You can see virtual fans in the stands this season at MLB games on Fox for the same reason that it’s so easy to see when a football player hits a first down. This is another visual improvement with broadcast technology.
“Its implementation is very similar to the (yellow) first-and-ten line in football,” FOX Sports executive producer and production manager Brad Zager told Sporting News. “In the same way that you see the sponsorship behind the home plate on a national broadcast on that green screen, we have a bit (taken) bits and pieces of all the ways we have improved broadcasts and brought them together to try to get it work for a virtual audience. “
Of course, this was not a deep-seated idea that Fox has been researching for years. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the network to think and act quickly, as it became clear that Fox should be broadcasting MLB games without fans in the stands.
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Zager said that installing the technology that allowed Fox to show virtual fans in the stands of MLB games was a process faster than any other project he has guided on the network. It started in the spring, shortly after the coronavirus outbreak ended live sport worldwide, just before the 2020 MLB season was supposed to begin.
The deadline was smooth, but Fox had aimed to have the product ready by mid-summer. The network has optimized it just in time for its first MLB presentations in what will be a shortened 2020 season.
“We feel like the audience – the audio the audience delivers – is a big part of watching a sports event on television,” Zager said. “We wanted to find out how we could do that with all the technology that was available.”
Virtual fans at MLB games: how it works
As Zager noted when comparing the virtual fans to the yellow first-and-10 line viewers who see on the pitch during football broadcasts, this is just an evolution of that kind of visual technology.
Basically the same company that provides the first-and-ten line for Fox football coverage, SMT, helps to produce the virtual fans.
SMT is one of three companies working with Fox to bring virtual fans to its MLB broadcasts. SMT takes care of the tracking and calibration of the four cameras (high home, center field, high first and high third) that have virtual fan options.
“The secret sauce here was to make it look as authentic as possible in a stadium, in a 360-degree environment where every stadium is different,” Zager explained, adding that the most difficult aspect of the project was to start with the concept from scratch amid the pandemic. “How do we build this audience? How do we give it enough depth and life to make it worth adding to a Major League Baseball broadcast? So all of that in a very short time.
“The first round we saw was not something we would have comfortably broadcast. So it really came up with all the different pieces so people could feel or improve it like a crowd normally improves a broadcast.”
Fox has a lot of control over the virtual fans. It can add or remove fans during a broadcast. For example, if a game becomes an outburst, the network can make it look like people have left the stadium to beat the traffic.
Fox can also determine how many of the virtual fans are supporters of the home or away team based on the colors of their equipment.
The crowd noise audio in Fox’s MLB broadcasts is the same audio the players hear. MLB borrows sound from Sony’s “MLB The Show” game and sends it to stadium PA systems, so Fox’s microphones just pick up that sound and enhance it. The network has also done this for its MLS broadcasts this year.
The future of virtual fans in the stands
Zager said Fox plans to have virtual fans in the stands this season for all of its MLB broadcasts, including playoffs. He also thinks the network will expand its capabilities in terms of the control it has with the virtual fans: “What we launch will not be what we have as we get closer to the postseason.”
With baseball offering unique challenges with so many different stadiums and so many camera angles, the difficult part is out of the way so that Fox could easily deploy virtual fans for its broadcasts of other sports in the future.
The obvious next possible step is football. Zager said Fox has been in communication with the NFL and the network and the league will “figure out what’s most logical” for broadcasts when the time comes.
The NFL attendance policy for the upcoming season is fluid and will vary from team to team. But if NFL games are played without fans in the stands, Zager “could definitely see (virtual fans) roll out in the NFL.”