After a pandemic-forced hiatus, baseball is back. Well, sort of. This is baseball like you’ve never seen it, with 60 games instead of 162 and a slew of rule changes that include a ban on spitting. And then there’s the lack of fans. Stadiums and ball parks that were once filled to the brim with enthusiastic supporters will now be empty, save a few journalists and baseball personnel. Several teams have taken to filling stands with cardboard cut-outs and even the occasional stuffed animal to bring back some semblance of normalcy. But Fox Sports has a different idea: virtual fans. It debuted this technology this past Saturday, and though it’s certainly a lot less lonely than empty seats, it doesn’t feel quite right either.
The computer-generated crowd uses a combination of AR technology, camera-tracking and real-time graphics built in Epic’s Unreal Engine. Fox also hired Silver Spoon, an animation and virtual production studio, to scan in every single Major League ballpark so that the fans could be properly rendered into live camera feeds. Fox Sports producers are able to customize the size of the crowd, the jerseys they’re wearing, make them cheer when there’s a home run, and even make them do the wave.
“We believe that what we’re doing is creating a natural viewing experience,” Fox Sports executive VP Brad Zager told the Washington Post. “Sports is supposed to be an escape and when people have that escape we want it to feel as normal as possible when there’s very little normalcy, like a crowd at a baseball game on a Saturday.”
The first game to get the virtual fans treatment was the 1PM ET match-up between the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs. At first, it looked like players were in an empty Wrigley Field, which would normally be jam-packed with fans on opening weekend. But suddenly, as if by magic, a quick shot of the bleachers revealed a spattering of what appeared to be a crowd of people standing and cheering. The shot was far enough away that the “fans” blurred together, and if you squinted, you could almost be fooled into believing they were real. For one brief moment, it was as if legions of fans were in the stands, pandemic be damned.
Unfortunately, that moment didn’t last very long. For one thing, the appearance of the virtual crowd wasn’t consistent. Sometimes they’d be there, sometimes they wouldn’t. Sometimes they’d be in the bleachers, but not behind the batter’s box, and vice versa. Sometimes the camera would show virtual fans in every seat, and sometimes the ballpark would just be empty again. This on-again off-again transition was jarring to say the least, and was one of the most complained about aspects of the game on Twitter. Andrew Marchand, a New York Post reporter, tweeted that one of the reasons for the sporadic appearance of the virtual crowds was that the network was “being cautious” in how it rolled it out. Be that as it may, it was still not a good look for the technology.
If Fox Sports really believes virtual fans will enhance the viewing experience, they need to make sure fans are in every shot. Right now I've only seen fans in the bleachers from the high home plate cam. Every other camera angle shows nothing but empty seats. So this is dumb.
Also, the virtual crowd seemed to work a lot better when you couldn’t see it up close. Otherwise, it looked obviously fake, as if they were characters copied and pasted straight from The Sims. In close-up shots, you could tell that several characters were sporting the same exact hairstyle and body shape, with the women always sitting with their legs closed together, and the men always sitting with theirs apart. The virtual fans also often appear to be seated on top of chairs instead of on them, and there were times when it looked like they were standing on them too, completely throwing off any semblance of reality.
It was also a little odd that the Fox announcers didn’t really address the existence of the virtual crowd until later in the game. For the Brewers vs Cubs matchup, they mentioned it at the top of the 2nd inning, which was about 40 minutes into the broadcast. In the 4PM ET game between the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Fox announcers didn’t even mention the virtual crowds (which had been appearing on-and-off for over an hour at this point) until the bottom of the 4th. And even then, those mentions were just a few minutes at most. There was no indication anywhere on screen that virtual fans were being used. If you had just tuned into the game, you might’ve been a little confused and weirded out by the weird-looking fans and wondered what was going on.
And, of course, there’s the fact that none of the fans were doing what most fans would do at a baseball game. No one was drinking a beer, no one was eating a hot dog, no one was holding up cardboard signs and no one was wearing a garish homemade costume. In one amusing instance, Fox Sports producers had both Dodgers and Giants fans do the wave, and as several fans on Twitter pointed out, well, Giants fans just don’t do that (call it a longstanding/sitting tradition). Perhaps the most realistic thing that the virtual crowd did was that it started to thin out towards the later innings, much like real-life Dodgers fans would do in order to beat LA traffic.
Interestingly, the virtual fans were a no-show at the primetime 7PM ET match-up between the New York Yankees and the Washington Nationals, which is likely to be the most-watched game out of all three. According to Marchand, Fox Sports had “technical difficulties” that prevented the virtual fans from being used. Seeing as several viewers took to Twitter to voice their displeasure over how the virtual fans looked, those “technical difficulties” were probably for the best.
The concept of virtual fans isn’t new. Spain’s La Liga has tried so-called virtual crowds during soccer games, but with amorphous colored blobs instead of Sims-looking characters, which drew mixed reactions. When Coppa Italia implemented the same sort of virtual crowd tech in its final match last month, many fans seemed to find it distracting and unpleasant.
The NBA, however, is taking a slightly different approach. It’s equipping arenas with 17-foot tall LED screens that will display real-life people watching the game via Microsoft Teams. Fans will actually be viewing a live feed of the game at the same time, plus a view of their fellow “spectators,” so they can feel as if they’re at the game. This solution isn’t quite as feasible in a large ballpark or stadium due to the number of seats, but that’s an idea of “virtual fans” that might actually work. Not only can players feel a little more engaged with the fans, fans can in turn feel like they’re part of the game and and the thrill of maybe being on “camera.”
As goofy as they might seem, cardboard cut-outs could potentially be preferable than Fox Sports’ idea of “virtual fans.” Not only do these cut-outs feature faces of real people, some teams are allowing fans to pay for their faces to be on them, with the proceeds going to charities.
In the end, even Fox Sports acknowledges that it’s not fooling anyone with its virtual fans. As broadcaster Adam Amin said in the Brewers vs Cubs broadcast, “It’s not gonna look or sound like what you’re used to. We’re not fooling you. It’s just making it a little normal once in a while.”
“Embrace the weird, is what I’d say about the 2020 season,” he said. With a global pandemic, a shortened season, and plenty of rules changes, fans have been willing to embrace plenty of weird already. But Fox Sports’ “virtual fans” could prove to be too much, even for them.
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