FOX will use innovative “virtual fans” for broadcasts of Major League Baseball starting Saturday as the 25th season of MLB on FOX kicks off after a months-long delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
MLB is set to return without fans in attendance, so FOX will utilize cutting-edge Pixotope software, partnering with Silver Spoon Animation and SMT, to bring a unique experience to baseball fans nationwide.
FOX Sports Executive Vice President Brad Zager told the New York Post that the original concept seemed like “pie in the sky” but the novel coronavirus put the network in a position to take it seriously.
“Pretty quick after this pandemic hit we thought we could be in a position to produce games without crowds,” Zager said.
“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 said before offering the Post a sneak peek.
“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,” the Post's Andrew Marchand wrote.
The New York Yankees face the reigning World Series champion Washington Nationals on Saturday, July 25 at 7:15 p.m. ET on FOX -- the first game that will feature the technology.
“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,” Marchand wrote. “The fans will dress according to the weather and will show emotion depending on what happens in the game. They could do the wave.”
The Post noted that FOX will not have a permanent on-screen graphic but Zager doesn’t feel that is an attempt to trick fans into thinking an actual crowd is at the stadium.
“It is not like we are trying to make people feel like there is a crowd there,” Zager told the Post. “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.”
“FOX Sports is known for innovation, and this forward-looking digital redesign marks a new era. Modern sports fans are passionate, engaged and uncompromising. Our bold, distinctive products provide them a fresh way to experience the leagues, teams and players they love,” said David Katz, FOX Sports' executive vice president and head of digital.