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With the National Football League kicking off the 2020 season this weekend, there’s been a lot of conversation about NFL virtual fans versus fans in the stands. While some teams initially plan on allowing a limited number of fans to attend games to start the season, other stadiums will be completely empty. Some lucky fans, however, will be able to attend the games and won’t even have to get up off of their couches.

Much like the NBA, the NFL has partnered with Microsoft so virtual fans can attend select NFL games this season. What exactly does it take to become an NFL virtual fan? Does it cost anything? Here are the answers on how you can find yourself virtually cheering on your favorite team in the 2020 season.  

NBA sets the standard for virtual fans

When the various sports leagues returned to action this summer, there was never a question about fans in the stands. It wasn’t going to happen. While MLB went with cardboard cutouts, MLS and NBA decided to incorporate virtual fans.  

The MLS’s approach included a video stream of virtual fans who were essentially fans on a Zoom call in the standard Brady Bunch-box layout with whatever background present at their home. Unfortunately, fans were rarely shown on television due to the odd positioning of the video boards at the field in the Orlando bubble.

The NBA, however, got it right by using the Microsoft Teams technology, which is aesthetically more pleasing as it strips out the background and virtual fans appear to be sitting in individual seats. With 17-foot video boards located behind the teams’ benches and at the ends of the court, cameras regularly show fans on television. A sponsorship with Michelob is another reason fans are prominently featured during each NBA broadcast.  

Two setups to be used for NFL virtual fans 

The beginning of the 2020 football season will initially feature two different NFL virtual fan setups. The first one will be used exclusively by Fox Sports. And on Week 1, it will only be seen as a part of the Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions broadcast. 

This broadcast is not one where fans can participate similar to the NBA. Instead, Fox will use technology to superimpose fans in the seats. While it sounds clunky and unappealing, the network did something similar during an MLB game this season, and it didn’t appear all that different. 

Because there wasn’t an NFL preseason, Fox did not get an opportunity to perform a trial run so the first test will be in Detroit. The network hopes to expand the use of the technology to other games as the season progresses.

“We didn’t get a pre-season game on the NFL to do everything that we wanted to do and really look at it,” FOX Sports Executive Producer Brad Zager told John Ourand of Sports Business Journal. “Before we rolled it out everywhere, we wanted to have a game that we could focus on, and we’ll see what happens from there.”   

How do you become an NFL virtual fan?

For fans who want to be a part of the NFL broadcast similar to the NBA games, there’s an option for that as well. Like the NBA, the NFL partnered with Microsoft and is using the same Teams technology and it’s absolutely free.

For the NFL, key games will feature the Fan Mosaic, which will be displayed in stadiums on LED screens and on the broadcast. For each game, the home team will invite 30 lucky fans to a virtual VIP experience in which they watch the game together via a Microsoft Teams meeting. 

These fans will see a dual-screen display of the live game next to a gallery view of fellow fans. Each fan video feed will be isolated and mixed into the Fan Mosaic display. Fan audio from the Teams meeting will be blended in with crowd noise customized for each stadium.

There’s also another option to be an NFL virtual fan, and that’s with the Bud Light Showtime cam at key games. It will feature fans from the Fan Mosaic, as well as tweets from fans who sign up on Twitter. When a player scores a touchdown, they will see the Fan Mosaic and tweets on LED screens installed at each end zone and have the opportunity to celebrate with those fans.

While NFL fans would much rather be in the actual stands in person drinking beer, eating food, and cheering on their teams, it’s 2020. Nothing is normal. At least there’s an opportunity for a select few to celebrate with their teams and possibly make an appearance on national television in the process.


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