The NFL season kicks off Thursday night with the Houston Texans visiting the defending Super Bowl champions Kansas City Chiefs. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be a significantly reduced number of fans at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium, while many other stadiums aren’t allowing fans to attend at all just yet.
So to recreate hearing a full arena while you’re watching a game on TV, the NFL plans to use prerecorded fan noise that’s specific to each stadium. As a Seahawks fan, I hope that means I’ll be able to hear the classic “SEA! HAWKS!” chant while watching quarterback Russell Wilson pull off yet another dazzling display of athleticism to single-handedly keep the team’s playoff hopes alive.
For fans attending games in person, stadiums will be piping in a loop of prerecorded crowd noise that’s also specific to the stadium. (The idea is to create a “baseline ‘murmur,’” as described by an NFL memo.)
Other sports leagues and broadcasters have taken different approaches to recreate having fans in seats. Fox Sports has slotted virtual fans created in Unreal Engine to “fill” seats during MLB broadcasts. (They’re kind of creepy.) Some MLB stadiums have allowed fans to purchase cardboard cutouts of themselves to put in the seats. (One Mets fan bought a seat for their dog.) La Liga, Spain’s top soccer division, returned with computer-generated crowds in June. And the NBA has been using Microsoft Teams to let fans “sit” courtside by displaying them on giant screens.