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The second half of the 2019-20 NBA season has had a much different look than the first. Players have replaced their names across the upper back of their jerseys with social justice messages. The league is confined to a ‘bubble’ amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and players are performing in front of virtual fans. Virtual fans are watching from the comfort of their own homes and are shown on television during live broadcasts. Can the NBA players see and hear these fans while they are playing?

Sports teams adjusting to life during a pandemic

After COVID-19 shut down the NBA season on March 11, there were serious doubts whether the league would restart. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver worked out a plan to restart the season while containing the virus. Silver eliminated travel and kept fans from attending games by confining the league to its ‘bubble’ in Disney World.

So far, the plan has worked. Major League Baseball has encountered some issues during its shortened, 60-game season. MLB does not use the ‘bubble’ method and continues to have players travel throughout the country to play in various ballparks. Several games and series were postponed early as some players and team personnel tested positive for the virus.

The NFL kicks off its season Thursday night and will also have a new look. Most teams, at least for the early part of the season, will play in empty stadiums. Like Major League Baseball, the NFL will also have its teams traveling to play games. The NHL has used the ‘bubble’ and has restricted its players to two different locations.

The NBA playing in front of virtual fans

The NBA has tried its best to maintain some sort type of normalcy. While the court and players’ uniforms have messages pertaining to social justice on them, the league is looking to give the television viewer a traditional sense of the game. Since no fans are allowed to watch the games in person, the NBA has done the next best thing.

Virtual fans have been used since the restart. Fans, usually season ticket holders get first option, have to sign up for a particular game and are assigned a seat, just as they would if they were attending a game. Fans sit right at their computer and watch the game right in front of them and cheer as the action goes on.

Only one fan is allowed to be in front of the computer. There is a live moderator to assist with any technical glitches. If a fan leaves his/her seat unattended for a certain amount of time, they will be replaced.

Can the players see and hear the virtual fans when on the court?

People watching the NBA games on television certainly can see the virtual fans cheering on their teams. Are the virtual fans shown on the sideline and baseline just for TV purposes only? Can the NBA players actually see them and hear them while they are on the court?

According to Forbes, they can. “Throughout the game, the players hear a soundscape mix of music, near real-time audio from fans on the virtual boards, previously recorded cheering from NBA arenas and enhanced sounds from additional mics around the venue,” said Sara Zuckert, the NBA’s head of next gen telecast.

The players have had to adapt to not having 16,000-plus screaming fans in the arenas. They do, however, get to see those virtual faces in the crowd. “It is cool to see fans’ faces on the screens,” the Mavericks’ Delon Wright said to The Ringer. “And it’s better than being in an empty gym by ourselves.”


How Do You Become an NBA Virtual Fan?