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The coronavirus pandemic didn’t just shut down production on all our favorite geeky TV shows and movies —it also stalled live sports for the past few months. But major league sports are finally making a return, and Major League Baseball games on Fox will be going high-tech to fill in all those empty stadium seats.
The New York Post reports Fox Sports will be overlaying virtual fans to fill out those safely empty stadiums when games kick off on the network this weekend (the MLB starts its shortened, 60-game schedule today). The tech essentially works like a video game crowd, with cheering fans augmented on top of the empty stands to provide a more traditional “full stadium” look for fans watching on television. If nothing else, there's less chance virtual fans will rise up against you, unlike the robots they used in Taiwanese baseball.
But just because they’re virtual, that doesn’t mean these fans won’t look and play the part of real-life fans. They’ll dress appropriately for the weather, move and cheer when appropriate (including doing the wave on occasion, for real), and even wear the home team’s colors to keep the vibe on track. The real question, though — will they boo and throw virtual trash on the field like real fans when things get out of hand?“We were dead set on trying to make the broadcast with no crowd feel as authentic and organic as possible. We want to give people an escape,” Fox Sports executive vice president Brad Zager told The New York Post. “It is not like we are trying to make people feel like there is a crowd there. We are trying to make them feel that in the normal pitch-by-pitch, shot-by-shot baseball it is what they are used to. We aren’t trying to fool anyone.”
If the virtual tech work out for baseball, these cheering virtual sports fans could stick around for NFL games on Fox, too, later this year. At this point, Fox looks to be the only network employing augmented reality tech for games. Other networks will be using things like cardboard cutouts or tarps to cover empty stands — or just leaving those seats empty. Because, c’mon, we all know we’re in the midst of a pandemic.
The Yankees-Nationals game on Saturday, airing on Fox, will be the first to feature virtual fans this weekend.