In a move so on-the-nose it’s almost painful, Fox Sports announced today that it will place thousands of “virtual fans” in its broadcasts of Major League Baseball games starting this Saturday. In a year with a pandemic, Facebook officially no longer caring about rampant misinformation, protests against police brutality, and — lest we forget — "murder hornets" — it looks like we have a new entry for the "Most-2020 thing to happen in 2020" contest.
This post-postmodern (post-post-postmodern?) decision isn’t exactly groundbreaking; we’ve seen similar attempts from high-tier soccer games as the COVID-19 pandemic has kept human fans at home. It seems virtual fans are becoming the de facto method by which we attempt to create a new normal, despite their inherent uncanniness.
Virtual fans have their benefits: they’re incapable of spreading the novel coronavirus, even when packed in tight quarters, for example. And creating animated fans is less expensive than paying real humans to risk their lives in the stands. This isn’t exactly the future we planned on living in, but we’re kind of running out of options at this point.
Active, loud, customizable — These aren’t just placeholder animations. Fox Sports is really going all out on its virtual fans, unlike some of the ones we've seen in the world of soccer, which have at times resembled low-resolution digital spaghetti writhing in the stands.
According to Fox Sports’ teaser for this weekend’s games, the virtual fans will be able to carry out basically all of the important functions human fans can. That includes cheering, booing, and, yes, even doing the wave. Perhaps more importantly for the owners of sports franchises and sponsors, full grandstands look better for viewers and probably increases the odds of them tuning in. The world is sad enough at the moment, without having to watch your favorite team go through the motions in a stand where no one's shouting encouragement.
The virtual fans can even be customized to wear their team’s respective colors. It’s not clear how many fans each competing team will be given, or whether the numbers will vary depending on whether the game is a home or an away one.
Maybe we're just jealous — It’s easy to laugh at these virtual fans. But look how much fun they’re having out there, enjoying each other’s company without anywhere near six feet of distance between them. They're probably drinking, too. In the sun. Catching up with friends. Making new ones.
These virtual fans get to go out in their virtual world and have fun, something the rest of us haven’t done for months. Are we meant to enjoy watching their smug little virtual faces from our place on the dirty couch that we’ve been sitting on so long it’s become part of our corporeal form?
And that’s what you missed on Glee — Okay, this one’s a long shot, but what if Fox Sports actually stole this idea from Glee? It’s a well-documented fact that everyone’s favorite problematic musical high school show filled its auditorium with dummies. Perhaps someone at Fox Sports was taking notes.
The virtual fans will start attending MLB games this Saturday on Fox Sports. They’re the most realistic we’ve seen so far, but not quite at uncanny valley levels, which is probably a good thing. We're perfectly happy with Fox's fake people looking fake. It feels very on-brand.