The Tokyo Olympic Games may have been delayed by a year but technological innovations – accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic – promise to make the event more immersive by bringing athletes closer to an even wider fan base.

The countdown to the Tokyo Olympic Games is officially on. With only four months left until the big day and news that the Olympics will go ahead without overseas spectators, fans are eager to get their sports fix and to see how postponing the games has positively impacted innovation in sports spectatorship, especially as more and more fans anticipate watching digitally from home.

There is no doubt that as soon as the games were postponed, broadcasters and brands began to consider how they can better use technology to engage a global audience and ensure COVID-safe shooting for their crews, staff and teams on the ground. 

Now, a year later, brands and their partners have arrived at a number of digital innovations to support digital audiences from afar and turn the world’s biggest sporting event into a glimpse of digital’s future in sports.

Among some of the things you might see this year that I’m most excited about are:

  • Cloud-based broadcasting (allowing a 30% smaller broadcast team than was used in Rio and 30% more content produced);
  • Helpful service robots connecting people from afar; and
  • 5G innovations that put fans right in front of the action. 

5G will power-up fan experiences

For years, the Olympics has been a technology accelerator. This year, we’ll see that on a whole new level as it’s recently been confirmed that this year’s games will be 5G-enabled – great for a speedy phone connection and even better for virtual fan engagement and interaction.

In 2021, we expect to see 5G enable true-to-life VR experiences. This was tested in 2018 but faster connectivity will stretch the technology even further to offer immersive experiences for audiences at home. Virtual opening ceremonies, court and trackside seats, and even holograms delivered via volumetric capture will raise spectatorship to a new bar, with only milliseconds of latency.

In today’s COVID-19 reality, this technology will allow not only for social distancing but enhanced digital interaction.

Basketball fans in the US got a taste of what this looks like when our sports practice teamed up with immersive media company RYOT to bring NBA games to VR – for both the current season and the NBA Restart games that came before it.

By watching the games within the immersive social environment of Oculus Venues, viewers could watch the game from impossible angles, all captured and broadcast by a small, remote and COVID-safe crew through the power of 5G technology.

Robots score points for social good

Another advancement I’m excited to see this year is the 2020 Tokyo Robot Project initiative. The objective of the initiative is to promote the widespread use and accessibility of robots in society for good. These robots will offer human support through:

  • Wheelchair assistance;
  • Remote location communication; and
  • Field support.

Even the Olympic mascots will be given a mechanical makeover by taking on robot form. This is definitely a step up from drone displays.

Robots change the game

Of course, this is not the first time we’ve seen robots used in sporting events. Working for Mastercard – sponsor of CONMEBOL Libertadores – our sports team worked with Octagon to give our Impossible Mascots a new goal.

Through these remotely controlled robots, young fans were able to join the 2020 Copa América Final when stadium attendance was not allowed. Outfitted with custom software and treads inspired by the football boots worn by athletes to preserve the pitch, the robots were fit for rain or shine.

Elsewhere, children could see a player’s view of the field as seen by the robots. Thanks to this innovation, the children-turned-Honorary Captains could take to the field to celebrate a priceless experience.

The Impossible Mascots were originally envisioned to allow hospital-bound children the chance to not only view but also participate in games as Player Escorts.

Due to the inability to travel or cost restrictions, many more never get a chance to see some of their favourite teams in-person, pandemic or not. By closing the distance between people and athletes, human support robots might just change the game for good.

Pandemic-driven innovations

It’s been a long wait for the Summer Olympic Games and, while I wish circumstances had been better last year, I’m excited that innovations accelerated by the global pandemic will give us the chance to experience the games like never before.

Perhaps even more exciting as a sports fan, these innovations will also trickle down to other sporting experiences, offering new entertainment formats that break free from the television screen or standard livestream.

How will these opportunities translate to broadcasters and sports globally? Only time will tell but one thing’s for sure: this year’s Olympics will unlock new opportunities for rights holders and sponsors alike – the fan experience will ultimately be better for it.