Virtius and the new age of gymnastics

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David McAllister/Staff

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While taking online classes from Japan amid the pandemic, watching men’s gymnastics meets every weekend is just a little different for me now than it was a year ago. The biggest change? Instead of sitting in the seat of a stadium, I’m logging into Virtius — a free online streaming service catered to gymnastics fans.

While many sports have managed to restart since last fall, hosting spectators is still not an option. Thanks to Virtius, however, not only did collegiate gymnastics become more available even for audiences abroad, but it has also caused a quiet revolution in a sport that has been pushed to the edge amid the pandemic.

What is Virtius, and how will it change the sports of gymnastics?

Upon the cancellation of last season, Ambert Yeung, a former gymnast at Stanford and a creator of Virtius, received a call from his former coach Thom Glielmi about the future prospect of gymnastics meets in the pandemic era.

Being an alumnus of Stanford gymnastics working in the tech industry, Yeung’s chance to give back to the team came earlier than he thought. In brainstorming about the future of gymnastics amid COVID-19, not only his experience of having been a collegiate gymnast but also that of film-editing — taking videos of his brother competing in rifle shooting around the country — inspired him to produce Virtius.

“When I came home, I had so much video footage and the editing was so hard,” Yeung said. “And I thought, ‘how do I create a technology to make this process easier?’”

Virtius is an online streaming service — much like YouTube and Netflix — that offers both live and recorded gymnastics competitions free of charge. While the service enables fans and reporters to access these competitions amid the pandemic anywhere around the globe, it has much more potential than just being a replacement for in-person meets.

Basically, the virtual competition connects competing teams, judges and fans online. In teams’ respective gyms, a camera is set up by an operator and a technical director with judging expertise is dispatched to handle potential issues and also to maintain fairness. Provided with live videos from each team presented on the Virtius platform, judges can score performances from their homes.

By eliminating the need for teams and referees to meet in the same place, Virtius brought a drastic change to the landscape of collegiate gymnastics. Beyond that, the service has revolutionized the fan experience.

“So you have a situation where coaches and athletes in the competition are somewhat actors in this production,” Yeung said. “The fans actually get to see everything of the competition, every single routine.”

Traditionally, gymnastics has taken a format where each team competes simultaneously in different events. Though it shortens the meet time, that format tasked audiences with following both teams’ performances at the same time, calculating the scores from different events and guessing the winner. However, in the Virtius format, both teams compete in the same event simultaneously, making it easier to compare individuals as well as the teams and follow the event.

This innovative format is filled with possibilities. With the technology, smaller competitions with fewer events are on the horizon. Thanks to the locational flexibility, this may be done with international peers as well.

“Now when people watch videos, TikTok is 15 seconds, Instagram maybe a minute and YouTube maybe 10 minutes. They’re so short,” Yeung said. “So I want people to deliver a short and meaningful competition, and if they want to watch a two-hour competition, we can do that as well.”

Fans are also utilizing the platform creatively. YouTube and Twitch users with gymnastics expertise, for example, started their own shows with live commentaries using Virtius. With these developments, audiences with all different levels of familiarity with gymnastics can understand and find entertainment in the sport.

While people may regard the service as a replacement for in-person meets, even in the aftermath of the pandemic, Yeung sees its potential to grow the sport. International competition can be enjoyed without the incursion of travel costs. Also, hybrid competitions — with some teams at the same venue and others online — are a possibility. Spectators, of course, can be anywhere in the world. Yeung believes that Virtius allows the sport of gymnastics to more easily connect with bigger audiences in its digital format, as the Olympics have.

“So you actually have the live event that is combined into a show,” Yeung said. “Are the Olympics virtual? 99% of people, they don’t go (to the venue).”

Sometimes, maximum potential can only be reached in times of crisis, and the pandemic has been a crisis not just for society but for the sport of gymnastics. By offering a new format, Virtius may manage to turn gymnastics into a vibrant sport again.

Eriko Yamakuma covers men’s gymnastics. Contact her at [email protected]