Fox Sports will fill empty baseball stadiums with virtual fans that react to what's happening on the field

Key Points
  • Fox Sports is using augmented reality to create virtual fans this season.
  • The level of detail will improve as the season progresses.
  • This is one of the unique ways sports executives and leagues are filling the void in the stands created by the coronavirus pandemic.
What to expect when the MLB games kick off tonight
What to expect when the MLB games kick off tonight

Major League Baseball is starting to look and sound just like a videogame.

First the league announced it will be using crowd noise from Sony's MLB video game, and now Fox will be using cutting-edge virtual crowds in its broadcasts.

Here's how it works:

Fox Sports, in its 25th year of broadcasting MLB games, has teamed up with Silver Spoon Animation to create the technology. The company said it is using Pixatope software. Sports Business Journal previously reported on Fox's virtual crowd tech.

A Fox spokesman told CNBC the network tested the software at Arizona's Chase Field about three weeks ago. It passed the test. 

At first, we'll see the virtual crowds in the wide shots only, but eventually the technology will be able to show closeups of players, fans reaching out for home runs and maybe, if we're lucky, the Kiss Cam. 

Fox said the level of detail will even allow the network to control what fan gear the crowds are wearing and how they react to specific plays. For example, the virtual fans may leave the stadium if it looks like the home team is going to lose in a blowout.

Fox is looking to make the broadcast feel as natural as possible, so the technology will be used sparingly, and it's not expected to be used for every play. Fox told CNBC it's also "exploring" the use of virtual fans in NFL broadcasts when the season starts in September, but nothing has been finalized yet. 

The new normal

As baseball returns without any fans in the stands, we've seen all kinds of unique innovations. Many teams are experimenting with the use of cardboard cutout fans, in which fans can pay about $100 to have their picture appear on a cardboard cutout in the stands. The Dodgers are even taking it a step further by opening up a special section for dogs.

To fill the void of fans from an audio perspective, MLB told CNBC it is providing each team with an array of crowd sounds and an iPad that can be integrated into the ballpark sound system to help manage the artificial crowd noise. The crowd sounds will be audible to on-field personnel and during television and radio broadcasts. In addition, fans from home can have their voices heard in real time by virtually cheering or booing with the noise piped into the stadium.

It's all an attempt to create that sense of normalcy for America's favorite pastime in a year that is so far from normal. It's forcing teams and execs to think outside the box for creative solutions to problems they likely never imagined. 

Players seem to be taking the new normal in stride. Appearing on "Squawk on the Street" on Thursday, sports agent Scott Boras said his players can't wait to get back on the field. 

"The players I represent have been waiting a long time for this day, so we're all very excited." 

Boras said he doesn't think all the enhancements are going to impact the fan experience.

"You are going to see players that you recognize that are the greatest players in the world. What goes on in the stands and around will certainly be different ... the cake is the same, but the frosting may be a little different," said Boras. 

MLB super agent Scott Boras on 2020 baseball season
MLB super agent Scott Boras on 2020 baseball season