Virtual fans in MLB games a damp squib

Video: FOX Sports (YouTube)

Fox Sports filling up the stands with virtual fans in otherwise empty stadia across US to broadcast its first Major League Baseball (MLB) game of the year on July 25th failed to strike a chord with actual fans.

Major League Baseball is an American professional baseball organization and the oldest of the major professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada. A total of 30 teams play in Major League Baseball: 15 teams in the National League and 15 in the American League.

Most of the fans tweeted that they did not seem to like what they were seeing. Some fans tweeted that they didn’t mind the experiment, but the majority seemed to be against virtual fans. While some tweeted that they “hated” everything about it, few said that the whole experience was “horrendous” and they would rather prefer cardboard cutouts of fans.

The tech employed is impressive, but the application to the broadcast needs good amount of tweaking. Fox has the ability to scale the amount of fans in each park, and even change fans’ apparel to suit game-day weather. At the time of the first pitch, Wrigley Field in Chicago was mostly full of virtual fans, but there were a few pockets of empty seats in the outfield bleachers.

Fox Sports producers will be able to control things like how full the virtual ‘crowds’ are for a given game, what weather fans are dressed for, and what percentage of the crowd will be home fans versus away, although the company is still figuring out how it’ll make some of those decisions.

The jarring part is that virtual fans aren’t continually present on the broadcast, however. For the usual behind the pitcher TV view, the seats behind home plate are empty. Virtual fans only ever appeared when the broadcast switched to an angle facing the outfield, so fans were constantly popping in and out of the presentation.

Virtual fans

Virtual fans were added to Fox Sports’ coverage of the 2020 Major League Baseball (MLB) season when the action returned to the US broadcaster’s screens on July 25th.

Fox Sports used Pixatope software, in conjunction with Silver Spoon Animation and SMT to present what it hopes will be a more dynamic offering to the viewing experience, with the ballparks remaining closed to actual fans for the foreseeable future due to the coronavirus scourge which has devastated United States.

Whilst some sports coverage has included virtual crowds during the lockdown of stadia to the public – including Italy’s Serie A – the virtual fans on show for Fox Sports’ coverage was for the Milwaukee Brewers at the Chicago Cubs, the San Francisco Giants at the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the New York Yankees at the Washington Nationals.

The ‘fans’ in the stands are able to perform up to 500 actions, including a Mexican wave and high-fives following a home run. Their clothing has been tailored to reflect each team’s playing colors and will be consistent with the weather in real life.

“Pretty quick after this pandemic hit, we thought we could be in a position to produce games without crowds. We were dead set on trying to make the broadcast with no crowd feel as authentic and organic as possible. We want to give people an escape,” Fox Sports’ Executive Vice-President, Brad Zager, told mediapersons.

MLB’s revised 60-game 2020 regular-season schedule will conclude on September 27, with the 2020 National Football League (NFL) American football campaign set to kick off on September 10.

There are suggestions that the virtual fans could be used for coverage of the NFL action – “The NFL has been partnering with us and knows where we are in this process, and we will continue to work with them as we get closer to NFL season in rolling it out there, if we do,” Zager added.

Meanwhile, with several MLB franchises having launched initiatives to have cardboard cut-outs of fans in the empty stands, the Los Angeles Dodgers have gone a step further by allowing pets to be represented at Dodger Stadium. The Pups at the Park scheme, presented by Lucy Pet Foods, will allow the cut-outs to be positioned in Loge sections 143 and 145 for a price of $149.

With the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in March, American baseball league MLB decided to postpone its season first by 2 weeks, then by 8 weeks, then indefinitely. Eventually, the schedule was cut drastically from 162 games to just 60 and officially begun on July 25th.

But, because the US is seeing further rapid growth in infections, games are being played with empty stadia. The league has been preparing for such scenario and it now allows fans to push their reactions through stadium sound systems, using the MLB website or a dedicated fan app.

Growing herd

Numerous organizations around the world have been experimenting with novel ideas for the gloomy matchdays without fans. Across Premier League stadia have been covered with giant advertising banners, smaller ones are expected at NFL games.

Individual attempts include putting cardboard fan photos in the stands, most famously used by German professional football club Borussia M-gladbach but also by teams across England or Poland. Danish Aarhus GF has surrounded the field with LED screens to allow webcam streaming of fans at home.

In June, Spain’s La Liga has used an idea similar to Fox Sports’ one. However, their crowds were largely mocked and even sparked campaigns across Europe for other leagues not to follow suit. In fact, many supporters’ organizations have publicly expressed criticism of the effort to replace them with virtual substitutes.

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