ANY GIVEN SUNDAY
The week of August 30, 2015
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Inside the NFL’s virtual reality arms race

By Ramon Ramirez

Imagine stepping inside a Madden NFL 16 game.

You’re at quarterback. It’s third down and 12 on your own 42-yard line. The game responds to your movements intuitively: You can see the nickel defense in front of you, the fullback behind you, and the wide receivers lined up near the sidelines. The routes are there before the play even starts, and then you have precious seconds to throw. You have to fight against the instinct to wait until guys get open; do so and the play instantly ends, then resets. You have to learn to read the defense, to see the field and the opening before it’s there.

That’s the appeal of EON Sports’ SIDEKIQ headset, a live-action simulator training system that’s part of the virtual reality movement that’s slowly changing the way football is practiced at every level of the game. With VR, you can do 10 times the repetitions in a quarter of the time, according to EON Sports CEO Brendan Reilly. And more importantly, you can do so without any contact and at any position.

“It depends on what the coaches want,” says Reilly. “For a linebacker coach, the live-action VR is something that they gravitate toward [because you get] actual bodily reads. Where a cornerback can watch receivers come off the line, that’s something that can be drawn up in seconds.”

In the past two years, EON Sports has blossomed in business, with clients throughout high school athletics, NCAA football, and Major League Baseball. It’s a corporate spinoff from EON Reality, which provides access to its 80-plus developers around the world to support the company’s five full-time employees. This back-end infrastructure has helped the company expand to hundreds of high schools since 2013. Now it’s starting to work its way into the NFL. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers supplemented its on-field workouts during training camp last month.

“No one innovates for the sake of innovating, you innovate because you need to,” Reilly says. “When you look at the NFL team’s situation, it’s a highly competitive environment, and anything that can help them get an edge over their opponent they’re gonna do. You’d be surprised at how receptive that any coach at any level is to the technology.”

With VR, you can do 10 times the repetitions in a quarter of the time—without contact and at any position.

He would know. Reilly previously served as an assistant coach to Bill Self at the University of Kansas, one of college basketball’s most historic, dominant programs. In 2009, he stumbled upon a VR demo while looking for an edge on his competition.

“OK, this is the type of technology that is the missing link within our processes,” he remembers.

All coaches know that anything is worth a shot, he says, if it can bring you an edge—especially during practice and especially when the coaches can’t be there. Today he taps into his history on the sidelines to land clients.

His baseline pitch to them is what he keeps calling a “gap” in the way that athletes practice. At Kansas, for example, he was the scout team point guard, which posed just about no challenge to the All-Americans who filled the school’s basketball team.

“We realized that there’s a huge gap within the training process that doesn’t address the true nature and experience of being on the field,” Reilly says. “I always say with VR, seeing is believing.”

“It knocks down the need for facilities, the need to have private coaches, the need to have 21 other guys already playing.”

I tend to agree. EON Sports’s demo isn’t visually dazzling, but it is functional and frustrating enough that you stay hooked until you can complete a pass. You can diagram and execute the movements on the couch, in essence taking the study guide and the flash cards and searing the field into your brain well after the conventional practice. It’s not practical for me—the slowest weekend warrior on the (flag) football field—but if I were a high school coach, I’d make my QB do this for an hour a day.

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The notion of training the next generation is what Reilly says is so exciting.

“QB coaches are saying to us, ‘We have kids that have been training with VR technology, and they’re seventh-graders and they’re seeing the field like a senior in high school,’” Reilly says. “We’re at the very, very tip of the spear in watching how this technology is elevating performance.”

Reilly says his long-term goal is to “democratize” the way we train our athletes. He wants the kid in rural Kansas to be able to, using his iPhone or Android, plug into the same technology used by the NFL from his bedroom and literally train like a pro. While some VR setups are cost-prohibitive for most individuals and struggling schools—like the $35,000 Heisman or $100,000 Icube simulators—the SIDEKIQ retails for $100 and its playbook software starts at $35. And Reilly is quick to point toward its cost-saving upside.

“It knocks down the need for facilities, the need to have private coaches, the need to have 21 other guys already playing,” Reilly says. “[It’s] knocking down all these issues with our current way of training… We see it as the democratizing of access. We want to provide everyone the ability—no matter if they’re high school, youth quarterbacks, all the way up to NFL quarterbacks—to have something that can enhance their game across the scale.”

“We’re at the very, very tip of the spear in watching how this technology is elevating performance.”

That movement has begun: Reilly says in five years or so we will see VR-based training bear fruit as his clients begin to fill the ranks of coveted college athletics recruits. He told ESPN last month that preliminary EON Sports studies show quarterbacks can see “30 to 60 percent” of the field better after training with his headsets.

In the first shot of the VR arms race, this summer the Dallas Cowboys became the first NFL team to incorporate VR training by signing a deal with StriVR Labs, shortly after filming their practices with drones in May. Head coach Jason Garrett raved about it to ESPN:

“Typically you have an end zone shot and a sideline shot. We use a lot of handheld cameras on the ground… It’s interesting because it gives you the chance from behind to see all 11 guys on offense and all 11 guys on defense but from a closer angle… This allows you to get a little closer so you can coach better. You can see hand placement. You see where they have their feet, where they have their eyes.”

That ability goes double for VR, and Reilly says the league is scrambling to brush up. VR training means standing on the chessboard and seeing where all 10 of your teammates go on every snap, where they need to be. You can look at film, study the diagrams, and rehearse it live.

When we spoke, two weeks before the kickoff of the 2015-16 season, Reilly had just wrapped a 15-minute exploratory meeting with an NFL team about the benefits of virtual reality. He can’t say which team yet; he doesn’t want to tip their hand.

“Their quest for a competitive advantage doesn’t necessarily stop even though the season’s upon them,” Reilly says.