Baseball back. But the MLB will look a little different in the world of COVID-19, with empty stadiums filled with silent pieces of cardboard instead of thousands of noisy fans trying to avoid spreading the virus. This is what you are not watching on Fox Sports. Starting this weekend, the network will not only introduce fake audio for fans, but will also fill the stands with digital fans for MLB broadcasts, starting from the Yankees-Nationals game on Saturday.
"We believe the crowd and seeing people in the seats is part of the broadcast."
All 30 MLB teams will count on fake fan noise on actual pitches (derived from Sony: The Show MLB games), along with regular stadium announcers, walking music, and other aspects of splendor and the conditions that accompany the baseball league match. But Fox Sports is the only broadcast station that has announced its plans for fans of virtual games.
“We think the crowd and seeing people in the seats is part of the broadcast, and it's part of the top-level sports broadcast in major leagues. So we wanted to find a solution to that,” explains Brad Zager, executive producer and head of production and operations at Fox Sports.
"We are not looking to trick anyone, it's still about the game. But from shot to snapshot, when you watch the broadcast, it's not even more noticeable that you watch what is a broadcast with fans on an empty stadium only and make it feel weird – we want to give people a sense that says Zager. "And we felt that we are going down this path and trying to use a virtual crowd will hopefully be done until it merges, and you can focus on the game more because you don't think about the main field void in the baseball league during game play."
Impact is a combination of techniques that you have seen before. The augmented reality program used to enter crowds is called Pixotope, which has worked on AR graphics for things like terrifying Super Bowl presentations and the terrifying The Weather Channel.
It works by taking advantage of the graphics (created by Creative Spoon Animation) created in the Unreal Epic engine. Unreal Engine is used here for the same reason it is famous for creating video games or for crafting specific default backgrounds for shows like The Mandalorian. Unlike most movie graphics, which must be presented in post-production after their occurrence, Unreal can be rendered in real time, making it more suitable for direct TV.
Finally, SportsMedia Technology (SMT) – the same company that handles most of the sports-focused computer overlays you know, like soccer's first yellow line, hourly screen and scoreboard, and more – deals with camera tracking to include those graphics in summaries Live camera. Four cameras – high-level cameras, midfield, first high cameras, and a third high – will display virtual fans.
"We are discovering that now, and we will continue to develop this process as we go forward."
Fox Sports producers will be able to control things like how full the virtual "crowds" are for a particular game, what clothes the weather fans wear, and what percentage of the crowds will be home fans versus them, even though the company is still discovering how to take some of those Decisions. "We are discovering that now, and we will continue to develop this process as we pass this weekend and from game to game, from week to week," says Zagar.
Fox Sports broadcasts will also incorporate the counterfeit fan sound played on the field against the background of microphone clips from players (such as during stadiums) and the other sound within the game, but it will increase the live sound from its end, too, similar to what it was doing for MLS games.
While interactions between virtual crowds and sound will be essential today (such as baseline chants, booing, and wave), the company hopes to better integrate the two as it gets more practice during the season. "It's something that we hope will become more and more collaborative on the same page as we do it more and more, with the ability to combine sound and crowd together."
Currently, only virtual fans will be broadcast on MLB games on Fox, but digitally generated fans may appear elsewhere as well. Zagre says that the company is working with all its sports sponsors, and that "as we come close to falling for football and other sports, if we feel it is going in the right direction, we will launch and introduce other sports, too."