Virtual Reality Makes a Play To Tackle Football at SXSW

March 14, 2016, 8:46 PM UTC

Bret Bielema, head football coach at the University of Arkansas, isn’t afraid to try something new when it comes to improving his team. But he likes to see results.

So last season, Arkansas Razorback quarterback Brandon Allen gave Bielema what he was looking for in the form of virtual reality.

Allen, who will be part of this year’s NFL draft, spent his last year at the school not only working hard on the field, but working just as hard at improving his team leadership skills in the team’s virtual reality simulations.

“The kid went from a very average quarterback to quarterback of the SEC this year,” Bielema told a panel at South by Southwest.

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Arkansas uses Strivr, a sports-focused VR company founded by a former assistant coach from Stanford. The system positions a camera on the field during practices, enabling players (primarily quarterbacks) and coaches to later relive the plays as many times as necessary in order to get a better grasp of what they should be observing and learning on the field.

Best of all, when you’re playing in a VR headset, the tackles hurt a lot less.

“When we get in the video room and we can literally have a player see everything without moving his feet or his body, that’s invaluable for us without any wear and tear on the body,” explained Bielema.

That’s good news for Strivr co-founder Derek Belch. The company is rapidly becoming the choice for both college and pro athletes. Today, five NFL teams and nine college programs use the company’s product. Last year at the NFL’s Combine, it filmed 20,000 plays for clients.

Strivr is expanding into other sports as well, already signing on the NBA’s Washington Wizards and NHL’s Washington Capitals.

“I will never sit here and say a quarterback is better just because of VR,” he asserted. “It’s a piece of the puzzle. … But when [a player] is saying ‘I saw it coming from the other night in VR,’ something’s going on.”

VR’s benefits to athletics programs aren’t limited to on-field performance either. The University of Arkansas decided to use VR to make a recruiting film for potential players showing what it was like to be part of the Razorback program. On a whim, they decided to use that same VR experience at a fundraiser.

“There was a little old lady, maybe 85 years old, who always dreamed of playing quarterback for the University of Arkansas,” said Bielema. “She came over, put on the headset and then wrote us a check for $100,000.”

That money could be used to deepen the VR training. If so, Bielema admitted he wouldn’t mind.

“When you literally give a player something in their toolbox that makes them better, it’s very addicting to me,” he reflected. “I think that’s what we’re doing. You can see them grow.”

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