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Can the NFL push virtual reality into the mainstream?

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One of the obstacles to virtual reality becoming mainstream is the lack of successful content to attract audiences. The NFL and two ex-football players are trying to change that.

A few years ago, Troy Jones, who played a college quarterback, and Andrew Hawkins, a former NFL player, introduced the League and the NFL Players Association into a virtual reality video game. The duo, founders of StatusPro, won the licenses earlier this year, and last week the NFL Pro Era appeared for download on Meta Quest 2 and Sony PlayStation VR.

“We know what it’s like on the field,” said Hawkins, the company’s president, in an interview on the latest episode of Business of Sports, the podcast series from Bloomberg Quicktake. Their goal is to “make sure every fan of the game gets to experience this as well, and it’s this technology that made that possible.”

Consumer adoption of virtual reality is gaining momentum as retail prices for headphones drop, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. The researcher said hardware sales could triple to more than $7 billion by 2024. A game featuring NFL players, teams, and stadiums could expand audiences.

One of the most successful franchises in gaming history is Electronic Arts’ Madden NFL, which holds exclusive video game licenses to the NFL and NFLPA. And like Madden, the NFL Pro Era has a star player — in Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson — to be the face of the game.

“Content goes hand in hand with any device, and sports are probably what brings the most diverse group of people together,” said Jones, CEO of StatusPro. “I think a lot of people will try virtual reality for the first time” after the game’s launch, he said.

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Jones and Hawkins initially created the VR experience as a training tool. They beat the coaching staff by promoting the product as a way for players to get virtual reps in the off-season when the rules don’t allow for personal practices. Defensive coaches first used the technique as a way to gain more experience for players in defining offensive formations and lining up before catching the ball.

“We sat in the lab, and we were like, ‘Situation after situation, coach after coach — how do we make their work easier? ” said Hawkins, who played for the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns in the NFL.

After seeing the positive response from players, the company saw an opportunity to introduce the experience to the fans. The gameplay puts the player in the shoes of an NFL quarterback who breaks the pool, takes a shot and looks for receivers at the bottom of the field, while trying to avoid being sent off by the defense.

“You get to appreciate when you see that quarterback has to get out of the pocket, extend play, and find a receiver with 280 pounds of players running around and chasing them,” Jones said.

While time will tell if this game speeds up adoption of VR headsets, StatusPro is already considering expansion.

“We want to create these experiences across sports, not just football,” Hawkins said. To make games that “make people say, ‘I want to try virtual reality. I want to put myself in this scenario.”

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