Adding virtual baseball (and other) audience members during a pandemic

[Social distancing requirements are leading producers of sports coverage – and many others – to get creative in simulating missing audience members. This story from Variety describes how Major League Baseball is addressing the issue with digital fans (see the original version for a 19 second video). SB Nation’s coverage (“The uncanny valley is full of Fox Sports’ virtual baseball fans”) characterizes it this way:

“In order to make the return of baseball feel more ‘alive’ on TV, Fox is adding full stadiums of virtual baseball fans that cheer and boo along with the action. It’s a means to make everything feel more normal, even during the wholly surreal pandemic era. Fox are by no means the first organization to try this, Cardboard cutouts have been used in Korea since baseball resumed, one soccer team used sex dolls and got fined for it. It’s a whole thing. But Fox is taking that to the next level with the virtual fans.”

For related efforts, see these stories:

–Matthew]

[Image: Yoenis Cespedes #52 of the New York Mets stands in the on deck circle in front of cardboard fans during their Pre Season game at Citi Field on July 18, 2020 in New York City. Credit: Al Bello/Getty Images. Source: AP via KTSA]

Fox Will Fill Empty Baseball Stadiums With Virtual Fans

July 23, 2020
By Brian Steinberg

When Major League Baseball kicks off its 2020 season, fans won’t be allowed to sit in many of the ballparks. Viewers who watch any of four games broadcast over Fox or Fox Sports 1 this Saturday may not notice.

The Fox Corporation-owned outlet intends to fill the seats of Wrigley Field, Dodger Stadium, Nationals Park and Petco Park with hundreds of virtual attendees, and will do the same at all the ballparks from which it broadcasts games over the next several weeks. It’s part of the company’s effort to bring fans of the national pastime a game that looks and sounds like a traditional event, not one played in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic.

“We had a vision for making our Major League Baseball broadcasts look as natural as they were before COVID,” says Brad Zager, executive producer and executive vice president and head of production and operations for Fox Sports, in an interview. “A lot of that is having a crowd in the stadium.”

Using digital technology, Fox Sports will fill seats with dozens of digital doppelgangers, all of whom can make movements that emulate what a crowd might look like from afar. The attendees can be tailored for each venue. Fox can change the colors of clothes, so a particular stadium might appear to be filled with home-team fans. Producers can have sections of the ersatz assemblage do a wave, says Zager, and can even remove crowd members if need be. “If it’s an 8-to-1 game, the crowd can be thinned out,” late in the game, he explains.

Fox is taking a swing at a problem with which all major sports broadcasters will have to contend in the weeks to come: How far can they go to augment the nation’s favorite games without alienating viewers?

Pretty far. CBS Sports tried to mike certain golfers who took part in June’s PGA Tour Charles Schwab Challenge, and even asked players to stop at some point while traveling between holes to make a short video about their progress that might be used later in the broadcast. ESPN has said it plans to play up the natural sounds of the ballpark – music from the home team’s organist, words from its in-stadium announcer – so that fans at home can hear. “You sneak in just enough crowd audio for the baseball games, it’s much less hollow. It’s more authentic than I thought it would be, and I think the initial fear is it would not be authentic,” says Mark Gross, senior vice president of production and remote events, during a recent conference call. “But it’s worked out well, and I think, again, it makes for a better viewing experience.”

The networks need sports properties to look their best. Millions of dollars in advertising are as stake, as Madison Avenue rushes to sports matches to reach big swaths of consumers at a time when the TV companies are hard-pressed to unveil new comedies and dramas. Production of many of those series, after all, has been scuttled by the pandemic. Already, Fox has said more than 90% of its share of the truncated MLB season.

The leagues seem to be on board. Major League Baseball has distributed around 75 different sound effects culled from the audio files of a MLB-sanctioned video game from Sony. Among the reactions available for use: cheering, roaring, disappointment and regular crowd buzz, according to a league spokeswoman. Some network executives say they are waiting to hear about similar aural opportunities from the National Basketball Association, which resumes its season on July 30, and the National Football League.

Many networks have used computer-generated graphics to help dazzle viewers who think they’ve seen it all before. The Weather Channel, for instance, can create what looks like weather situations in its studio by utilizing augmented-reality images and software. And ABC News’ “Good Morning America” has souped up segments on health by having a human body turn up on screen that the hosts can use to illustrate the effects of a medical regimen.

Fans have already seen some attempts to manage stadium visuals that look noticeably off-kilter. Officials at the New York Mets’ CitiField this past weekend filled seats behind home plate with cardboard cutouts for an exhibition game between that team and The New York Yankees. Pavilions were also set up in the stands so that players from each team who were not in immediate demand for the game wouldn’t have to crowd their dugouts.

Producers at Fox felt, simply put, that a game without a full crowd at the ready just wouldn’t feel like a professional effort. “It seems like more of a scrimmage,” says Zager.

The job is tougher for baseball than it would be for other sports, says Zager. Fox must offer several different views of the crowd that other games may not be obligated to show. “We don’t have a single-game camera, something that’s centered at mid-court. In baseball, you see the view from center field. You see the action at home, or high over first or third. This is a 360-degree environment.”

Executives have been at work on a solution since MLB pushed back Opening Day in March, he says. “The idea of putting a crowd in has never crossed our minds before,” he says. Zac Fields, Fox Sports’ senior vice president of graphic technology and integration, was dispatched to talk to different companies and examine options. Fox settled on a partnership with Silver Spoon, a production company that specializes in motion capture and character animation. “This was really done from scratch,” says Zager.

Now that the technology exists, Fox will no doubt want to experiment. Could virtual fans hold up advertising messages during the game? Seth Winter, the executive vice president for sport sales, suggested in an interview that Fox may try to offer unique ad formats and innovations, during post-season games.

Fox wants to make fans feel like they are watching the action they have come to expect, says Zager, not disrupt an already strange situation even further. “Our goal is to make sure that the view looks normal.”

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