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Spectator Sports in the Absence of a Live Audience

06/16/2020 4:29 PM | Deleted user

By Zeynep Ayden and Vanessa Campbell

Live entertainment has been dramatically altered by shelter-in-place mandates, and for the foreseeable future, federal and provincial governments will limit the extent of public gatherings. In the best of scenarios, this means a reduced audience, if not the total absence of one. All performance arts, as well as sports, are now faced with the awkwardness and challenges of performing in this diminished environment.

We have chosen to focus on the challenge of spectator-less spectator sports in Canada.

So far, our series of articles on this topic has applied our versatile team’s different lenses on this challenge:

  • Foresight has provided a philosophy and a set of techniques to tackle the subject.
  • Behavioural Science has described some of the universal needs shared by sports fans everywhere.
  • Applied Ethnography has delved into the cultural context of spectator sports in Canada.

With a tightly defined set of requirements provided by the above disciplines, the stage is set for Generative Design Research. Therefore, in this piece we will discuss analogous inspiration from around the world.

What are some early attempts to reinject a sense of normalcy into live entertainment? And to what extent have each of those delivered on the needs we have identified? 

Before we dive into the examples, we want to point to another layer of the challenge for sports. It is obvious that removing the background din from sports games makes it harder for players to get into the zone, and it impacts the enjoyment of fans watching sports on TV, as it becomes difficult to tell a real game from a practice game.

There are also some secondary, less obvious consequences: A broadcast from an empty arena brings out elements of the game that would usually go largely unheard. There is nothing left to conceal the private team conversations or sometimes profane trash talk that spectators are not supposed to hear.

All the more reason to send live entertainment organizers and broadcasters around the world scrambling for solutions.

We have come across a few noteworthy attempts:

  • Canned crowd noise: Many TV sitcoms still feature recorded laugh tracks, and it drives some viewers nuts. To what extent will spectator sports benefit from superimposed cheering? Will TV audiences pick this version of the live broadcast, if given the option? Or will they embrace the eerily quiet version of their game as “unplugged sports”?
  • Virtual fans: Television networks are exploring ways to visually simulate packed stadiums for their broadcasts. We have seen weird, almost comical examples of cutout fans, mannequins and dolls used to populate empty stands. Adding CGI audiences in post-production is likely the most viable method to create a visual semblance of fans.

However, none of the above can replicate the atmosphere of a stadium full of loud fans with genuine, real time reactions to the game. The social interaction that has traditionally been the lifeblood of spectator sports is still lacking.

It seems that some technologies have come of age just in time for this crisis.

  • Virtual live performance settings: Musicians have created and used virtual concert halls with successful results during the pandemic. Digital auditoriums replicate all the sections and features found in brick and mortar concert halls, like vendor booths, performance stages and a “backstage” area where artists can take part in Q&A sessions.
  • Live streaming overlays: Twitch has emerged as a serious alternative to old-school, over-the-air broadcasters. The platform invites third parties to create “extensions” – overlays and other features that streamers can activate to interact with their viewers in different ways, for example by sharing real-time stats or holding a vote.
  • Live chat: The social interactive element is what distinguishes Twitch from “passive” video streaming services such as Netflix. People are not just interested in watching the content; they congregate around particular streamers and are encouraged to actively engage with them and other viewers by exchanging messages and emotes in a live chat.
  • Virtual movie nights: If you are stuck at home but still want to have a movie night with friends and family, the Netflix Party Chrome extension syncs up the video content across multiple devices. Netflix Party allows you to invite anyone you want, then syncs the stream between all participants. There is also a built-in text chat feature so “your party” can communicate while the video is playing.

Some of these technologies can be used to improve the enjoyment of sport even in times of heightened security measures. And other low-tech, high touch solutions are serving as a source for inspiration.

  • Drive-in entertainment: The retro format of drive-in cinemas is having a resurgence in today’s socially distanced world. Drive-in concerts and parties have been popping up across the globe in recent months. This setup allows organizers to tap into the FM system and feed their soundtrack or content straight into car stereos.

Now imagine a plot of land allocated to fans’ cars as an outdoor gathering place, like the Raptors’ Jurassic Park, but made for cars. The tailgate party becomes the main event… Could honking horns and flashing headlights replace cheering or heckling? What if the gathering of cars was right outside the stadium, or the action outside was broadcast back into the basketball court? Could this become the source of encouragement that players need?

Source: LinkedIn Pulse



Zeynep Ayden is Associate Vice Present at Research Strategy Group. Vanessa Campbell is Vice President of Design Research at Research Group. Read more over here

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