Close to 22 million people attend NBA games during a regular season, averaging about 17,750 people per game. Of course, this was before COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the 2019/20 professional basketball schedule.
For now, the infamous “bubble” at ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Florida, is the new home to the NBA. Fans have no choice but to watch the games from their couches since spectators are not allowed in the arena at this time.
The new arrangement makes for an eerily quiet situation for NBA players accustomed to hearing the roar of an energetic crowd. Behind the scenes, crews are working around the clock to rally a virtual audience to attend the games. Fake crowd noise of cheering NBA fans is being recreated and with a lot of technical features involved, the overwhelming task has proved challenging.
The weirdest aspect of the new NBA games
A simulcasted fan base is the newest way to keep players engaged with their loyal supporters. But, let’s face it, the whole idea is just weird. We’re used to sitting next to each other and shouting for our favorite team. Sitting at home and tapping a screen just doesn’t have the same effect as sipping on an overpriced beer with thousands of screaming people beside you.
PC Gamer referred to the new virtual audience as a “bizarrely animated Guess Who,” which, in their opinion, is “extremely distracting.”
Why the NBA decided to pump in the fake crowd noise
The NBA, along with other professional sports organizations, wants to make the fans feel like they are still part of the action. Pumping in fake crowd noise keeps the players motivated and the spectators connected to their favorite teams.
The league’s head of next-generation telecasts Sara Zuckert, said to NBA.com,
“We’re in such a different scenario now, with the way everyone is consuming media and watching sports. We knew this would be something different. I don’t think we could’ve predicted the response. I’m just thrilled to see how popular it is.”
The technology behind the fake crowd noise and how it has worked so far
Stadium seats that once contained real people have been replaced with 17-foot-tall screens that wrap around three sides of the arena. The “Together Mode” from Microsoft Teams, allows 300 images of real fans to simulcast to the giant monitors.
“The product uses artificial intelligence to bring people together in a shared background.” While good in theory, the images are often distorted and there are common problems with proper synchronization. PC Gamer noted, “It makes the virtual crowds in sports video games look realistic.”
A tap-to-cheer app is combined with video technology to make fans feel like they are sitting court-side instead of on their couch. Viewers are encouraged to tap as often as they like. At the end of the game, the amount of cheers is tallied and put up on the scoreboard.
There are 30 strategically placed microphones beneath the court to pick up the sound of the ball bouncing and sneakers squeaking. Regardless of the attempts to make a virtual crowd appear as realistic as possible, there is no replacement for the real thing. Fans are an integral part of the overall atmosphere of live sports, and without them, watching a game seems strangely odd.