How the NBA is using virtual fans to make games feel normal —

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When that the NBA playoffs start on Aug. 15, they’ll be missing one crucial element: home court advantage. All 16 teams which produce the postseason will perform on the exact same few courts, sans fans, deep within a disinfected Disney World fortress called the bubble.

To provide the matches some semblance of normalcy—for the players and for lovers —that the NBA is using every technical trick it could muster.

“We wanted to create an atmosphere that was as similar to a traditional NBA game as we could,” stated Sara Zuckert, who took over the league’s Next Gen Telecast department before the pandemic struck. “Nothing is going to replace 20,000 home fans cheering for their team, but we were looking at all of the opportunities to replicate that in the best possible way digitally.”

Players are having varying degrees of success adapting to their new digs. Superstar Lebron James noted the eeriness of playing with consequential games in an empty gym for the first time in his life. And fans have seen the good, the bad, and the downright bizarre of this new format.

For better or worse, here’s the way the NBA is pulling off its technical wizardry.

Virtual fans register for the racks

The bubble courts are a type of pandemic panopticon powered by Microsoft Teams. Seventeen-foot LED displays wrap around the stadium, displaying virtual stands populated with the disembodied heads of 300 fans watching at home. To score a “ticket,” fans must register for a corporate raffle by taking a photo of a can or jar from NBA beer host Michelob Ultra.

As in ordinary NBA games, the broadcast sometimes cuts to shots of actors in the stands, such as Shaquille O’Neal, Lil Wayne, and a very stressed-out Paul Pierce. To make sure that the digital audience is appropriate for broadcast, the NBA uses a team of moderators to monitor sections of the stands.

“We really have not—knock on wood—run into any issues,” Zuckert said. Even when a fan brought a goat into the frame, it was unexpectedly well-behaved.

Canned audience noise

To mask the weirdness of playing in a quiet room, the NBA pipes audience noise into the stadium and the air, mixing sound from the digital lovers in with canned cheers from previous games. The league attempts to replicate this soundscape of the “home” team’s actual stadium, including the voice of the neighborhood PA announcer and audio cues specific to each team. Some teams have asked louder crowd noise in the stadium for their games, while others have requested the A/V team to reduce the audio whenever they have the ball.

To simulate audience responses, the team introduced a “tap to cheer” function which enables lovers to click on a button or tweet a hashtag to boost the volume for their own team. A counter displaying the amount of electronic “cheers” for every team sometimes appears on the broadcast or the arena’s video displays.

The NBA is considering creating this attribute permanent to keep its international viewers engaged. “We think it can bring a lot of value to our fans who will never make it to an arena, even when fans here in the states go back to games,” Zuckert said.

Digital logos and advertisements

Inside the bubble, the teams are playing on three generic courts, bare but for the standard court markings and the words “Black Lives Matter.” But the broadcasts, viewers see the home team’s logo, in addition to ads from their regional patrons, digitally superimposed on the court. Zuckert said it’s a way for the league to regain some lost advertising revenue and make the courts feel more authentic.

Virtual advertisements are common in other sports. Soccer broadcasts, as an instance, have spent years digitally doctoring the advertisements that appear around the area to appeal to audiences from the country where the game is being shown. But Zuckert said this is the NBA’s first actual use of this technology, outside of a couple of test runs. At instances, it reveals: The graphics sometimes glitch out as players run across them, absorbing their bodies into a symbol.

“This is a strange and unique situation that we’re in,” Zuckert said. “We’re focused on using it as an opportunity for more innovation … but we still do hope to have fans back as soon as possible.”

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