Though Major League Baseball has resumed, bans on large gatherings have rendered it difficult for networks to fully get back into the swing of things. After all, practically no people are allowed in the stands.
Now you might be thinking to yourself, “Wow, baseball just won’t be the same without all the screaming fans. I can’t think of anything more eerie and dystopian than a sea of empty stadium seats.”
Well if you thought that, you’re sorely mistaken. It’s 2020, ladies and gentlemen, and just when you think things can’t possibly get any worse, they do. Oh, they do.
Sure, it’s not like you can go to a ballgame in person, but sitting on your couch and watching a handful of guys do their sportsy thing on your screen while nobody in the immediate vicinity can cheer them on is just as good, right? At least you can turn on the TV and see some televised sports – a little hint of normalcy in our pandemic world.
But then the producers got thinking, and realized that maybe that the loss of energy would really be felt by the fans. So, like all brilliant producers do, they put their heads together and came up with a genius, totally-not creepy-as-heck solution: they would capture and recreate that crowd energy by filling the stadiums with virtual fans on televised baseball games. Yeah, that’s right – virtual fans.
No fans? Not on FOX Sports.
Thousands of virtual fans will attend FOX’s MLB games this Saturday. pic.twitter.com/z9oQU0rYuC
— FOX Sports (@FOXSports) July 23, 2020
You know that unsettling, alternative-reality feeling you had about the world and everything that’s happening? It just got worse.
How it works
Described by Tech Crunch as “Sims characters in Orioles paraphernalia” that “cheer, boo and even do the wave,” these virtual fans apparently rely on some sophisticated technology. Chaim Gartenberg told the Verge:
The augmented reality software used to insert the crowds is called Pixotope, which has worked on AR graphics for things like the Super Bowl and The Weather Channel’s terrifying storm warning demonstrations.
It works by leveraging graphics (created by creative agency Silver Spoon Animation) built in Epic’s Unreal Engine. Unreal Engine is used here for the same reason it’s popular for creating video games or for crafting virtual on-set backgrounds for shows like The Mandalorian. Unlike most film graphics, which have to be rendered in post-production after the fact, Unreal can render in real time, making it far more suited for live television.
In action, however, the figures are too far deep in the uncanny valley for comfort. Houston Chronicle sports editor Matt Young summed up the display of fans visible behind home plate: “Just a ton of dudes alternating resting their chin in their hand and then 2-second delayed reactions.”
Fox’s digital fans gotta go. Just a ton of dudes alternating resting their chin in their hand and then 2-second delayed reactions. pic.twitter.com/fLh7EYXTMX
— Matt Young (@Chron_MattYoung) July 25, 2020
But it doesn’t stop there – oh no.
The Oakland A’s called upon the talent of Tom Hanks to provide the heartwarming sounds of a hot dog seller. Interspersed throughout the airing of the game and the fake crowd noises, you may just hear the sound of Hanks yelling phrases like “Hot dogs here! Colossal hot dogs!” and “Not a ballgame without a hot dog! Who wants a hot dog?”
It is unclear who in particular he’s speaking to, considering the stands are empty and the homebound viewers can’t exactly take him up on his offer. This feeble attempt to add charm and familiarity back into a newly warped entertainment experience has us wondering what’s more awkward – listening to an actor sell hot dogs to no one in particular, or how sad it must have been for him to yell hot dog sales pitches into a microphone from the comfort of his own home. Oh and then there was this really high tech video they released to promote the partnership. Stunning!
Are virtual fans the best we can hope for?
A look around at the range of crowd “solutions” attempted by other sports leagues isn’t much better. A few MLB teams let fans purchase cardboard cutouts of themselves to put in the stands, which isn’t weird at all. (Still trying to decide who wins the imbecility competition here- the people who came up with the idea, or the nearly 5,000 people daft enough to purchase a cutout of themselves? It’s a draw.)
Close to 5,000 people purchased cardboard cutouts of themselves for @Mets games at Citi Field this season.
One person bought a cutout for their dog and it’s pretty great. pic.twitter.com/8f1XJjie3h
— Avish Sood (@AvishSood) July 19, 2020
Then there’s the NBA, which is giving out special “tickets” to select fans to let them have their faces featured in the “crowds” behind the court in a weird zoom face square/stands interface.
Digital fans are here. 👋🏼 👋🏼 pic.twitter.com/9Uv4XfpKU0
— Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) July 25, 2020
Dear sports leagues: if you were attempting to introduce normalcy, we think you failed.