Last night, after a postponement of several months due to the coronavirus, the NBA season restarted as the Lakers beat the Clippers 103-101. Now, despite being PC Gamer’s resident sports person, my knowledge of basketball begins and ends with The Last Dance documentary which landed on Netflix recently, but here’s something I do know: the oddness NBA’s fake crowd technology is extremely distracting.

NBA’s effort, which as CNN explains, uses a combination of artificial intelligence and a ‘tap-to-cheer app’ to provide some semblance of atmosphere for home viewers. Similar to the fake MLB ‘Cheering at the Ballpark’ announced last week, sofa-bound audiences are able to use the NBA and WNBA apps to cheer for their team at the push of a button.

Then, using Microsoft Teams’ ‘Together Mode’, up to 300 images of fans in the NBA Orlando bubble stadium can be ‘present’ on 17-foot-tall screens. It’s this visual crowd replacement that I find most distracting. It even reminds me of the Micheal Jordan film, Space Jam, albeit with a rather different ratio of animation versus real-world movement.

Fans are varying distances away from the camera, and some are completely still next to others cheering in an oddly stop-start way, clearly showing how much harder it is to get yourself going when you’re not in a real crowd. It makes the virtual crowds in sports videogames look realistic. 

That said, when it comes to sound, fans are treated to more microphone locations to pick up more of the ball pounding the court and the screeching of sneakers. It’s quite unlike football’s emphasis on crowd sound over the noises generated by the actual action: virtual crowd sounds were developed for Sky Sports in Europe with help from EA Sports’ and its FIFA games.

Naturally, whatever method sports organisations take in addressing the absence of thousands of fans is going to be unsettling. Just showing the action as it is in the time of Covid-19 makes proceedings feel like a training game; In football all you can hear is the dull thwack of the ball and the often colourful language of players and staff. And given how lucrative sports subscriptions are to broadcasters—and home advantage is to most teams—there’s always going to be something to try and spice it up.

As with most other live sports in recent months, this curious restart to the NBA season shows that any attempt to simulate the atmosphere of a crowd and a match will never fully replicate the real thing—especially the sex dolls used to the fill the stands of South Korea’s K-League. Either way, the NBA’s innovations will once again remind broadcasters of the importance of real-life fans and the part they play in generating the unique atmospheres that make sport what it is. 

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