May 18, 2020

Sports Without Sports Fans. What Does That Look Like?

Written by Carmen Broder

The world may be stuck indoors but that doesn’t mean sports aren’t on our minds. The Last Dance, a Netflix Original series self-described as a “definitive account of Michael Jordan’s career and the 1990s Chicago Bulls”, is a trending topic these days. In one of the earliest scenes, Jordan speaks to a crowd of fans during a November 1997 game. “We need your support,” he says just before the roar of the onlookers takes over the court. Jordan speaks aloud what we all know: a game is only as good as its fans. 

Self-isolation in the wake of the COVID-19 spread is teaching us about the future of entertainment. What does being a “fan” look like when we can’t paint our faces, don our favorite jerseys, and erupt with cheers or jeers as needed? Audiences around the globe anxiously await the reopening of stadiums,  theatres, and other venues; in the meantime, we turn to innovative digital solutions for virtual live events. For example, Launchtrip+ is creating a comprehensive list of live AND virtual events in one interactive guide. 

Sifting through the upcoming virtual events on Launchtrip+, items like Virtual Monaco GP – Formula 1 on May 24 and UFC 250 – Main Card on June 6 are certainly noteworthy. People are clamouring for entertainment during the COVID quarantine and with the right blend of publicity and accessibility, virtual events like these may become the new normal for a while. 

Cities like New York and L.A. are currently postponing live events until 2021 just to be safe. That being said, what does the future of sports look like without crowds, stadiums, and wildly overpriced beer in ugly plastic cups (okay, maybe that last one isn’t so bad)? Can a sports team maintain the same high level of energy without the raucous crowd lighting a fire under their feet at every score, miss, tackle, or strike? 

We already know that digital content is becoming increasingly lucrative for sports franchises. In lieu of “in-person” games, alternative media reigns supreme with its archived content, classic/noteworthy matches, and sport documentaries. Another distance-safe entertainment option is e-sports, where professional players log in, gear up, and compete in video games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, League of Legends, Dota 2, and Fortnite

The power of virtual reality is a linchpin in bringing a pseudo-live audience to any game. There are already virtual reality apps dedicated to broadcasting sports and entertainment, like NextVR or NBC Sports. Social simulation software is already letting people “hang out” in VR, perhaps most notably with the glitchy, niche, exhilarating mess that is VRChat

Twitch, one of the most prominent live-streaming platforms right now, boasts 15 million views per day. Audience members may not be face-to-face with their entertainment icon of choice, but they are offered a variety of engagement options: digital cheers, live chat, and interactive overlays are just some of the ways viewers are drawn into the experience. 

But what about the athletes? In a world without butts-in-seats, can athletes perform at their best? After all, Psychological Science has long discussed the phenomenon of sports teams performing better when they play on their own turf with their fans making up the vast majority of spectatorship. The thing is, such superb sportsmanship isn’t linked to seeing faces and counting filled seats. In fact, it’s all about the noise: a louder, more positive crowd tends to win advantages from competitors, coaches, and officials.

Live chat, voice-enabled microphones, and creative graphical engagement motifs can replace what we traditionally understand as “noise.” The “virtual” element of isolation-safe sports opens a whole new means of interaction with on-the-fly, audio-and-visual digital special effects.

There is an added bonus to the digital crowd, too: you can mute them. Think about what this might mean for sports fans with audio-sensitive mental illnesses, like certain forms of autism or even PTSD. Virtual stadiums have far-reaching implications that could potentially make a better experience for everyone. 

The world is migrating the exhilaration of live, in-person events out of the confines of a stadium. In doing so, it’s important to keep people safe as they continue to support their favourite sports teams—and virtual reality and live-streaming services seem like a good way to do so. As sports fans, we can do our part by avidly participating in nu-entertainment, whatever that might look like. 

So check out the latest coverage of all new and upcoming virtual sports events (we recommend Atlanta – eNascar Coca-Cola iRacing on May 26). And remember what the great Michael Jordan said: the support of the fans is everything.