ESPN is the latest media company to experiment with virtual reality storytelling. The Disney-owned (DIS) sports empire is going all-in with former North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz, who is expected to be one of the top picks in the 2016 NFL draft in Chicago later this month. In addition to featuring the Bison standout on the cover of ESPN: The Magazine this week, the company is showcasing him on TV, across social media, and in its first 360-degree video segment.
“We saw 360-degree video as one of the next big opportunities for storytelling,” says Lindsay Rovegno, associate director of original digital video at ESPN. “In the past we’ve experimented with 360-video clips, but have yet to use the medium to tell a narrative story. 360-degree video allows us to place the viewer in the environment in which we filmed and experience the story as if they were on-site, in this case in the FargoDome with Carson Wentz.”
The Fargo, N.D., shoot was captured on Mar. 22 using Nokia’s new Ozo broadcast camera through a collaboration between ESPN and production company Foglight Entertainment. The 360-degree video can be watched across any virtual reality headset, including Samsung Gear VR, Google Cardboard, Facebook’s Oculus Rift, and the HTC Vive.
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“It was a cool experience–definitely different, but enjoyable,” Wentz says. “I believe it will be very cool to watch and see exactly how the camera captures everything around it.”
Evan Kanew, director of the project at Foglight Entertainment, says developing the story was no different than any broadcast journalism story.
“Working in 360 requires lots of planning and control,” Kanew says. “It’s not easy to run and gun and ensure you get quality VR—but that’s just what we had to do with Wentz. Although he was generous with access just before his Pro Day, certainly one of the most important weeks of his life, we had to move quickly to document his story amid many media and training demands.”
Rovegno says since 360-degree video is interactive, ESPN saw this as an opportunity to give viewers control of what they experience within a narrative feature.
“As a native of North Dakota, Wentz could provide a window into life in the Midwest,” Rovegno says. “We used Wentz’s story to immerse users in an environment they might not otherwise experience.”
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The experience allows viewers to explore the flatlands of North Dakota, take in Wentz’s practice in the FargoDome, and watch Wentz break down film with his coaches. The user is able to control which part of each scene they experience by rotating the camera to see a different viewpoint.
“ESPN is always looking to expand our multiplatform reach and attract new audiences and Wentz was a great opportunity to try something new,” Rovegno says.
Kanew says 360 video allows fans to get closer to athletes than ever, to sense what it’s like to be in their shoes, and to experience sports in a more sensory way. The medium offers a new perspective that engages viewers to make choices. To take an example from the ESPN story: Should the viewer turn and follow the pass Wentz just threw on the practice field or stay on him to see how he goes about his business preparing for the next drill?
“Beyond that, 360 stories allow for the use of a lot of data and analytic tools that can be really powerful for marketers too,” Kanew says.
Within the sports world, itself, virtual reality is opening up new tools for football coaches to train athletes using both 360-degree video through STRIVR and computer-generated imagery with EON Sports.
Although he hasn’t tried any of the virtual reality training simulations, Wentz believes VR could be a huge training aid when it comes to teaching the game of football.
“It also will be huge in helping quarterbacks see certain defensive schemes happening from a new perspective and be able to key in on different people,” Wentz says. “They will then be able to go over countless reps in their ‘film’ room as if they were going through it on the field. It could be a great addition to preparing players for the game.”
“Eventually the fans will be able to see the games and events from an entirely new perspective,” Wentz says. “VR will also give fans a new appreciation for athletic events.”