I felt like some character from a canned Black Mirror episode: alone in my boxers on a Sunday night, with a bulky silver headset strapped to my face, a joystick in one hand and a Bud Light in the other. But inside the goggles, I was courtside at a Magic–Cavs game, next to a 16-year-old grocery bagger with virtual blue sunglasses and a virtual blond Afro. His online alias: Slim Shady.
Last year, the NBA and Oculus ran a commercial featuring Adam Levine and Jonah Hill watching the Warriors in their respective homes while their look-alike avatars sat beside each other in VR, nodding, moving their mouths, and waving their hands. They were bro-ing out in Oculus Venues, a virtual theater that lets you watch live concerts, comedy shows, and sports with hundreds of cyber randos. Since I spend most nights scrolling through Twitter and dating apps with a game running in the background, I figured: Why not find the Adam Levine to my Jonah Hill? So one day this spring, I got an Oculus Go headset, decked out my digital self (green hoodie, flattop, and VR headset with cat eyes on it), and picked up a few tall boys for a Monday-night matchup between the Warriors and the Hornets.
After being subjected to an eerie code-of-conduct video (summary: Making the jack-off gesture with my virtual hand could get me virtually ejected), I appeared in my seat as the game started. Someone popped up in the seat next to mine, and, not knowing what to do, I said, “Whaddup?” Then, a boy’s voice: “What’s up? Whatsupwhatsup? What’s up, trill? People around meeeee . . . I’m all the way up here—oh my Lord!” A second voice screeched, “I’M HIS LITTLE SISTER!” I gathered that the one avatar was multiple siblings trying VR for the first time. The little sister’s scouting report on Kevin Durant: “DANG HE BIG!”
Oculus Venues is like a Fortnite chat for sports diehards, populated by build-your-own cartoon people tricked out with pink hair and tiger masks, rich with a chorus of cringey jokes and cross talk. It’s also the closest many of us will get to sitting courtside like Spike or a Kardashian-Jenner (although the video quality is a little blurry). The best part is seeing things that would never make it to a national broadcast: Steph Curry accidentally straddling the VR camera, a halftime dunk contest for kids who somehow couldn’t slam on a Little Tikes hoop, every single pregame dap (most inexplicable: Jimmy Butler squats low, grasps an imaginary stick, and mixes a potion like he’s the fourth Macbeth witch). Of the non-basketball VR clips I saw, the NHL’s are the best fit for a 360 degree format; sitting behind the boards and watching toothless Canadians beat the hell out of each other is a lot more fun than tracing a tiny black dot on a TV screen.
On Thursday, I checked out TNT’s VR app, which is a solo experience—no virtual peanut gallery, just one man-child with $249 of hardware stuck to his face in a stadium filled with real people drinking real beer with real friends watching Russell Westbrook brick real threes. One surprise: The commercials are in VR, and most of them want you to visit scenic Oklahoma City. Have you been to the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum? I have now, sort of. So many guns!
By Sunday, I had spent enough time living my best virtual life that I was starting to feel fuzzy in the real world. But I decided to hit up Venues one last time to see the Cavs play. By the end of the first quarter, Slim Shady and I had figured out we were both from Pennsylvania, and we caught the rest of the game together. Despite his questionable sports acumen—I’m pretty sure he thinks LeBron plays for the Celtics—Slim had his moments of insight (“You can’t send a friend request in the real world!”) and wit, roasting the kids around us like a young Jeff Ross.
After the game, I took off the headset and looked in the mirror at my actual face, which was red and wrinkled from another three-hour session under the digital hood. I felt so pathetic that I threw the headset in a closet. About a week later, I had Giannis and the Bucks on the TV and was messing around on my phone when it hit me: Am I not embracing VR because I can’t check my phone while I have the goggles on? Because it forced me to talk to people? Maybe the Gen Zers of Oculus Venues are onto something, and I’m the sad old millennial glued to his phone. So during the playoffs, I’ll save a seat for Slim Shady. I think he just might be the Adam to my Jonah.