The home stadium of current Premier League champion Manchester City is set to become the first football stadium in the metaverse. The English club, in partnership with Sony, is working on creating a virtual version of Etihad Stadium in the metaverse – a virtual universe that people can explore as digital avatars. Using a special headset, the technology will allow City fans around the world to watch matches as if they were in the stadium themselves, while actually sitting comfortably on their sofa at home. In fact, by overcoming the barriers of physical reality, this digital version of the stadium will have unlimited seating.
“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!” said Doc at the end of the first instalment of the Back to the Future trilogy in 1985. Sure, it’s now 2022 and we still don’t have flying cars or hoverboards, as director Robert Zemeckis thought we might by 2015, but technology continues to develop every year, with everything becoming faster, more user-friendly, and usable by more people.
And the sport industry is also moving with the times. As often happens, soccer has become a driving force behind technological change, with Manchester City F.C. now pioneering a concept that will be truly revolutionary. Last February, the English club signed a three-year partnership with entertainment giant Sony to create a virtual version of its home ground, Etihad Stadium, inside the metaverse. But what is the metaverse?
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The metaverse is a virtual universe generated by an aggregate of digital devices and virtual reality technologies, such as the Oculus headset, to catapult users into a realistic parallel universe. Thanks to this combination of technologies, it’s possible to step into a completely virtual universe as a digital avatar (a graphic and virtual representation of each visitor), interact with other users’ avatars, and attend events. And that’s what City and Sony are planning: to open the doors of their stadium to the metaverse and give everyone a chance to be a spectator at matches featuring one of the best teams in the world.
One of the biggest advantages of this new technology applied to the world of sport is that it limitlessly expands the seating capacity of sports venues. So, while today the skills of Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland can only be seen live by a lucky 55 thousand who can make it to Etihad Stadium for games, in the not too distant future, seating capacity will increase exponentially. Sony’s experts are hard at work on the project, and have already visited and mapped the stadium to reproduce it in digital format. In the meantime, City has bought its virtual space – a plot of “land” on gaming platform The Sandbox – so it can offer its fans this exclusive experience.
The virtual stadium will let fans watch games as if they were there from the comfort of their home, even choosing their preferred angle for watching coach Pep Guardiola’s team of champions. But the idea isn’t limited to giving fans a matchday experience, with the technology also letting them live and breathe their team during the week by meeting with other fans and taking part in events.
Nuria Tarre, chief marketing and fan engagement officer of City Football Group, the holding company that owns Manchester City (as well as teams around the world, from the United States to Australia, India, Spain, France, and even Palermo in Italy) recently said, “I believe the image of someone sitting on a couch watching a screen will be obsolete in ten years, if not five.” This is why City has dived headfirst into the metaverse with this futuristic project. Tarre adds, “The whole point of owning a metaverse is to be able to watch the games live, be part of the action from various angles, and fill Etihad Stadium as much as you want.”
The relationship between the world of sport and the metaverse is still in its infancy. In the area of team sports, the first team to take the plunge was the Brooklyn Nets, which created the Netaverse by setting up around a hundred high-definition cameras around the court at Barclays Center. Then, at the last Australian Open, something similar was set up, with the trial attracting between four and five thousand unique visitors every day. It’s still early days for the metaverse and we’re still yet to see what directions it will take. But we can be sure that, like all new technologies, its spread will be unstoppable in no time.
The way we approach new technologies is evolving, and innovation is a constant source of ever-changing stimulus and new ways of doing things. Although many people are still wary of the metaverse, believing it will dehumanize relationships and – in this case – the way we experience sport, it’s far more likely that stadiums and sports facilities will continue to host crowds of cheering fans. What will change is our online experience, as it offers new and more engaging forms of participation. Actually, the metaverse should make enjoying a game remotely more inclusive and more engaging, with fans from all over the world able to come together in a (virtual) place at the same time.
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