Baseball is back in the United States, with MLB’s 60-game regular season getting underway in earnest this weekend despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Because of the rising case counts in the United States, the Blue Jays won’t play in Toronto this year and fans will not be allowed in ballparks, causing a problem for broadcasters showing games on TV: will fans get weirded out by empty parks?
For some teams, a lack of fans won’t be very unusual, but a barren Wrigley Field or Fenway Park might look a bit odd. Which is why Fox Sports claimed they had an answer in a video hyping the start of the MLB season: 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
Awful Announcing caught the Fox broadcast explaining the deal with these fake fans during Saturday’s nationally televised game, showing them turn from Cubs fans to Brewers fans on command and stand up just like, you know, a very unsettling video game.
Here's a look at the virtual fans at Wrigley Field for the Cubs-Brewers game on Fox. pic.twitter.com/rmA5lENFRH
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) July 25, 2020
As The Verge explains, the fans are very much video game-inspired, using the Unreal Engine to generate fans to place in on top of live images of the empty stands.
“We’re not looking to fool anybody, it’s still about the game. But shot-to-shot, when you’re watching a broadcast, it’s not more noticeable that you’re watching what is normally a broadcast with fans in just an empty stadium and having it feel weird — we want to give people a sense of normalcy,” (executive producer and head of production and operations at Fox Sports Brad) Zager says. “And we felt like going down this path and trying to use a virtual crowd will hopefully make it so that blends in, and you can focus on the game more because you’re not thinking about the emptiness of a Major League Baseball stadium during the game.”
The effect, well, certainly doesn’t fool anyone. And for many people it made the fact that baseball was happening during a pandemic that much more apparent.
Please don't ever do the virtual fans again Fox
— Adam Jacobi (@Adam_J_Tweets) July 25, 2020
us reading your tweets pic.twitter.com/DVZ5J98Bvt
— King Hippo, First of His Name (@loljocks_grimey) July 25, 2020
It really did look very odd to have CGI crowds on things like foul balls.
FOX can just stop with the virtual fans now https://t.co/HczIps95UA
— Nick (@_ChickenJoe_) July 25, 2020
And, of course, it’s computer technology so there are so many things these virtual fans can do in order to appear somewhat normal.
— Coach Ballgame (@coachballgame) July 25, 2020
The alternative is to just keep the stands empty. Or, as some teams did, put cutouts of fans in seats for charity.
Another look at the cardboard cutouts pic.twitter.com/NED4CAM0tu
— Christopher Smith (@SmittyOnMLB) July 24, 2020
At least that goes to a good cause, though.