Virtual reality

NFL, StatusPro Release New Virtual Reality Game Pro Era

Artrell Hawkins played nine years in the NFL, yet when he wanted to go into coaching, he was told he didn’t have enough experience. His entrepreneurial younger brother, Andrew, himself an NFL veteran, was inspired to help and sought to build an app that would facilitate connections between those with experience in a field “with somebody who would value it, which is typically people who want to be in their shoes,” Andrew Hawkins says.

The idea evolved with the younger Hawkins ruminating on the prospect of a hologram—or some other augmented or virtual representation—delivering the mentorship and feedback. Hawkins further iterated on how this could manifest in sports and began taking meetings with AR and VR companies.

That was the seed of StatusPro and its new virtual reality game, Pro Era, that launches today in partnership with the NFL and NFLPA and with a $5.2 million seed round and strategic investments from the likes of LeBron James, Drake and Naomi Osaka. Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, the unanimous 2019 NFL MVP, adorns the cover. Pro Era, which retails for $29.99, is not only the league’s first licensed VR football game but also the first major gaming title to be developed by athletes.

NFL Pro Era is a first-person 3D immersive football gaming experience.

“How do we take what we’ve done in our athletic careers and extract all the fun parts? Like running out of a tunnel. You get to feel what it’s like running out of the NFL tunnel, and that is a moment that I remember specifically being an ‘aha’ moment,” Hawkins says, StatusPro’s chief business officer who co-founded the company with CEO Troy Jones, a former Division I quarterback. “We want to make sure that the experience with everything around the game is always tracking towards authentic—what you hear, what you see, what your optionality is and how you digest everything. And then the end game, we want to make it fun.”

The development journey of this game was at times slow—its first demo was ready in 2018—but carefully considered. Hawkins admits now that he has been driven toward this goal for years, earning a master’s degree from Columbia, speaking at the MIT Sloan conference and taking on extensive profile-raising on-air gigs with ESPN, Amazon, NFL Network, Uninterrupted and Roku.

“Everything that I’ve done off the field, from day one, has been to get to this point,” says Hawkins.

By coincidence, Hawkins was connected to this SportTechie reporter on the same August 2017 day a story ran on Mixed River, an extended reality training simulation technology where Jones was VP of sports. An introduction was made, and StatusPro would soon be born.

Pro Era seeks to replicate the experience and vantage point of a quarterback, from calling plays to checking a wrist band for an audible and throwing over and between one’s offensive linemen. The Next Gen Stats player tracking data has informed the players’ abilities and behaviors by training the artificial intelligence engine. There are a variety of game options: two-minute drill, season mode, mini games, practices and even a multiplayer version in which you can play virtual catch with a disparate friend.

Pro Era users can play mini games and drills before advancing to play full 11-on-11 games.

Pro Era users can play mini games and drills before advancing to play full 11-on-11 games.

Hawkins says “there’s no blueprint” for a VR football game, and the creators are eager to see where in Pro Era users gravitate. The underlying technology is already in use by a half-dozen NFL teams in training, so there’s an inherent realism to the game play, but Jones says they tried to gamify the experience somewhat for consumers.

“We understand that VR is new, and the market is still being defined,” adds Jones. “So staying neutral, while in some cases people would frown upon it, we thought it was the best course of action for us because the audience is still growing. And we don’t know what they want. There has never been a licensed NFL VR football game. So it’s impossible to know, the experience that everyone’s going to fall in love with.”

“The overlap between people who currently have VR headsets and who are hardcore sports fans? No one has information on that, really.”

Every video game has to choose where on the gameplay spectrum it will lie, from pure simulation to full-on arcade.

“What’s really good about it is that it creates the simulation experience, but also the gameplay mechanics are really intuitive,” NFL VP of video gaming Ed Kiang says. “And so I think it’s going to resonate with a much broader audience than, I think, maybe even was originally intended.”

Pro Era allows up to eight players to experience games together.

Pro Era allows up to eight players to experience games together.

Kiang shares a common mantra around the video game industry—“find the fun”—as a north star that designers use to remind themselves while developing new titles. He says his department is charged by the league to foster the creation of a wide portfolio of games that can reach different segments of its massive and diverse fan base. “We feel like there’s a gap with VR,” Kiang says of the marketplace prior to StatusPro. “In years prior, we weren’t really sure if it was ready for primetime.”

Technology improved, prices dropped and market penetration grew. Pro Era is available on both Meta Quest 2 and PlayStation VR. There’s a chicken-and-egg question about VR adoption between hardware designers and software publishers—they need to work in tandem to incentivize each other to create the products fans will want.

Everyone connected with Pro Era acknowledges that there is some uncertainty about who the eventual game players will be among existing VR users or those who use this as the proper motivation to become new VR customers. The marketing machine of the NFL can certainly help spread that message.

StatusPro hopes to make Pro Era an annual release with game updates like in the popular Madden series—playing from new positions is one goal—but, from the NFL perspective, there’s also value in casual participation.

“We don’t make games just to make money,” Kiang says. “Part of what we want to do is create great experiences and create lifelong fans. And part of the way that we do that is by creating memories that last a lifetime, whether that’s on the field, in the arena, or in retail activations, and in our products, and the way to express your fandom through our products.”

Pro Era was developed by former football players and StatusPro co-founders Andrew Hawkins (l) and Troy Jones.

Pro Era was developed by former football players and StatusPro co-founders Andrew Hawkins (l) and Troy Jones.

That this is athlete-led technology is critical in the authenticity of capturing the realism of game day. Not only did Hawkins and Jones play at an elite level in football, but also half of their employee base—24 of the 48 full-timers and contractors—are former athletes across a variety of sports, Hawkins says.

“From a first-person perspective, it’s the small intricate details that an athlete would have, that can really take the experience over the top, such as the audio,” Jones says. “Audio is such an important part in VR. So what does it sound like? It doesn’t sound the same when you’re watching it on TV or you’re just playing in a traditional 2D-type experience. So taking those little elements of the sideline experience or the experience on the field, or pressure of a situation, and try to heighten each of those moments, I think, puts our products over the top.”

“Honestly, outside of playing the game itself, it’s probably the closest to the experience you could have,” Jones adds. He pauses, recognizing one crucial difference, and adds with a laugh, “Obviously, it’s different when you have people who are actually going to hit you.”

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