Sport gradually returns to our TV screens after the coronavirus pandemic suddenly stopped virtually all competition around the world. If you are a major sports addict like me, you will probably take what you can get right now, but the broadcasting experiences I have seen so far have not been as satisfactory. It’s a little hard to get excited when you watch players celebrate in the hardening silence of a cavernous, empty German arena.
La Liga, Spain’s best football / soccer division, takes a different approach. The league returned to action last night with a local derby between Sevilla clubs Real Betis and Sevilla FC, and anyone watching at home may have made a double play to confirm that the stadium was not full. La Liga is partnering with EA Sports to generate reactive crowd noise, while Norwegian television company Vizrt has provided images to give the impression of a live audience.
“We respect a lot what the Bundesliga does and the Premier League and the NBA, but what we do will be different,”
The Spanish league has agreed to impose a fake crowd of recorded audience sounds for their live matches which have resumed tonight with Sevilla-Betis derby.
I’m not sure but after watching some German games recently, it really isn’t any worse. pic.twitter.com/cEFZEeEiMN
– Jim Gibson from #UpThere (@ jimgibs0n) June 11, 2020
The virtual fans are not CGI representations of individual people that you would see in FIFA 20. Instead, the stands are covered in a static structure that does a surprisingly good job of looking like a crowd, as long as your actual attention is focused on the action on the pitch. It looks more like a 90’s video game or a stereogram if you look at it up close, but overall the effect is quite compelling. I’d take it over empty places.
The sound, meanwhile, takes a similar approach. It’s not much like a real football team with people singing songs or screaming expletively at the referee, but it does add an emotional layer to the procedure. There is a constant buzz of background noise that changes in volume and excitement in accordance with the action, and you still get the release of an audience as a rush when there is a target.
The illusion inevitably breaks from time to time. The virtual audience is shown only from the main broadcast camera angle, for example, and while the camera operators use a slightly elevated angle for the player’s close-ups to not show the audience, it is inevitable for some other situations. Wide-angle cameras mounted on the pillars, as well as various aerial images, sometimes show the lack of crowd presence.
But still, I honestly think La Liga’s commitment to sports broadcasts in the age of COVID-19 is the best I’ve seen yet. For me, it hits the right mix between abstract and authentic and really adds to the experience without feeling awkward. I hope other sports organizations take note.