Major League Baseball is getting ready to make its unlikely return after being delayed earlier in the year. The league has managed to come up with a plan that is expected to keep players safe, but it is simply not feasible to pack stadiums with thousands of fans right now. Fox Sports, however, has come up with a unique solution to fill the stadiums for broadcast purposes. The network will be inserting "virtual fans" to make the games feel more real.
Fox Sports confirmed the news in an announcement. The network is set to kick off its MLB season this Saturday. A video was released showcasing the empty stands, which were then filled with digital creations of people that look reasonably convincing. The network shared the following message in regards to the plan.
"As Fox Sports embarks on its 25th season of MLB on Fox this Saturday, the network sets another milestone with the debut of its latest broadcasting innovation, introducing 'virtual fans' to its live Major League Baseball broadcasts. Utilizing cutting-edge Pixatope software, the network teams with Silver Spoon Animation and SMT to deliver an elevated viewing experience to sports fans around the nation."
Major sporting events have been sorely-missed in the U.S. over the past several months, but watching a baseball game with empty stands would probably feel off. Not that knowing the fans filling the seats are digital creations isn't weird as well, but it may be the less weird of the two options. Per Brad Zager, executive producer and executive vice president and head of production and operations for Fox Sports, "Our goal is to make sure that the view looks normal." Zager went on to add that other sports may be able to cleverly hide the lack of an audience in the stadium. Baseball doesn't have that luxury.
"We don't have a single-game camera, something that's centered at mid-court. In baseball, you see the view from center field. You see the action at home, or high over first or third. This is a 360-degree environment."
The MLB season will be majorly abbreviated, given the delay in kicking things off. Even so, it will be the first major sport to return in the U.S. since quarantine, and that is a big deal. The goal, for networks, is to make it feel as natural as possible. Mark Gross, senior vice president of production and remote events, had this to say recently.
"You sneak in just enough crowd audio for the baseball games, it's much less hollow. It's more authentic than I thought it would be, and I think the initial fear is it would not be authentic. But it's worked out well, and I think, again, it makes for a better viewing experience."
The league and networks hope that filling the stadiums virtually will help draw in advertisers. The MLB season officially kicks off on July 23, with the Washington Nationals taking on the New York Yankees on ESPN. This news was previously reported by Variety.