Sunday, June 14, 2020

Spanish soccer returns with computer-generated crowds, and it actually works

Sports are gradually returning to our TV screens after the coronavirus pandemic brought virtually all competition around the world to a sudden halt. If you’re as big a sports addict as me, you’ll probably take what you can get right now, but the broadcast experiences I’ve watched so far haven’t been all that satisfying. It’s a little hard to get excited when you’re watching players celebrate in deafening silence in a cavernous, empty German arena.

La Liga, Spain’s top football/soccer division, is taking a different approach. The league returned to action last night with a local derby between Seville clubs Real Betis and Sevilla FC, and anyone watching at home might have done a double-take to confirm that the stadium wasn’t full. La Liga is collaborating with EA Sports to pipe in reactive crowd noise, while Norwegian broadcasting tech company Vizrt has provided visuals to give the impression of a live audience.

“We respect a lot what the Bundesliga are doing and the Premier League, and the NBA, but what we are doing will be different,” La Liga audiovisual director Melcior Soler tells The Athletic. “We are thinking of this as a televised entertainment spectacle. What we are going to do is make you recall what you are used to seeing when the stadiums are full.”

The Spanish League has gone with super-imposing a fake crowd with recorded crowd noises for its live matches which have resumed tonight with the Sevilla-Betis derby.

I'm not sure but, having seen a few German games recently, it's certainly no worse.

— Jim Gibson from #UpThere (@jimgibs0n) June 11, 2020

The virtual fans aren’t CGI representations of individual humans like you’d see in FIFA 20. Instead, the stands are blanketed in a static texture that does a surprisingly good job of looking like a crowd, so long as your actual attention is focused on the action on the pitch. It looks more like a ‘90s video game or a stereogram if you look at it up close, but overall the effect is pretty convincing. I’d take it over empty seats.

The illusion is inevitably broken from time to time

The audio, meanwhile, takes a similar approach. It’s not much like an actual football crowd with people chanting songs or yelling expletives at the referee, but it adds an emotive layer to the proceedings. There’s a constant hum of background noise that shifts in volume and excitement in accordance with the action, and you still get the release of a crowd roaring whenever there’s a goal.

The illusion is inevitably broken from time to time. The virtual crowd only appears from the main broadcast camera angle, for instance, and while the camera operators use a slightly elevated angle for player closeups so as not to show the crowd, it’s unavoidable for certain other situations. Wide-angle cameras mounted to the goalposts, as well as various aerial shots, sometimes reveal the lack of crowd in attendance.

Still, though, I honestly think La Liga’s take on sports broadcasting in the age of COVID-19 is the best I’ve seen yet. For me, it hits the right blend between abstract and authentic, genuinely adding to the experience without feeling awkward. I hope other sports organizations are taking notes.

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