Competitive sports just aren’t quite the same without fans. Unfortunately, because we’re living through a global pandemic with a coronavirus that thrives in mass gatherings, having fans at games in person isn’t exactly possible right now. But that doesn’t mean professional sports leagues are ready to restart their seasons without them. So they’re doing something about it.
The National Basketball Association, which is set to restart its season on July 30 after suspending it in March because of the virus, has announced that it will use Microsoft Teams to project more than 300 fans live courtside during games. Invited fans will appear on 17-foot video screens and will be able to interact with one another, which the association says will give them the feeling of sitting next to each other at live games without leaving the comfort and safety of their homes.
This new initiative will also allow players to feel fan energy and support, the NBA said. That’s an understandable desire. It’s must be weird to play in an empty court after playing in front of people all your life.
Sara Zuckert, NBA head of next gen telecast, said the association was excited to present its new fan experience, which it had worked on with its broadcast and technology partners.
“Our goal is to create an enjoyable and immersive experience where fans can engage with each other and maintain a sense of community as we restart the season under these unique and challenging circumstances,” Zuckert said in a statement.
The new fan experience will use a recently released Microsoft Teams feature called “together mode.” When Microsoft unveiled the new feature in early July, the company described it as a way to make work meetings more engaging by “helping you focus on other people’s faces and body language and making it easier to pick up on the non-verbal cues that are so important to human interaction.”
Together mode uses AI segmentation technology to digitally put meeting, or in this case game, participants in a shared background. Per Microsoft, this makes people feel like they’re sitting in the same room as everyone else in a meeting or class. It throws the typical grid of boxes that we’re used to in video chat out the window. Instead, together mode looks like you’re looking at the entire group in a virtual mirror with a unique background.
In addition, the NBA said that all viewers will be able to impact the visual effects in the arenas through “virtual cheering.” Fans can virtually cheer for their favorite team through the NBA app and website as well as with hashtags on Twitter. The NBA said it will put this virtual cheering up on the screens “with graphics and animation” that capture fan love.
Ignoring the U.S.’ current freak out over Chinese-owned TikTok, the NBA also said it would feature videos that responded to TikTok challenges. The association will also use Snapchat’s ground segmentation lenses—which use augmented reality technology to change users’ environments, e.g. turning the floor into lava—to let fans explore a virtual rendering official basketball court in Orlando, Florida.
The NBA is using a “bubble” strategy to resume its season, meaning that all games will be played in one of several arenas at the Walt Disney World Resort complex. Twenty-two teams will play 88 seeding games, after which the top 16 will advance to the playoff format. Family and friends will only be allowed into the arena after the first round, when only eight teams will remain.
Basketball isn’t the only sport fighting to bring fans back. The Verge reports that Fox Sports decided to do something similar to what the NBA is proposing but for Major League Baseball games. However, in the Fox experience, virtual fans only appeared when the broadcast switched to an angle facing the outfield. Seats behind the home plate were empty. The result? Fans popping in and out of view during broadcasts.
Other MLB teams are letting fans buy cardboard cutouts of themselves to place in the stands. But silent and still cardboard cutouts are no match for home runs, which can be dangerous for them, as you can see in the clip below.
Honestly, when I first saw the photo Microsoft shared above, I originally thought this was a pretty innovative idea. Then I saw this, which led me to the same conclusion that others have come to: It’s a little weird.
But that being said, it’s hard to knock on this apparently sincere effort to make sports as normal as possible while trying to be safe during a pandemic. And who knows? Maybe this will go better than the Fox experience. Having your people there rooting for you, even if it looks a little weird, is probably (again I’m not a player here) better than playing in an empty arena. Overall though, it’s clear that for a while we’re going to have to learn to live with the virus. So let’s try to get as close to normal as we can while staying safe.