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Volume 27 No. 5
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Fox Sports Creating Full Virtual Crowd For MLB Games In '20

Fox Sports will use virtual crowds and pumped-in crowd noise for its MLB telecasts this season, creating the illusion of full ballparks for MLB games this summer and fall. Fox and MLB tested the augmented reality technology at Arizona’s Chase Field about three weeks ago and decided that the quality was high enough to use on its MLB broadcasts. “We wanted to make it as normal as possible -- this is what a Major League Baseball game should look and feel like,” said Fox Sports Exec VP and Head of Productions & Operations Brad Zager. “What we’re going for is normalcy and authenticity. We’re not trying to fool anybody. If there’s a few seconds where we can make it feel like a Major League Baseball stadium, that’s what we’re going for.”

Fox Sports CEO & Exec Producer Eric Shanks said he has been working on rolling out this virtual fan technology for NFL games that are likely to be played in empty stadiums this fall. “Up until four months ago, none of us thought that was a problem we would need to solve,” Shanks said. “We don’t know where it’s going to go. It’s another jumping off point to all types of innovation. Maybe we do want to make every stadium for every game feel like it’s a sellout. Will that make viewership go up if every game everywhere was always a sellout? Would people watch more? I don’t know.”

Here’s how it works. Fox and Silver Spoon Animation, which developed the technology with Fox, have full control of everything from what the virtual crowd is wearing to how they are cheering. During a Dodgers-Giants telecast from Dodger Stadium, for example, Fox and Silver Spoon can dictate that 80% of the fans are wearing Dodgers colors. If it’s a 10-1 game in the 8th inning, Fox and Silver Spoon can start to thin out the crowd. The crowd will react differently to a two-out single with nobody on in the first inning than it would to a two-out RBI single in the 7th inning. “If there’s a time when the director wants to show the crowd doing the wave, we can trigger that,” Zager said. “If we want people leaving the game because it’s 8-2 in the 9th inning, we can trigger that.”

The virtual crowd will not be in every shot. Fox is not able to put virtual fans in shots that feature closeups of a player. “But on the big wide shots, we’re going to let people know early on that we’re doing something unique,” Shanks said. “We’re doing it because we think it’s going to make the engagement of watching the game better.” Shanks said the technology will improve as the season wears on. Eventually, for example, viewers will be able to see the virtual fans reaching for homeruns. Fox is working on elements to produce things like “KissCam” in between innings. “Fans play such a big role in your enjoyment at home,” Shanks said. “When you see a sport and you see an empty stadium or empty arena, you’re like, 'Why am I watching this if nobody even bothers to go to the game?'"