The sports industry has long had strong connections to the gaming audience, with teams and leagues partnering with best-selling game series such as NBA 2K and FIFA. As the connection between gaming and the metaverse becomes clear, sports companies are leaning into their gaming roots to establish themselves as early leaders in the virtual world to come.
These days, sports teams and leagues offer their fans a multitude of ways to engage with the brand from the comfort of their homes. The NBA has been broadcasting select games in virtual reality for years and launched a dedicated Horizon Worlds space in May; the NFL opened a Roblox experience in February; individual sports teams such as the MLB’s Atlanta Braves have created digital twins of their stadiums for use as virtual event venues and meeting spaces.
This influx of metaverse activity is a reaction to the threat posed to the sports industry by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID was horribly disruptive to a lot of businesses in Major League Baseball in particular, in which teams are entirely dependent on ticket sales, merchandise sales, food and beverage sales to make money as an enterprise,” said Josh Rush, CEO of the metaverse design studio Surreal Events, which built the Braves’ virtual ballpark, paraphrasing his conversations with Braves management. “So we can’t have this kind of disruption to the continuity of our business ever again — and we see a potential here to grow our fan base by building a campfire, if you will, in space where nontraditional baseball fans are already hanging out.”
Shortly after Travis Scott’s seminal Fortnite concert in April 2020, Braves management reached out to Epic Games to explore how the team could make its own play in the metaverse. Although the Braves ultimately did not activate inside Fortnite directly, Epic connected the team with Surreal Events, whose platform uses Unreal Engine, the same game engine used to build Fortnite and a multitude of other popular titles.
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