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How VR Technology is Changing the Game for the NFL



For the last several years’ virtual reality technology has proved a valuable tool in everything from new airline pilot training to treating PTSD for veterans. However, it’s only recently that the NFL has begun see the potential VR could have in upping the game when it comes to recruiting and training.

Recently, Patrick Stroh, President of Mercury Business Advisors and author of Advancing Innovation: Galvanizing, Enabling & Measuring for Innovation Value! and Business Strategy: Plan, Execute, Win!, spoke at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas alongside 14-year NFL veteran, 2001 Super Bowl champion, and current ESPN NFL analyst Trent Dilfer, on what VR could mean for the future of the NFL.

“That technology [VR] has been there. But nobody has thought about applying it to professional sports like this,” said Stroh.

While the technology itself isn’t new, it is a relatively new venture for professional sports. In 2015 only six NFL teams (the Cowboys, Cardinals, 49ers, Vikings, Jets, and Buccaneers) reported using VR in some capacity. In most cases the technology came from Strivr labs, an organization co-founded by Derek Belch, former Sanford student and football player. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers experimented with a VR technology from Eon Sports.

By using an Oculous Rift headset, Strivr technology allows players to study real life plays and reps from a first-person perspective. The company claims that VR provides the opportunity to “get extra practice with coverages and formations, and master the playbook in a fraction of the time.”

Despite a lack of widespread adoption to date, Minnesota Vikings Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater integrated VR technology from Strivr labs into his training regimen during the 2015 season. Last year, the team won the division by going 11-5. Meanwhile Bridgewater’s stats included, 14 TDs (14 in 2014), 9 INTs (12), 3,231 (2,919) total yards and a passer rating of 88.7 (85.2).

“[He] would put on that oculus and go through some VR plays for maybe six minutes during the day,” said Stroh, “So you know, imagine going to your practice for the day and then getting done, taking a shower, getting dressed, throwing on the headset and going through some plays. We know repetition is the mother of skill; he goes through it again and again and again. He’s done six minutes worth of it and he’s just picked up how many gold nuggets out of that?”

During the Consumer Electrons Show, Stroh and Dilfer also mentioned that the old way of prepping for a game was ‘install, film, field,’ however now with the addition of VR, it’s ‘install, film, VR, field.’

By placing players in a simulated situation with 360-degree real-life footage, they are able to better make decisions when it comes to field time.

Using VR means that players can now, “study film from a first-person perspective in an immersive, 360° environment. You may physically be in the classroom, but in the VR headset you’re right back on the field,” according to Strivr labs.

If VR seems to be the way of the future in the NFL, why is it taking so long for other teams to jump on board?

“Think about some of these old school NFL coaches which, God bless them they do a great job, but if they’ve got their specific training regimen that they’ve done for year after year after year, you get some people willing to adopt the technology and some people are just going to stay with the formulas they are familiar with,” said Stroh. “I think it’s a combination of the technology just getting better, a little bit cheaper and then just some early pioneers adopting it.”

While adopting new technologies that could potentially prevent or reduce injuries and better prepare players for game-day seems an obvious choice, going against tradition in a high-stakes game like professional football requires a good deal of due diligence. That due diligence can mean years of trial and error for permanent changes to occur.

“I think it’s probably a fear of the unknown and it’s also just probably these guys have very good and proven methods,” says Stroh. “[Dilfer] was saying, you know there is a very classic approach in every team I’ve been with. You go from install, film, field. You watch film, you figure it out and then you go onto the field. VR technology puts a step right in between.”

One other way, and potentially the more valuable way, in which the NFL is using VR technology is for recruiting purposes. It’s become apparent in recent years, especially at the quarterback position, that the most gifted athletes don’t necessarily make the most qualified and successful players on the field for the long-term.

When analyzing recruits, Dilfer used the example of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, claiming that while they aren’t necessarily the best athletes they succeed because of their decision-making skills and ability to develop mentally. These are the skills teams need to be analyzing for when recruiting, according to Stroh and Dilfer.

“For a football franchise, how can I do a better job of drafting and trading for the right people?” says Stroh when speaking of the role VR could have for GMs.

Referring to a conversation with Dilfer, Stroh said “He’s a huge fan of nurture over nature. He said ‘I get really frustrated when I see all of these GMS, again from behind the sports desk, I see all these GMS and they’re just purely drafting for the best athletes at the QB position. And he said it’s just wrong. They need to be looking at decision making skills.’ The problem is that it’s just really hard to evaluate that today.”

VR could be the ultimate game changer in this case.

It’s apparent that there are many uses for VR in professional sports. However, which teams choose to adopt and integrate it, only time will tell. While its use continues to grow at a more rapid pace within college football, it’s likely going to be more slow moving in the NFL. For now, it’s safe to assume that it’s not going away anytime soon.

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