Sony builds incredible virtual worlds for its PlayStation games, and now the company is starting to dabble more seriously with building metaverse worlds, too. At CES 2023, the company showed a brief look at a metaverse-y experience it’s building with the soccer club Manchester City. But so far, Sony seemingly isn’t bringing the same high-quality, must-play approach it’s known for to this soccer-focused hangout.
The experience, which Sony and Manchester City are calling a “proof of concept,” will let fans participate in activities at a virtual version of the team’s Etihad Stadium with their own custom avatars. In clips from an official video, virtual avatars run around the stadium and on the field itself, occasionally dancing and celebrating together. Avatars, 3D images, and “other expressions unique to the metaverse” will let players communicate “in a new way,” Nami Iwamoto, a senior product planner at Sony, said during the company’s CES 2023 keynote.
Sony’s proof of concept also features virtual recreations of big highlights from multiple angles, including from the perspective of individual players. One impressive clip is from the point of view of the goalkeeper as they try to keep track of the ball among a scrum of players.
Another video shows how Sony captured footage and volumetric data of Manchester City players using “only seven sensors” to recreate them digitally in this metaverse space. For example, Sony recorded one player juggling a ball and “displayed” that footage in the virtual space on a stage where fans could watch. (It kind of reminded me of the time J.J. Abrams showed off a Star Wars clip inside Fortnite.) A different player was turned into a giant dancing hologram and placed in the middle of the field as a gaggle of avatars cheered him on.
The digital player recreations aren’t quite as impressive as things like the Luka Dončić MetaHuman, and the virtual stadium and avatars aren’t nearly as high fidelity as PlayStation hits like Horizon Forbidden West or God of War Ragnarök. But given that Sony and Manchester City’s metaverse appears to be built for lower specced devices — one video about the proof of concept shows people with smartphones and laptops — it makes some sense why the graphics don’t match what you might expect from a console-quality game.
The partnership was first announced in November 2021. Back then, Sony and Manchester City similarly described the work as a proof of concept and mentioned the word “metaverse.” But a year and change later, it still isn’t totally clear when we’ll be able to use it or even why this will really be a better way for fans to connect.
In a press release, Sony clarified that participants will be able to create the avatars on their smartphones. In an email, Sony spokesperson Yo Kikuchi said that the “app” is set to be released in 2023, but it’s unclear if the avatar creation, virtual stadium, and the highlights will all be included in that app. (We’ve asked for clarification.) The countries and regions where it will be available are “still under consideration.” CES attendees will be able to visit the virtual Etihad Stadium at Sony’s booth, however.
The metaverse continues to be an inconsistently defined concept, and in this case, I’m still not sure of everything you’ll be able to do in this virtual Manchester City world. Based on Sony’s videos, it seems like you’ll be able to see captures of actual players, be in the same space as other avatars, and watch replays from many angles, but I’m not convinced all of that will provide a better experience for sports fans than just hanging out on a subreddit or message board.
That said, Sony has already thrown its weight behind the idea of the metaverse, so this probably won’t be the last time we hear the company talking about it. In June, CEO Kenichiro Yoshida said the metaverse is “a new growth area” and that the company’s “first priority” is to make “a metaverse around entertainment.” Given Sony’s arms in video games, film, technology, music, and more, the company could admittedly be well-equipped to pull that off.
Sony acquired Destiny-maker Bungie last year and has invested more than $1 billion in Epic Games, known for its elaborate entertainment crossovers and virtual events for Fortnite, meaning it can probably get some good advice from some of the best developers of engaging virtual worlds. The company recently announced a portable motion-tracking system to let you control digital avatars. And Sony is just over a month away from launching the PSVR2 headset, which promises to be a major upgrade from the original PSVR and could become a big platform for immersive virtual environments. (If you can swallow the high cost of the hardware, at least.)
So it’s perhaps not too surprising that Sony is dabbling with the metaverse for its project with Manchester City. But it still needs to prove that it’s going to be a better way to feel connected to other fans than just browsing r/soccer.