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TECHNOLOGY

Meta’s Master Plan: Sports, VR, and the Metaverse

Could we one day see algorithmically tailored commercials while watching the Super Bowl in VR? Innovations like that and more may be in Meta’s future.

It was an ideal setting to discuss Meta’s plans to make billions of dollars through the metaverse.

As the sun set over the Westwood section of Los Angeles on the Thursday before the Super Bowl, cabanas were set up poolside at the W hotel. A DJ spun forgettable contemporary hits, drinks were being passed around, and Rob Shaw, Meta’s director of sports media and league partnerships, began detailing the company’s plans in a PowerPoint presentation.

While the company’s plans are in “the early stages of development,” as Shaw put it, the metaverse is a priority for Meta — after all, it changed its name for a reason. Meta is leaning on its ability to develop immersive technology and bring people together without geographic barriers or constraints, with the goal to develop VR products that make it seem like you’re there — anywhere — IRL.

A small, tangible step was Meta’s avatar partnership with the NFL during Super Bowl week, which gave users’ avatars the ability to wear Los Angeles Rams, Cincinnati Bengals, or Super Bowl 56 t-shirts across Facebook, Messenger and Instagram. And as clothing brands around the world start setting up shop in the metaverse, Meta is certainly in discussions with many companies about what potential partnerships would look like.

“For the first time I heard this the other day, I think, from the NFL, that it’s not just merch. Now I’m hearing the word verch,” Shaw told Boardroom, for virtual merchandise. “Avatars have been rolled out, but we haven’t built an economy around it yet.”

Those building blocks for a metaverse marketplace are being assembled. A Meta spokesman who sat next to Shaw at the cabana said that while a marketplace is on the horizon, it’s hard to say whether things will fully roll out this year. Meta will probably test things out in certain regions first.

But once it’s rolled out fully, you’re going to see it everywhere. On the sports side, you’ll see jerseys, apparel, and accessories, Shaw said. And then Meta plans to partner with fashion and sneaker brands, with the ability to make massive amounts of revenue.

“Ultimately the only way this is gonna work and you’re gonna have the best brands lean in, is that it has to make economic sense,” Shaw said. “We want to be able to build out an experience where fans are able to embrace and purchase their passions, but then for brands to also be able to prosper from it.”

Why would fans buy this verch?

Shaw says gamers and younger demographics have been buying metaverse clothes, weapons, and accessories for years. And for Meta, it’s about educating and introducing this to sports fans, making the concept of Shaw wearing his old-school Butch Huskey Mets jersey in the metaverse as commonplace as doing so at Citi Field.

Meta already has plenty of applications in the metaverse outside of VR, including augmented reality features in Messenger and on Facebook, like a Rob Gronkowski virtual touchdown dance or an Olympic activation on WhatsApp where you could quickly get informed and interact with the Games as they were ongoing.  

“The avatars was really the pivotal moment for us, because that was truly the first step,” Shaw said.

But where Meta truly plans to pull in revenue is in VR on the Meta Quest, rebranded from Oculus.

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Meta’s VR quest

During its most recent earnings call, Meta announced that the Quest store reached $1 billion in all-time store sales, while Q4 revenue for its Reality Labs segment hit $877 million — that’s up 22% year-over-year and buoyed by the Quest app being No. 1 in Apple’s app store over Christmas. That figure includes its Portal smart display and its Ray-Ban Stories glasses.

There were 120 titles that have generated at least $1 million in revenue and eight that have made at least $20 million over the last 12 months. While Shaw declined to disclose how many Quest users there are, the company said last week that its Horizon Worlds VR app had more than 300,000 users and growing.

Shaw broke down how people are spending their time on the Quest into three use cases: Gaming, content, and fitness.

Gaming is what the Oculus was built on and how most people use the VR platform, whether you’re playing Star Wars, Beat Saber, or golf. But content is one of Meta’s biggest company-wide focuses right now, as it tries to broaden the use case of what the product is and they’re trying to redefine the experience. 

Sports leagues and their commissioners, like the NBA’s Adam Silver, love saying that 99% of their fans will never step into one of their arenas, and that making those fans feel like they have a front row seat to the action is important to them. And the NBA has had a deal with Horizon Venues for the last three years to broadcast regular season games in VR, including four games over the first half of March. You can watch these games in solo mode or together with like-minded fans or friends in the metaverse.

When will we see other sports leagues get in on the VR action?

“We’re talking to everyone right now,” Shaw said. “But to be clear, there’s not really a business around it at the moment.”

Those last three words are important here. At the moment, there’s no paywall or advertising, as they have yet to be developed. But Meta is telling the sports industry that there’s something huge that can be built here.

Everything is going to eventually be possible, technologically. It’s just a question of how the leagues and broadcasters make a business around that.

Rob Shaw, Meta

“We need the best storytellers, producers, and business minds to start really thinking about, ‘what is the business model? What does production look like? How should we have fans engaged with the live event? Is it just about the live events or also video on demand?'” Shaw said. “Right now, if you go in Horizon Venues, you’ll see a pretty cool Overtime Elite slam dunk contest. It’s insanely early days and we’re in learning mode. But no one is getting wealthy from this thing.”

Once there are more users, Meta can easily monetize its NBA contract. And if VR gets as popular as it can be, maybe we’ll see NFL games in VR too, with potential vantage points from the 50 yard line, the front row, the sidelines, and maybe a Madden-style view behind the quarterback.

“Everything is going to eventually be possible technologically,” Shaw said. “It’s just a question of how the leagues and broadcasters make a business around that.”

At arenas and stadiums, in-person ads are called brand activations. On TV, they’re called commercials. What will they be called when ads one day pop up when you’re watching an IRL game in VR?

Moneymakers.

You’ll have a VR dance cam during a break in the action, but Meta has the algorithmic data so that different brands can pop up on your headset depending on who’s watching.

“There’s a lot of people who watch the Super Bowl who will never have a car,” Shaw said. “Yet they see 30% or whatever the number is of car commercials. Imagine when you’ll be able to have a good sense of what people are interested in.”

There’s no concrete timeline yet of when any of these concepts will come to fruition, but the smaller pieces are starting to come together, according to Shaw. Fans can now buy verch like jerseys and t-shirts, but there’s no current plan to charge fans to watch a game in VR. But if we get to a point where there’s enough of a business with immersive ads, marketplaces or VR, could one click of your controller bring a pizza to your door IRL?

“We’ll probably be in a good spot if that starts to happen,” Shaw said.

Though VR sports content is mainly theoretical right now, fitness is where Meta has the most current momentum. People can work out and have fun and buy add-ons if they desire. Shaw said an active pack for better grip with your controllers and an improved facial interface for when you sweat is being rolled out later this year at a to-be-determined price point.

Meta’s metaverse home

The last long-term VR project Meta is working on is called Horizon Home, its smaller scale version of Sandbox or Decentraland. Though not a full-on neighborhood concept like the others, Home will be your own virtual house that people could visit on Meta, and eventually, NFTs and other digital collectibles you purchase could be displayed in your VR living room or bedroom.

“That’s actually a key missing ingredient of NFTs right now,” Shaw said. “We would argue that we’re not in a position yet where people are able to share it, present it and experience it. You have to tell your friend that you did it. It’s not an easy thing to display. The idea is to be able to have almost like art on the walls. It could be your NFTs.”

This has already extended to the workplace as a place for meetings called Horizon Workrooms. This concept is in addition to Horizon Worlds, a more open source concept where developers can build virtual beaches or planets for you and your friends to visit.

For all these experiences, verch will be available for people to purchase so they can best express themselves on the Quest, Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram. And for all these concepts, the potential to partner with different brands and platforms is seemingly endless. While there are early stage discussions with these companies, they’re more conceptual than tangible right now, Shaw said. 

In meeting with partners, leagues, and media companies in L.A. during Super Bowl week, the idea is for these brands to start understanding what the technology will allow them to do in the metaverse. Then Meta and its partners will figure out how to reach different audiences and develop business lines that could result in the largest new stream of revenue we’ve seen in a long time. 

“We’re very much into innovation and really going where the world isn’t quite yet,” Shaw said. “In this case, having now experienced and tasted it, it starts to open your eyes to what’s possible.”

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