COVID-19 and Virtual Fans during Matches

The COVID-19 pandemic constitutes an unprecedented challenge in many sectors, including sports. Seasons were postponed and most events were cancelled.  By now, many countries have started to organize events again, but since the pandemic is far from over, this primarily involves empty stadia. But what is sports without its dedicated supporters? Different companies are introducing solutions. Most notably, Fox Sports is using virtual fans during their broadcasts of the MLB Games. Is this a good idea? And what does it tell us about how fans are understood these days by the media industry?

Virtual fan designs by Fox

Virtual Crowds

“Cheering, booing, wearing their team’s favorite colors’ is how Fox Sports describes their use of virtual fans in the trailer. It’s a solution to the problem of the empty seats and silent matches now that stadia have opened up again. Silent matches are an awkward experience for some viewers, and to solve it Fox has been experimenting with artificial noise to create an atmosphere during matches.

Sky and other networks also used pre-recorded noise, but this technique has left fans divided. In his article in Tech Radar, Tom Wiggins describes it as “football’s version of the laughing track”. While some appreciate the background noise, others struggle with the delays because the responses are mixed real-time. For others, it’s sterile and fake, because there are little to no chants from the opposing team. In some cases, fans even become curators of the noise. Sky network also piloted the idea that fans can influence what’s heard.  On Sky’s app and website, viewers can use a new Fanzone feature to vote on which chants they want to hear from the databases.

Fox goes a step further by including a virtual crowd altogether. They are not the first to do so. La Liga uses augmented reality to fill the stadium’s lower tier with faux fans during their broadcasts. While the technique isn’t perfect, this makes it seem like the seats are filled with fans at first glance. Virtual crowds have their advantages. They add some atmosphere and sensation to a largely silent match, create a feeling of spectacle, and make something feel like an event. It allows many viewers and dedicated fans to experience some sense of normality, even if it is highly staged.

But the characters of Fox are life-life, automated fans, which is fundamentally different from the abstract AR crowd of La Liga. Fox wants a near-human, CGI crowd, rather than an AR texture. In the trailer, we see detailed character designs that are also meant to convey a particular fandom (see screenshot above). These fans are diverse in terms of gender, age and ethnicity, but the texts in the trailer emphasize their behavior (“cheering, booing”) and their team colors. Being a fan becomes an almost universal identity, signified through merchandise and supporting.

La Liga’s Virtual Crowd

Non-human Fans

Virtual fans are a broader phenomenon than sports alone. Non-human fans are on the rise. Consider the rise of virtual influencers which I wrote about in this study and in this trend report, for instance. Lil Miquela is perhaps the most well-known example, a character who poses as an actual human beings and Instagram influencer.

We live in a time of fake fans, bots, and crafted audiences. Deepmind’s Alphastar, an AI tool by Google, recently outdid the best players of Starcraft. The need to theorize non-human fandom is great, as I also noted in Transformative Works and Cultures. I emphasized: “As fans, we will have to come to terms with the fact that participatory culture will not only comprise like-minded individuals but also humans, nonhumans, businesses, data, and interfaces. Fan practices will change as a result.” Non-human fans and human fans share many spaces together, and sometimes it becomes indistinguishable who is who. The ethical and social consequences of these bots, AI and fake crowds need to be considered much further. The next steps – robotic fans, holograms – are already in the making too.

Perhaps these virtual fans are nothing but flavoring, a means to create atmosphere during a televised event, but I’d like to see them as indicative of more. A turn towards a different type of automated, data-driven fandom that we need to understand much better. While we may feel some affect towards these fake fans, they also raise questions:

  • Who has designed them, and how?
  • Are they just window-dressing (an elaborate zoom background)?
  • Do they represent fans in the right way? And in a meaningful way?
  • Are they part of a larger business model?

I am curious to see how fans will receive the matches and the virtual fans, and will definitely keep an eye on this trend. I hope you will too, because it’s representative of a wider turn in fandom, creative business, and the experience economy.

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