

Bishop: What was the worst part about it?

Soper: Being with all Laker fans. That sucked. And the Lakers crushed the Blazers. That made it even worse and I left. I left with five minutes left. I never do that.

Bishop: All right everybody, that is Taylor Soper. He is GeekWire’s managing editor and a diehard Portland Trail Blazers fan from birth, I think. And we are talking about the experience he had as a virtual fan at the Blazers and Lakers game here on Thursday night and what it means about the future of tech. You can read all of his thoughts and his wrap-up on GeekWire.com and see images of what it looked like, including the image that I got of Taylor from my own TV set of his little face up there.

I do want to say one last thing, Pro tip for anybody who does get on to the virtual sidelines for these games. Don’t sit back from your camera. Taylor, you’re a company guy. You wore your GeekWire shirt. You’re promoting the company. It’s wonderful. It’s great. It’s appreciated, but you couldn’t really see you. I think for people who get onto the virtual sidelines, move up close to the camera and you’ll be able to see your face. I thought it was way better when you did that.

Soper: Thank you. Shout-out to my dad who recommended that. That definitely made a difference.

READ MORE: I was a virtual NBA fan: What it’s like to cheer from the digital sidelines in Microsoft Teams

Editing and production by Curt Milton.

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