The NBA Tech Summit tends to be one of the least discussed All-Star Weekend events among the general population. Yet it occasionally produces some of the most interesting and perplexing bits of video the league puts out.
This year was one of those cases thanks to the NBA’s next proposed metaverse integration — Coach Nat. Amongst panels with social media executives, crypto evangelists and notable basketball figures, NBA commissioner Adam Silver introduced Coach Nat (short for NBA Augmented Telepresence), a basketball instructor that supposedly will help the youth develop basketball skills in the metaverse, during a panel discussing the league’s push into Africa.
The moment itself was laughable, from Silver’s stilted attempts at enthusiasm while watching Coach Nat perform rudimentary basketball actions to the meta basketball man’s voice, Shaquille O’Neal, running out the same tired joke about his poor free throw percentage. The whole ordeal closed with Coach Nat briefly levitating while declaring himself a “real-life Superman” as Barack Obama and Dikembe Mutumbo looked on via Zoom.
Coach Nat made the usual rounds online after the NBA posted the clip on social media, weathering a storm of solid dunks with the occasional VR basketball game developer doing some promotional piggybacking. That’s to be expected. It was perhaps the most underwhelming way to unveil the concept — not to mention how weird it was to see a metaverse avatar that actually has legs.
But the idea is intriguing, especially when paired with Silver’s vision for further democratizing access to the NBA, and somewhat to basketball as a whole. Much of that vision has focused on bringing the experience of attending an NBA game to fans outside of North America via VR. The league heavily pushed the virtual courtside experience through Meta’s Horizon Venues app this season, so much so that you’d think it was a new concept rather than something that’s been available since 2018.
“What becomes very interesting to us, what people are calling ‘Web3? or ‘metaverse,’ that this experience that we are used to having in the arena can be replicated for fans who most likely will never ever step foot in an arena. And maybe replicated in ways that are unimaginable to us right now,” Silver told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Of course, the increased push comes as a byproduct of Meta placing a massive bet on the metaverse, but the NBA appears to be buying in more so than other sports leagues. The user experience has improved thanks to new camera arrays, though video quality still suffers. The Brooklyn Nets jumped even further earlier this year, becoming the first major sports team to introduce its own 3D-rendered metaverse viewing experience called “Netaverse;
Watching NBA games in VR is free, giving anyone with a headset the ability to take in a game from the ridiculously priced perspective of a select few. It fits with how Silver, like his predecessor David Stern, wants to grow the league and sport globally. But the NBA isn’t in the ideal business.
“Or it may be that you own a seat in the virtual arena,” Silver continued. “You (may) have a particular seat; you have a community around you with people you talk to and cheer with and express disappointment with.”
The sale of virtual season tickets is the only way this whole virtual movement is likely to end. It’s quite deflating when positioned against the sentiment running through Silver’s comments about the virtual experience as it currently exists. This is still all speculative. Who knows how much the NBA or its teams would charge for these virtual reserved seats? But one thing is known: financial barriers to entry put limits on access. It already exists considering fans that want to take in the virtual experience must drop hundreds of dollars on a headset to do so.
That potential (likely) reality puts Coach Nat and what the league claims will be its function in a completely different light. Coach Nat is likely further away from reality than virtual tickets, and the league’s commitment to developing its training programs is unclear despite the pomp taken in its reveal. But gating someone’s potentially only access to player development tools behind a device whose cost remains high despite price decreases further reinforces this have and have-not divide that proliferates many facets of tech.
Coach Nat is a long-play. VR itself has to catch up in terms of functionality in order to accurately translate common basketball movement into the virtual world. Headset development may reach a point where costs can come down enough to make access more equitable. Who knows if Coach Nat will still even be an applicable idea by then?
Where it stands right now, Coach Nat is a meme machine with an overarching promise that would only benefit those on one side of the economic line that desires to practice man-to-man defense with a floating avatar. Much like basketball, you can draw up a great play but the true test lies in its execution. Until that happens, the real-life free throw line will always be there, ready for reps.