City hope to fill the virtual Etihad Stadium several times over, allowing fans to watch live games from anywhere in the world
Manchester City have begun building the world’s first football stadium inside the metaverse with the help of virtual reality experts at Sony.
Using image analysis and skeletal-tracking technologies created by Hawk-Eye, a subsidiary of the tech and entertainment giant, the club’s stadium will become the central hub of City in a virtual reality world.
Club officials working on the project envisage a time when City can fill a virtual Eithad Stadium several times over, allowing supporters who may never go to Manchester to watch live games from the comfort of their own homes anywhere in the world.
The Premier League’s digital pioneers have signed a three-year deal with Sony and, though work is still in its infancy, teams of the company’s experts have already visited the Etihad to map it digitally and recreate it in virtual reality.
What is the metaverse?
The metaverse is essentially a virtual reality version of the internet that participants can explore as digital avatars.
Facebook is taking the lead on bringing it to reality and is aiming to create “a set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you”.
If Facebook is successful, visitors to these virtual spaces will be able to work, play, learn, shop, create and hang out with friends, among other activities.
Other ideas being explored involve fans meeting players in the metaverse, interacting with one another and purchasing products that are not available in real life.
“The whole point we could imagine of having a metaverse is you can recreate a game, you could watch the game live, you’re part of the action in a different way through different angles and you can fill the stadium as much as you want because it’s unlimited, it’s completely virtual,” Nuria Tarre, City Football Group’s chief marketing and fan engagement officer, tells i.
“But also you’re in control of what you want to be watching at that time. There’s not one broadcast point of view, you can look at it through any angle of the stadium. That’s the sky – the limit.”
The metaverse is currently accessed through a headset and navigated via hand controllers. Developers working within football and virtual reality believe the technology would currently allow for a match to be replicated in a digital version, similar to how the Fifa video game looks, but that in future fans could watch real games played within a virtual stadium.
“It’s not too far off,” says Andy Etches, co-founder of Rezzil, a company that has developed the metaverse game Player 22 used by Premier League clubs to train players. “We could pretty much deliver it now, although at this stage it would more likely be a computer-generated version.”
If the metaverse takes off in football, it could also transform broadcasting rights. These are currently sold to broadcasters as a Premier League-wide package but clubs are now exploring the possibility of selling these themselves, potentially through their own metaverses.
Either way, the potential impact of these new digital worlds is monumental – and the pace of change could be very fast indeed.
Tarre says: “I think the traditional image of someone sitting on a sofa, watching a screen, is something we cannot imagine is going still be the reality not even in 10 years, maybe in five years’ time already. Things move much faster than we think.
“For many fans the first contact with football is actually through Fifa – that’s a video game experience. Then they actually enjoy it [and] then come to the real game. We need to be very open-minded about the opportunity this gives for the future fans.”
Analysis: Critics may scoff but the metaverse could revolutionise football
Chances are that unless you have been living in a cave for the past year you will have heard the term “metaverse”, at least in passing.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is going all-in on the prospect of a virtual reality world shaping our future and considers it the next iteration of the internet where everybody will connect, swapping flat screens for three-dimensional immersions.
No other club in the world are as intensely exploring the technology and its potential as Manchester City, who recently signed a three-year partnership with technology giants Sony and work is advancing rapidly on creating the Etihad Stadium in the metaverse and examining how the space can be used to engage fans from all over the world.
And that’s what this is: exploring new frontiers, stepping into unknown worlds, building them, digital block by digital block, shaping the very fabric of our future. It is football inexorably moving beyond the traditions of domestic fandom.
As Tarre points out, “at best one per cent of our fans will ever travel to Manchester to experience a game”.
Perhaps the most tantalising prospect is that in the future fans could watch games live in a virtual stadium, almost as if they were there in person, from the comfort of their homes. It remains a vision rather than a certainty, and would require a major overhaul of the way football television rights are distributed.
Currently, the Premier League sells the rights collectively to broadcasters, but clubs are increasingly exploring the potential to own their own, to package and sell them how they wish.
Closer in time, however, Manchester City and Sony are exploring how fans can meet in the metaverse, how they will engage, what they would like to do, how long they will spend there, and if there is an appetite to purchase virtual things that only exist in a virtual world.
This is, of course, aimed at a younger audience: the next generation of football fans. And it’s not about replacing the real thing. “We still want people to meet each other!” Tarre says. “And I think this is the beauty of live games and fans in stadiums. We saw when fans were not in stadiums [due to Covid] the experience is not the same, you need to fake the sound almost to make it exciting. I think it’s a balance of both things that makes it exciting.”
The idea of wishing to buy something that would only exist online in a virtual space is alien to some people. But younger age groups are already comfortable with it. The offer of in-game purchases has transformed the video game industry. Fortnite was given away free by makers Epic Games, but generated billions of pounds in income from in-game purchases – purely cosmetic special characters or accessories – that have no real-life application, existing solely within the game.
And if you are skeptical about live performances working in digital, it is already happening. Fortnite has hosted in-game performances from stars such as Ariana Grande. Sony has hosted multiple music events within Roblox, a platform in which games can be created and played. When Lil Nas X performed the first ever Roblox concert in 2020 more than 36 million people watched.
There are, still, many hurdles still to overcome. And some of today’s greatest technological minds are still not entirely sold on the metaverse. If “Web2”, as it is referred, is Google, social media, Amazon, Netflix, then “Web3” would provide all those functions but in a virtual reality space, currently accessed via a headset and navigated via hand controllers.
Tesla chief executive Elon Musk said recently that he does not “buy into this metaverse stuff”, questioning if people will want to strap “a friggin’ screen to their face all day”. Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, meanwhile, considers the idea Zuckerberg has for the metaverse to be dystopian.
But Meta, Zuckerberg’s company that owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, is betting its future on the metaverse. And the Manchester City x Sony collaboration combines two of sport and entertainment’s biggest brands exploring how football can exist in virtual reality. So what would constitute success?
“The hard definition of a metaverse is that it becomes a self-sustaining economy,” says Tarre, who has decades of experience working in telecommunications and new technologies. “To be truly a metaverse it needs to be a new world. This is where we don’t have the answer, otherwise I would be very rich! Nobody has a crystal ball to say that.
“But we can test the appetite of fans buying things in this universe. How are they going to buy it? With real money? With crypto money? We don’t know yet how far we’re going to go.”
But somewhere has to be started. “The first step is building an environment itself. We’re building a virtual Etihad Stadium, which is going to be similar to the one today, but probably more futuristic.”
Although the partnership was announced in November, the two companies have been working together for around a year already. And Tarre sounds cautiously excited about the progress. She can imagine a time when live games are played in a virtual Etihad Stadium, when fans can choose different angles throughout, can control their own experience. “That’s the sky – the limit,” she says, adding: “You can fill the stadium as much as you want because it’s unlimited.”
The technology to do that is “not far off”, Tarre says. Metaverse developers i spoke to believe a realistic virtual game could be replicated – a bit like the Fifa video game – but in future there could be scope to push this further.
City are exploring virtual meet-and-greets with fans and players, different ways fans could connect, what shape they would like that to take. “The applications can be so large I think we’re just scratching the surface,” Tarre says.
“As with every new technology there’s going to be things that are scary and things that are not good, and things that are extremely positive and luckily, over time, things hopefully get to the right place. I remember I was in the boom of mobile technology, and at the time it was oh my god, all these things… now nobody knows how to live without a mobile phone.
“We’re definitely excited about embracing new technologies and exploring them. We think we need to understand this to be ready, to engage and connect with the fans in the future as well. That’s our nature: we embrace technology and like innovation and we’re not afraid of trying things.”
Tarre predicts that within even five years – but at least 10 – watching a live match on television in the living room will not be the most common way to experience football.
“We’re here to learn. This is still risky. There’re opportunities and challenges and road blocks on the way. But we truly believe in the opportunity to enable fan connections globally, digitally, in a new way.”
They are exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilisations, and boldly going where no football club has gone before.
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