Freaky: Are you ready for virtual baseball fans?

A though on Opening Day: The only thing more boring than modern baseball with fans in the stands is—

I was going to say “modern baseball without fans in the stands,” but it’s soccer. Soccer is more boring.

But just a notch below soccer on the boring-o-meter is modern baseball without fans in the stands.

Fox Sports has solved that problem. Networks have been adding virtual enhancements to sports broadcasts for years, like overlaying the first-down marker on the turf in football games, so why not add a packed house of cheering sims to shots of otherwise vacant stadiums when airing baseball games this fall? “It seems like more of a scrimmage,” said Fox Sports’s executive producer when asked about games played before empty stands, which I think is true. I watched a few minutes of the recent Mets/Yankees exhibition that resorted to adding cardboard cutouts of people behind the plate to “simulate” a crowd and it did feel like something less than a pro game. Virtual fans are a simple cue to help viewers immerse themselves in a reality fully detached from the grim dystopian nightmare in which we actually find ourselves.

The leagues seem to be on board. Major League Baseball has distributed around 75 different sound effects culled from the audio files of a MLB-sanctioned video game from Sony. Among the reactions available for use: cheering, roaring, disappointment and regular crowd buzz, according to a league spokeswoman…

The job is tougher for baseball than it would be for other sports, says Zager. Fox must offer several different views of the crowd that other games may not be obligated to show. “We don’t have a single-game camera, something that’s centered at mid-court. In baseball, you see the view from center field. You see the action at home, or high over first or third. This is a 360-degree environment.”

They can customize crowds too:

Fox has the ability to decide the attendance. At Nationals Park on Saturday, it can program whether it wants 30 percent or whatever of the crowd to be Yankees fans.

The fans will dress according to the weather and will show emotion depending on what happens in the game…

They will not be able to catch a home run ball or, when the Yankees are at home, do a Bleacher Creature chant yet.

They can, however, do the wave, as you’ll see below. Purists will sneer at that but we mustn’t begrudge virtual fans a way to amuse themselves while watching a sport where the ball is put in play roughly once every 20 minutes anymore.

There are other advantages to virtual fans. For instance, it’s the only way the Marlins and Rays will ever draw anything close to a full house. And depending on how creative the producers want to be with the technology, it’s a potential source of endless comic fun to brighten up broadcasts. They could have a drunk sim run out on the field during the seventh-inning stretch and be chased down by virtual security. They could have virtual crowds deliver standing ovations whenever Jose Altuve or one of the other Astros is plunked for stealing signs in 2017.

They could have virtual Phillies fans throw virtual batteries at Bryce Harper in right field when his average slips to .240.

I want them to round out the illusion, though, by providing a backstory for why there’s no COVID in this virtual reality. Have Joe Buck explain before the broadcast what happened differently in this alternate timeline to spare the sims from mass illness and death. Did the Tiananmen protesters prevail 30 years ago, forming a democratic Chinese government that responded far more responsibly when the virus first emerged? Did Trump go on a tear in February about everyone masking up immediately before the virus arrived in the U.S. instead of mumbling about how it’ll go away on its own? Did all of the Gen Z idiots who celebrated the end of lockdown in June by tossing social-distancing rules out the window decide to behave like minimally conscientious adults instead by keeping their distance? What saved the sims?