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This incredible 2016 NBA Finals documentary could be the future of VR video

Stop what you’re doing and find a Gear VR

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2016 NBA Finals photos
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving goes up for a layup during the 2016 NBA Finals.
Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Late in "Follow My Lead: The Story of the 2016 NBA Finals," there’s a shot of Tyronn Lue, head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, urging his players to shut down the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 and secure Cleveland’s first sports title in 52 years. "One more stop!" Lue yells from the sideline.

Watching through a virtual reality headset, I felt like I was right there at courtside with him.

"Follow My Lead," available today for free in the Oculus Store for the Samsung Gear VR and as a 360-degree Facebook video, offers an incredible glimpse of the possibilities of 360-degree video — not just for sporting events, but for all applications. In addition to bringing basketball fans closer to the action of the unforgettable 2016 NBA Finals, both in the games and off the court, the mini-documentary could serve as an example to VR filmmakers of how to best use this nascent medium to its full potential.

The (2D) trailer for "Follow My Lead: The Story of the 2016 NBA Finals."

I watched "Follow My Lead" in its entirety during a visit to the NBA Store in midtown Manhattan yesterday, sitting in a chair that could rotate 360 degrees. That was key to the viewing experience, since half the fun of watching something like this is being able to look around you in all directions. It really adds to that sense of presence when you can look up and see the Quicken Loans Arena’s gigantic scoreboard above you, or scan the crowd to see fans pumping their fists in the air.

Here, presence is more than a mere novelty; it’s the heart and soul of "Follow My Lead." Plenty of sports documentaries promise never-before-seen clips, and the footage provided by the 360-degree cameras used to film this documentary is spectacular in and of itself, both for the games themselves and for other situations. But more importantly, "Follow My Lead" is a never-before-seen way to experience one of the most unbelievable, memorable NBA Finals in basketball history.

The sheer variety of the camera angles in the film goes a long way toward bringing you into the action. Here’s an incomplete list from my notes: above the backboard, in the tunnel to the court, in a pregame huddle, on the practice floor, at center court in an empty arena, below the arm of the hoop, in the television broadcast control room, inside a Cleveland barbershop, at a postgame press conference and at multiple locations among the crowd.

Follow My Lead: The Story of the 2016 NBA Finals photo 01
A first-person shot from the baseline: As the buzzer sounds, the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrate their victory in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals.

The in-game footage speaks for itself in showing off the action. But the behind-the-scenes clips provide the glue that holds together "Follow My Lead" and helps tell the Cavaliers’ incredible comeback story. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving take control of the team’s destiny on the court, and you can also see James embracing his leadership role, telling his teammates during pregame huddles to rely on him for guidance. Even establishing shots are better in 360-degree video — going from a bright day on the San Francisco Bay to a spot by a dingy bridge in Cleveland says more than Michael B. Jordan’s narration ever could.

"Follow My Lead" is shot and edited in a way that minimizes the chances of breaking immersion; I only noticed a few instances — usually when the camera was situated in a thicket of screaming fans — in which it felt like I was occupying the same space as another person or object. Although some would consider it a nauseating no-no to move the camera in VR video, the film employs a few gentle tracking shots that made me feel as if I were being ferried through a simulator ride at a theme park.

Audio is just as important as video for VR, and "Follow My Lead" doesn’t disappoint in that respect. The documentary was shot with microphones that provide positional sound, which further contributes to immersion even in the most mundane applications. When I turned my head at a postgame press conference to catch a glimpse of the assembled reporters, the Warriors’ Steph Curry was speaking from behind me. And in a shot near some Cavaliers cheerleaders, I could hear their pom-poms rustle even though the crowd was raucous.

All that said, I kept coming back to Lue, the Cavs head coach, in the waning moments of Game 7. By now, it’s a cliche to say that VR and 360-degree video make you feel like you’re there. But that’s simply what I experienced in "Follow My Lead." And although I’ve never sat courtside at an NBA game, I now have an idea of what it’s like to be on the floor, close enough to hear coaches lead their players to a historic championship.

Follow My Lead: The Story of the 2016 NBA Finals photo 02
Standing on the court during the Warriors’ introductions at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, during the 2016 NBA Finals.

Behind the scenes

The NBA told the producers of "Follow My Lead" that "it should feel like a 30 for 30 [film]," said Ari Kuschnir, referring to ESPN Films’ vaunted documentary series during an interview with Polygon yesterday.

Kuschnir is an executive producer and founder of Missing Pieces (stylized as m ss ng p eces, with the i’s removed), the production company that worked with Oculus VR and the NBA to make "Follow My Lead." The project came together very quickly — Eugene Wei, head of video at Oculus, told Polygon that he called the NBA a few weeks before the Finals to spitball ideas, and Kuschnir said that Missing Pieces got the green light perhaps one week before the series began in June.

"VR specifically is strategically important for the NBA"

It was a logical step for the NBA, which began looking into virtual reality long ago. As a test, the NBA first partnered with NextVR to record a game between the Warriors and the Denver Nuggets back in the 2013-14 season, and in the subsequent year, the league filmed parts of its annual All-Star Weekend in VR. These efforts led to opening night of the 2015-16 season, when NextVR livestreamed a game between the Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans in virtual reality. (These tests only offered a 180-degree field of view; "Follow My Lead" is a full 360-degree video.)

Sports leagues have begun experimenting with technology like this in recent years. The NHL has a partnership with GoPro to provide fans with on-ice footage from cameras mounted around the rink and on players’ helmets, and the league provided 360-degree video from its All-Star Game and Winter Classic this year. NextVR and Major League Baseball delivered VR highlights from the 2016 Home Run Derby. But the NBA is undeniably leading the charge.

"It's been established pretty clearly by Adam [Silver, the NBA commissioner] that not only innovation generally, but VR specifically, is strategically important for the NBA," said Jeff Marsilio, vice president of global media distribution for the NBA, in an interview with Polygon.

2016 NBA Finals photos
Tipoff at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, during one of the games of the 2016 NBA Finals.

In that respect, the parties involved in making "Follow My Lead" also wanted the film to push the boundaries of the medium forward. Wei noted that "VR video is a relatively new art form" in which "people are still stumbling through and figuring out what works and what doesn't work."

Even the length of the film is notable — at 25 minutes, it’s "the longest live-action VR video anyone’s seen," according to Wei. The vast majority of videos in this format are a few minutes long, since filmmakers aren’t yet sure that people are willing to sit in VR to watch a single piece of content for a long period of time. Kuschnir told us that until he saw the positive reception to "Follow My Lead" at the NBA Store, he had been worried that a half hour was too long. (In fact, the film is broken up into two parts, just in case.)

"VR video is a relatively new art form"

In order to create a film that would work as a sports documentary and an innovative 360-degree video, Kuschnir brought together filmmakers from both worlds. "Follow My Lead" is co-directed by Gabe Spitzer, who has directed and produced documentaries for ESPN, HBO and Fox Sports, and Ray Tintori, a pioneer in VR video.

The directors had to figure out how to overcome three major limitations of the medium: You can’t move the camera (much), because it can be nauseating; you can’t zoom, because viewers must be able to look anywhere; and you can’t use cuts too frequently, because it can be disorienting.

They worked within those constraints, according to Kuschnir, and even bent the rules a bit in an effort to innovate. VR filmmakers tend to be conservative in changing camera angles, usually leaving about 10 seconds between cuts. In "Follow My Lead," the directors often made cuts after eight or even six seconds. I was able to follow the action in just about every instance; it was only once or twice that I had to take a second to figure out where I was.

2016 NBA Finals VR app artwork 2560
Oculus Store artwork for "Follow My Lead: The Story of the 2016 NBA Finals."

All of this required an "unprecedented level of access," according to Marsilio, and the project only worked because the NBA was willing to provide it. Kuschnir explained that the working relationship between the league and the filmmakers became more comfortable over time, and indeed, I noticed that the film featured camera angles from games later in the series that didn’t exist in the first few contests. (The Game 7 shot of Tyronn Lue that I raved about comes from a camera mounted on the scorer’s table along the sideline — you can actually see it behind Lue, to his left, in this photo.)

It all comes together in "Follow My Lead" to give you a new perspective on the highest-stakes basketball in the world, regardless of whether you watched this year’s NBA Finals when it happened. And if this is where the spectator experience for professional sports is headed, I’m fully on board.

Asked about Oculus VR’s interest in nongaming applications, Wei pointed out that John Carmack, the company’s chief technology officer — who, of course, was a renowned game developer for decades before he joined Oculus in 2013 — said at Oculus Connect 2 last year that VR adoption will be driven by content such as photos and videos.

"For broadening the audience to VR, video is a huge gateway experience," said Wei. "It’s going to be incredibly important.

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