Virtual reality

Can a VR game make you a better footballer?

Thef excessive hours spent playing football games made you a better footballer, my five-a-side career would have ended with a packed trophy cabinet, rather than a series of double-figure losing margins.

While Sensible Soccer, BC, FIFA and the long forgotten Actua Soccer gave me an encyclopaedic knowledge of ’90s footballers (or their misspelt, unlicensed cousins) they objectively failed to elevate my on-the-pitch performance to anything beyond dire.

butt Be Your Best can. Or at least that’s the pitch that means the likes of Arsenal, Levante, FC Kobenhavn, Racing Club Genk and FC Groningen all have their logos on the official website.

The Oculus Quest software simulates match situations to try and improve the mental side of the game from the comfort of your own living room. You can even play it sitting down if you like – or if you’re nursing dual broken legs that’ll keep you out of action for the season.

Be Your Best.  Credit: Be Your Best.
Be Your Best. Credit: Be Your Best.

“We find a lot of professional players who are injured and can not do anything physical come to us and want to train with it,” says Daniel Whitehouse, Be Your Best‘s marketing manager. “Pretend you’re still on a pitch: it keeps your mind sharp.”

It’s all about improving scanning – which in the lingo of Football Manager 22 would probably blend the Vision, Anticipation and Concentration numbers into one amorphous mega stat. It is, Whitehouse quips, “a fancy word for checking your shoulder”.

Be Your Best‘s co-founder, Geir Jordet, is a professor in sports psychology who has been studying the art of scanning since the late 1990s. Indeed, if you’re a reader of football Twitter you may have seen his viral thread outlining the broad conclusions of his research.

“What he found was that the best players in the world seemed to have this knack for just looking away from the ball constantly,” Whitehouse explains. “They’re always scanning the pitch and the surroundings. And he found that the more a player does this, the more likely they are to make a successful forward pass. ”

Crucially, this is a discipline that can be taught, and that’s what Be Your Best aims to do. “The best moment to scan is any time when the ball is moving and the motion is set,” explains Whitehouse. The best players use this moment – when the ball’s trajectory won’t change – to look around and get a snapshot of their surroundings to inform their decision making. “Every time a player touches the ball, your eyes should be back on it, because that’s the moment where the ball can shift and change direction.”

Some of the best players in the world are masters of this – especially visionary midfielders. Kevin De Bruyne is a modern player that Whitehouse cites as particularly great at scanning, but research highlights former Barcelona playmaker Xavi as the GOAT.

Indeed, Xavi explained in one interview that his scanning goes as far as to analyze the chairs and tables in a room to find the best seat. Notably, in the same interview he extols the virtues of Tetris as a game of awareness, planning and timing. “Preparation for Tetris is the same in football, ”he said. “It is essential.”

As a more prolific gamer than a footballer, that gave me false hope, but the actual experience using the free Be Your Best trial was humbling.

Be Your Best.  Credit: Be Your Best.
Be Your Best. Credit: Be Your Best.

You’re thrown onto a full-size pitch mid game in a somewhat sparsely filled stadium, and faced with a series of key moments. At some point in each, you’ll be passed the ball and it’s up to you – based on your quick scanning of the surroundings, tracked and graded by the software – to make a decision that leads to a goal (or at least a sniff at a goal).

You’re not just graded on results, mind: results can be lucky. Because it’s built for Oculus Quest, head tracking allows the software to know when you’re looking at the ball and when you’re not, letting the game judge you for frequency and timing to give you something to build on.

Even though movement and footwork are automatic and semi-automated respectively, I found a lot of time I was caught in possession because I either either panicked or simply wasn’t thinking quickly enough. It’s a dispiriting reminder that while fitness and ball skills were a problem in my non-career as a footballer, they were far from the only improbable bars to entry.

To be clear, this isn’t anywhere near FIFA, and not just because it only replicates tiny fractions of the game. The player models are basic, and their stiff movements could come from a PS2-era football game which makes teammates easier to read than real living, breathing humans – especially if said humans happen to have dozens of international caps and a Champions League medal in the shed. The models here are either passing or they’re not: there’s no subtle body language to read what they may or may not do next, and certainly no dummies or shimmies.

Be Your Best.  Credit: Be Your Best.
Be Your Best. Credit: Be Your Best.

That’s partly the limitations of the Oculus Quest and partly the realities of a small team working on a niche product. All the same, the game will soon benefit from motion capture of players to recreate some of these subtleties. “I think these subtleties are important in a football match,” Whitehouse says. “When the whole point of scanning is to look between touches, it needs to be obvious when he’s made the touch and when he’s not touching the ball.”

It’s also important from a gamification point of view, he adds, but is there a risk of professionals and clubs seeing this as a toy, rather than a serious bit of training tech?

“We’re not trying to replace regular training – there’s no replacement for that, obviously,” explains Whitehouse. “The best way to improve as a player is by receiving great coaching out there on the pitch. But this is a solution if you want to get that extra few percent. ”

In a game of such fine margins, said extra percentage points can make all the difference, and anything that can offer even the promise of such things should be gold dust to clubs, even if it ultimately falls flat.

Whitehouse says that teams in Scandinavia and Germany tend to be especially open to such solutions, but everybody is looking for the next ‘Moneyball’ innovation that can give them the edge. I’ve previously interviewed evangelists for cryotherapy and pro-level wearables as part of the beautiful game.

This is different, though, partly because it focuses exclusively on the mental aspect of the game and partly due to the relatively low cost of entry. In theory, just a £ 300 Oculus Quest and time is all that keeping you from upping your game a few notches.

It’s even rubbed off on Whitehouse himself. “Since I’ve been working for Be Your Best, scanning is something I think about constantly, ”he says. “I still play for my team here in London: sometimes I’ll find myself playing and I’m like ‘damn – I forgot to scan that, I need to do it more!'”

I doubt it alone would have got more points on the board for my now defunct five-a-side team, but maybe we could have kept our seasonal goal difference to double figures. For talented players, the rewards could be even greater.

If you would like to see how well you would fare on the pitch, check out Be Your Best here.

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