Manchester City has begun building the world’s first football stadium within the metaverse with the help of virtual reality experts from Sony.
Using image analysis and skeleton tracking technologies created by hawk-eye, a subsidiary of the technology and entertainment giant, the club’s stadium will become the central hub of the city in a virtual reality world.
club officials working on the project envision a time when the city can fill a virtual eihad stadium multiple times, allowing supporters who may never go to manchester to watch matches live from the comfort of their homes anywhere in the world.
the digital pioneers of the premier league have signed a three-year contract with sony and, although the work is still in its infancy, teams of experts from the company have already visited the etihad to digitally map it and recreate it in virtual reality.
what is the metaverse?
The metaverse is essentially a virtual reality version of the internet that participants can explore as digital avatars.
Facebook is taking the initiative to make it happen and aims to create “a set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who are not in the same physical space as you.”
If Facebook is successful, visitors to these virtual spaces will be able to work, play, learn, shop, create, and hang out with friends, among other activities.
Other ideas being explored involve fans meeting players in the metaverse, interacting with each other, and purchasing merchandise not available in real life.
“The goal that we could imagine of having a metaverse is that you can recreate a game, you can watch the game live, you are part of the action in a different way through different angles and you can fill the stadium as much as possible . as you want because it’s unlimited, it’s completely virtual,” nuria tarre, director of marketing and fan engagement at city football group, tells i.
“but you also have control of what you want to see at that moment. there is no broadcast point of view, you can watch it from any angle in the stadium. that’s the sky, the limit.”
The metaverse is currently accessed via a headset and navigated via handheld controllers. Developers working on football and virtual reality believe that the technology would currently allow a match to be replicated in a digital version, similar to how the FIFA video game looks, but that in the future fans could see actual matches played inside of a virtual stadium.
“It’s not too far away,” says Andy Etches, co-founder of rezzil, a company that has developed the game player 22 metaverse used by top-flight clubs to train players. “we could pretty much deliver it now, although at this stage it’s more likely to be a computer-generated version.”
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If the metaverse takes off in football, it could also transform broadcast rights. these are currently sold to broadcasters as a league-wide prime pack, but clubs are now exploring the possibility of selling them themselves, potentially through their own metaverses.
Either way, the potential impact of these new digital worlds is monumental, and the pace of change could be very fast.
tarre says: “I think the traditional image of someone sitting on a couch, looking at a screen, is something that we can’t imagine will still be the reality even 10 years from now, maybe five years from now. they move much faster than we think.
“for many fans, the first contact with football is actually through fifa: it is a video game experience. then they really enjoy it [and] then they come to the actual game. we need to be very open-minded about the opportunity this brings to future fans.”
analysis: Critics may scoff, but the metaverse could revolutionize football
Chances are that unless you have been living in a cave for the past year you will have heard the term “metaverse”, at least in passing.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is banking on the prospect of a virtual reality world shaping our future and sees it as the next iteration of the internet where everyone will connect, swapping flat screens for 3D immersion.
no other club in the world is exploring technology and its potential as intensively as manchester city, who recently signed a three-year partnership with tech giants sony and work is moving fast to create the etihad stadium in the metaverse and examine how the space can be used to engage fans from around the world.
and that’s what it is: exploring new frontiers, entering unknown worlds, building them, digital block by digital block, shaping the very fabric of our future. it is soccer that moves inexorably beyond the traditions of domestic fandom.
as tarre points out, “at best, one percent of our fans will ever travel to manchester to experience a game.”
Perhaps the most tantalizing prospect is that, in the future, fans will be able to watch games live in a virtual stadium, almost as if they were there in person, from the comfort of their homes. it remains a vision rather than a certainty, and would require a major overhaul of the way football television rights are distributed. currently the major league sells the rights collectively to broadcasters, but clubs are increasingly exploring the potential of owning their own, packaging and selling them as they wish.
Closer in time, however, Manchester City and Sony are exploring how fans can come together in the metaverse, how they’ll participate, what they’d like to do, how long they’ll spend there, and whether there’s interest in buying virtual things that only exist. in a virtual world.
this, of course, is aimed at a younger audience: the next generation of football fans. and it is not about replacing the real thing. “we still want people to meet each other!” says tar. “And I think this is the beauty of live games and fans in stadiums. we saw when the fans were not in the stadiums [due to covid], the experience is not the same, you need to fake the sound almost to make it exciting. I think it’s a balance of both that makes it exciting.”
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The idea of wanting to buy something that would only exist online in a virtual space is alien to some people. but the younger age groups are already comfortable with it. the offer of in-game purchases has transformed the video game industry. fortnite was given away by the creators of epic games, but generated billions of pounds in revenue from in-game purchases (purely cosmetic special characters or accessories) that have no real-life application, they only exist within the game.
And if you’re skeptical about live performances working digitally, it’s already happening. Fortnite has hosted in-game performances by stars like Ariana Grande. Sony has organized multiple music events within Roblox, a platform where games can be created and played. When Lil Nas X held the first Roblox concert in 2020, over 36 million people watched.
there are still many obstacles to overcome. and some of today’s greatest tech minds aren’t quite sold on the metaverse yet. if “web2”, as it is known, is google, social media, amazon, netflix, then “web3” would provide all those functions but in a virtual reality space, currently accessed through a headset and navigated through through manual controllers.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently said he doesn’t “buy this metaverse stuff,” questioning whether people will want to strap “a goddamn screen to their face all day.” Meanwhile, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey calls Zuckerberg’s idea of the metaverse dystopian.
but meta, the zuckerberg company that owns facebook, instagram and whatsapp, bets its future on the metaverse. and the manchester city x sony collaboration combines two of the biggest brands in sport and entertainment exploring how football can exist in virtual reality. So what would constitute success?
“The strict definition of a metaverse is that it becomes a self-sustaining economy,” says Tarre, who has decades of experience working in telecommunications and new technologies. “To truly be a metaverse, it must be a new world. this is where we don’t have the answer, otherwise you would be very rich! nobody has a crystal ball to say that.
“but we can test the appetite of the fans buying things in this universe. how are you going to buy it with real money? with cryptocurrencies? We still don’t know how far we’re going to go.”
but you have to start somewhere. “The first step is to build an environment in itself. we are building a virtual etihad stadium, which will be similar to the current one, but probably more futuristic.”
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Although the partnership was announced in November, the two companies have been working together for about a year. and Tarre sounds cautiously excited about the progress. she can imagine a time when live games are played in a virtual etihad stadium, when fans can choose different angles at all times, they can control their own experience. “That’s the sky, the limit,” she says, adding, “You can fill the stadium as much as you want because it’s limitless.”
The technology to do that “isn’t too far away,” Tarre says. i metaverse developers spoke to believe that a realistic virtual game could be replicated, a bit like the fifa video game, but in the future there might be scope to push this further.
city is exploring virtual meet-ups with fans and players, different ways fans can connect, what form they would like it to take. “Apps can be so big that I think we’re just scratching the surface,” Tarre says.
“As with every new technology, there will be things that are scary and things that are not good, and things that are extremely positive, and hopefully over time, hopefully, things will find their way to the right place. I remember it was in the mobile technology boom, and at that time it was my god, all these things… now nobody knows how to live without a mobile phone.
“We are definitely excited about adopting new technologies and exploring them. we think we need to understand this to be ready to engage and connect with fans in the future as well. that is our nature: we embrace technology and we like innovation and we are not afraid to try things.”
tarre predicts that even five years from now, but at least 10, watching a game live on television in the living room will not be the most common way to experience soccer.
“we are here to learn. this is still risky. There are opportunities and challenges and obstacles along the way. but we really believe in the opportunity to enable fan connections globally, digitally, in a new way.”
They are exploring strange new worlds, seeking a new life and new civilizations, and boldly going where no football club has gone before.