NHL Fan Fair Gives Fans Look at New Coaching Tool in VR Game

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Fans at the 2019 NHL Fan Fair will get a peek at the newest coaching technology before it’s even behind the benches.

Partnering with sponsor SAP, the NHL provides fans with the opportunity to try a virtual reality experience called Battles from the Bench, using real-time data and insights.

The Fan Fair runs throughout this weekend at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center, during the NHL All-Star weekend. Along with the technology, the four-day festival will include autograph sessions with former and current players, a Hall of Fame exhibit featuring San Jose Sharks and Northern California hockey history, a mascot tournament, and the Stanley Cup.

While the weekend is full of interactive activations, the VR component is among the most ambitious the league has pulled off, said Evin Dobson, NHL group vice president of partnership marketing. SAP has been a global marketing partner of the NHL since 2014.

SAP stepped up its activation ambitions in part because of significant ties to the San Jose Sharks organization, including naming rights on the arena.

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“The VR factor is really the ‘wow factor’ of what our fans will see when they visit Fan Fair,” Dobson said. “It has a really stop-in-the-tracks appeal to it.”

The experience puts the user behind the bench in the role of an assistant coach of the Sharks, with a variety of insights and data provided by the SAP-NHL Coaching Insights App for iPad. The game is heading into 3-on-3 overtime and possible shootout, so the user must use the information provided to make coaching decisions, like line changes on the ice.

Content for the virtual reality experience was shot a few weeks ago at SAP Center with Sharks players Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski with direction from the hockey operations department for accurate game-action sequences.

“We are going to provide fans a sneak peek of the app before it hits the benches,” Dobson said. “We put the pieces together and gamified it for the ‘wow factor,’ but it will ultimately make it to real-time coaching on NHL benches. It’s for the coaches, but we wanted to make sure we gave fans the opportunity to see it.”

The Coaching Insights App will provide coaches with more than 60 real-time individual and team stats on iPads in the bench area, starting sometime in the second half of the season.

Dobson said the experience is being called the first “partner-directed virtual reality experience shot with NHL players and an NHL arena.”

More virtual reality opportunities for NHL fans will come following the All-Star Game, as it’s being filmed at the special event, said Nirva Milord, NHL senior director of corporate communications.

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Alongside the immersive VR Battles from the Bench experience, fans can also run through the NHL All-Star Skills Zone, which will run participants through similar drills — like hardest shot — that the NHL all-stars will see during the weekend.

Milord said the Fan Fair has activities for every age group.

Dobson mentioned SAP is also the presenting partner of the expansive Skills Zone in part so they can show off some of their other abilities in the tech being delivered to the NHL. The SAP partnership is also extended to schools in the Bay Area to help teach STEM through hockey.

Dobson said he gives SAP credit for the ability to unlock a significant amount of incremental budget to help put on a large activation in a city with deep SAP connections. He does believe there might be more activations in the future.

“We recognize it’s unique for them in some regard — and full credit to them for stepping up,” Dobson said. “With the activations being more consumer-facing, we certainly hope the trend will continue.”