Fox to use virtual fans for MLB 2020 broadcasts

Fox will utilize virtual fans for its MLB game broadcasts beginning Saturday.

The use of augmented reality is designed to make viewers feel as if telecasts are as normal as possible, despite the ongoing pandemic that has left ballparks empty.

“The original concept sounds like something that would never even happen — pie in the sky,” Fox Sports executive vice president Brad Zager told The Post. “Pretty quick after this pandemic hit we thought we could be in a position to produce games without crowds.

“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.”

Zager provided The Post a sneak peek of what augmented reality is and, while not perfect, it does look realistic.

When you contrast with the view of an empty stadium or cardboard cutouts, the experience probably will be superior.

That said, we will reserve full judgment as we only saw a 90-second demonstration.

Fox also is working with the NFL, which could implement it on games if, as it appears now, most, if not all, could be crowd-less.

Fox will be using virtual fans during broadcasts this season.
Fox will be using virtual fans during broadcasts this season.Fox

“We will learn a lot,” Zager said. “The NFL has been partnering with us and knows where we are in this process, and we will continue to work with them as we get closer to NFL season in rolling it out there, if we do.”

Three weeks ago, Fox, led by senior vice president of graphic technology & integration Zac Fields and their partners on the project, Silver Spoon Animation and SMT, along with MLB, sent officials to Chase Field in Phoenix to see what a virtual crowd would look like during a game. The technology gives the network ways to make the look more appealing.

Saturday’s Yankees-Nationals telecast will feature virtual fans and Fox can gear it the way it pleases.

Fox has the ability to decide the attendance. At Nationals Park on Saturday, it can program whether it wants 30 percent or whatever of the crowd to be Yankees fans.

The fans will dress according to the weather and will show emotion depending on what happens in the game. They could do the wave.

They will not be able to catch a home run ball or, when the Yankees are at home, do a Bleacher Creature chant yet.

There may be critics of adding fans, feeling it is not authentic, and perhaps starting a slippery slope. Fox will not have any permanent graphic that remains up that says “video enhanced,” which we would recommend. Fox’s broadcasters will acknowledge the use of the virtual fans.

A look at Fox's virtual fans.
A look at Fox’s virtual fans.Fox

“It is not like we are trying to make people feel like there is a crowd there,” Zager said. “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.”

As of now, no other networks are using virtual fans. ESPN, TBS, YES, SNY and all other RSNs will have cardboard cutouts or empty seats. When asked if others would be able to utilize it if it were a success, Zager said he had not thought about it, but seemed open.

“We are good partners with Major League Baseball,” Zager said. “We would work with people if they wanted to adapt also.”

On MLS, Fox has added crowd noise, while ESPN has tried to pick up more of what players and coaches are saying. The added fan chants are superior as, without it, the MLS games feel too much like a random college game you might watch on ESPN+.

For the NBA, hearing players mic’d up may be really good as basketball is more suited for conversations and trash talk than a more spread out game, like soccer.

The response of many soccer fans watching the added sound on MLS or NBC’s Premier League is the enhanced sound becomes unnoticeable after a little bit.

Zager said he is hoping the same impact can happen now with video, though Fox is not trying to trick anyone.

“When people see it I think there is a comfort to seeing sports the way you are used to seeing them in a time like right now,” Zager said. “What sports are is an escape to all the things that are going in the world. We want to make this escape right now as close as it was before and have as much fun as possible.”