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Fox Sports to use virtual fans during Major League Baseball broadcasts

Fox Sports has revealed it will utilize virtual fans during its Major League Baseball broadcasts in the widespread absence of spectators at games during the rescheduled season.

Utilizing Pixatope software, the network is teaming up with Brooklyn, New York-based Silver Spoon Animation and SMT to deliver an elevated viewing experience to sports fans in the wake of the global Covid-19 pandemic.

It is a similar initiative that has been used in broadcasts of some European soccer leagues, such as Spain’s LaLiga, in the past few months, though with far more enhancements.

The virtual fans will be able do up to 500 actions, ranging from high fives during a home run to doing the wave. Fox will also be able to control the percentage of fans in the stadium, as well as which team they are cheering for. The clothing on the fans can also be tailored towards the real-life weather.

“The original concept sounds like something that would never even happen — pie in the sky,” Fox Sports executive vice president Brad Zager told the New York Post. “Pretty quick after this pandemic hit we thought we could be in a position to produce games without crowds. 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.”

Should the initiative, which will also include enhanced audio, prove a success, the National Football League could follow suit.

“We will learn a lot,” Zager added. “The NFL has been partnering with us and knows where we are in this process, and we will continue to work with them as we get closer to NFL season in rolling it out there, if we do.”

The initiative will begin on July 25 during Fox’s three national MLB broadcasts that day: Milwaukee Brewers at the Chicago Cubs, followed by San Francisco Giants at Los Angeles Dodgers, and concluding with the New York Yankees at the Washington Nationals.

MLB’s other domestic networks will not be using virtual fans. The likes of ESPN, TBS and the numerous regional sports networks will either have cardboard cutouts or empty seats.

Fox Sports executives are expecting a ratings bump of about 40 per cent for the start later this month of its coverage of the revised 2020 Major League Baseball schedule.