Super Bowl weekend is always a little tough for me, because I am completely baffled by football. This isn’t a sportsball rant — I enjoy sports, even if I usually play terribly, and I like watching them, if you’re willing to count commentated arcade games as “sports.” But my high school didn’t have a football team (our homecoming court was elected during basketball season), my family mostly ignored the NFL’s existence, and my friends don’t tend to throw Super Bowl parties. Consequently, the whole game feels like an elaborate arcane ritual, no matter how many times I look up the rules on Wikipedia.
But what if I could almost literally put myself in the shoes of a football player, without the risk of injury or the hassle of, you know, actually joining a team? If virtual reality is such a great builder of skill and understanding, surely VR Sports Challenge — the Oculus Rift’s equivalent of Wii Sports, featuring baseball, American football, hockey, and basketball — would give me a new appreciation for the sport. So on the eve of the big game, I booted it up, determined to truly feel football for the first time.
VR Sports Challenge isn’t a strategy or simulation game like Madden; it’s about the pleasure of motion, using the Oculus Touch controllers. But the movement and teamwork of football is tough to manage in a single-player game where you can’t physically run. VR Sports Challenge’s solution is surprisingly avant-garde for a game full of almost surreally corny sports cliches: you grab the ball as a quarterback, throw it toward a team member, then instantly flip perspectives to become that player and attempt to catch it.
Selfie Tennis popularized this basic mechanic on the HTC Vive, letting people play tennis against themselves. On a giant football field, this location-shifting is a bit disorienting but lots of fun. From one side of the field, quarterback-you watches for teammates with subtle green halos, indicating that they’re free to receive the ball. Once you’ve hurled it over — a feat that’s actually fairly difficult to achieve consistently — receiver-you sees the ball hurtling toward them in slow motion and has to put their hands up to catch it.
The strategic element here is that you pick from a list of plays (with accompanying diagrams) before each throw, and each successful pass brings you closer to making a touchdown, while each failed one gets you closer to losing the ball. I will fully admit that I picked plays almost at random, only vaguely aware of what they meant my team would be doing on the field. Since you only get to play offense, I’m still not sure how defending against these plays works. And until the Oculus Rift can track your feet, you can’t exactly mime making a field goal either, so I have basically no idea how they fit strategically into the game.
Weirdly, this is a microcosm of how I feel about the limits of virtual reality in general. Immersive, full-body on-the-ground experiences tend to strip context — you can’t deliver the same density of information that you could with, say, a high-level sports simulator, the same way VR documentaries might put you right in the middle of a tragic event, but don’t tell you much about the circumstances that created it. And although you can act out football in VR, there’s none of the sport’s physicality. At some points you can physically dodge an opponent, but you can’t feel it when your character gets tackled. By the same token, any VR video that promises to make you feel like you’re “really” at a concert or vacation spot almost certainly will not.
That said, VR can be a good football training tool, for someone who already knows what they’re doing. A company called Strivr makes software that lets teams capture plays and run them back as live-action VR videos, so players can practice watching and reacting to them. In that case, the non-physicality is good — it lets injured players get some of the benefits of on-the-field practice without the threat of further harm. (None of which, of course, changes the larger health risks of football.) It’s signed contracts with several NFL franchises, including the Dallas Cowboys.
After I got out of VR Sports Challenge, I asked my colleague Frank Bi — who saw me playing in our new office’s VR room — to check it out from the perspective of a real fan. He returned with trademark Oculus Rift lines around his eyes and enthusiastically pronounced it “pretty legit.” I’ll take his word for it.