NBA to feature 'virtual fans' at arenas for season restart

Mark Medina

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The NBA may not have any fans in the stands. But teams will still be able to see them.

The NBA plans to feature more than 300 so-called “virtual fans” on 17-foot video boards at games beginning with the season’s relaunch on July 30, which will feature games between the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans as well as the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex.

Those fans will appear live on Michelob Ultra-sponsored 17-foot video boards surrounding the court. They will also be able to interact with each other digitally throughout the game by using Microsoft’s “Together Mode.” That will entail removing fans from their individual backgrounds and creating a shared visual space that will be visible both in the venue and through and the broadcast.

The NBA plans to feature more than 300 so-called “virtual fans” on 17-foot video boards when games begin July 30.

The NBA has not featured this setup for scrimmages. But the Los Angeles Lakers occasionally featured “virtual Laker girls” during Thursday’s scrimmage against the Dallas Mavericks. Each designated home team features video boards of the team’s logo and sponsors. After a player makes a basket, the video board shows a profile shot of that respective person.

ESPN and Turner Sports will place more than 30 cameras around the court, many of them operating robotically. Microphones around the court will pick up on-court dialogue, sneaker squeaks and ball bounces. DJs will play music, and the announcers will call the action.

Fans also can cheer for their team digitally through the NBA App and and on Twitter using team hashtags throughout the game.  Those virtual cheers will be featured on the video boards with graphics and animation that capture the level of fan engagement around the world. Fans will also be able to feature their videos through TikTok and Snapchat.

“Working with our broadcast and technology partners, we are excited to unveil a series of enhancements that will bring fans closer to the game and allow them to personalize their viewing experience,” NBA Head of Next Gen Telecast Sara Zuckert, said in a statement.  “Our goal is to create an enjoyable and immersive experience where fans can engage with each other and maintain a sense of community as we restart the season under these unique and challenging circumstances.”

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