Sports may be back, but fans aren’t, at least not in their usual capacity. Some question whether matches played out in empty stadia overlaid with the pre-recorded chants of spectators actually constitute ‘live’ sport. But for all that the visceral reality of the match day is currently unavailable, you could argue that fan engagement is at an all-time high. Viewing figures are up across the board according to broadcasters. A study commissioned by Smart Energy GB also revealed how UK viewers were using technology to try and recreate the match day experience, with one in six chatting with friends via video call during the game. Broadcasters have aped this, showing fans reacting to events in their home as part of the live feed, as have teams, some of which have built giant pitch-side screens to share fan reactions directly with the players.

While many have found this jarring, it is merely the next step in a shift that was already occurring pre-crisis: the fast diminishing gap between the on-site and virtual fan experience. Venues across codes, from the Premier League to the NBA and NFL, had already been experimenting with how technologies such as VR and AR might allow fans at home to feel like they’re in the stadium, with 360-degree cameras appearing on the touchline and amongst seats. The reverse is also true, with clubs keen to offer as much of the data, analysis and personalization that digital viewers get to those in the stands.

Stadiums and arenas have an opportunity to be at the forefront of merging the physical and digital worlds

A symbiotic relationship

‘I do think we will see the continued melding of remote audiences, be they at home or in supporter bars around the globe, with the live audience,’ says Christopher Lee, Managing Director for EMEA at Populous. ‘Clubs may have a live audience of 60,000 in a stadium but a remote audience in the millions, and the integration of the remote audience into the live event and of the live event into the remote experience will be accelerated.’

John Rhodes, Director of Sports + Entertainment at HOK, agrees, arguing that ‘stadiums and arenas have an opportunity to be at the forefront of merging the physical and digital worlds’. For Rhodes, this isn’t a question of privileging virtual fans over ticket holders, however – something that commentators have long feared as sports’ ultimate trajectory. Rather improving the digital experience acts as a marketing channel to convince viewers to switch seats from sofa to stadium. ‘We can use this opportunity to think about how augmented reality technology can be used in-game to make fans want to come back to venues and have a unique experience they can’t get at home.’

That is seconded by Chris Dite, leader of Arup's Sport Venue Design team: ‘Whilst remote fans are vital to a stadium’s financial and social success, ultimately, stadia are a draw because of the atmosphere they create on match days.’ But this feedback-loop effect means the virtual fan experience grows in proportion to, rather than in opposition to, that on the ground. ‘The need for clubs, broadcasters and sponsors to transmit this atmosphere to virtual fans may well be the final barrier to recreating a match day experience away from the stadium,’ Dite explains.

NBA's Supercharged gives viewers a chance to experience basketball games in the NextVR app.

Closing the distance

What’s the significance for those visiting venues in the hopefully not too distant future? Mark Tatum, Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer of the NBA, thinks that many of the tactics we’ve seen developed over the last few months might stick around. ‘There’s no doubt that technology has been incorporated into the sports viewing experience forever,’ he said in a recent interview with the World Economic Forum. ‘We are thinking about how we could use technology and innovation to create engagement between the fans who are watching at home and the in-arena experience.’

One early addition might be the ability for remote fans to cheer along with those on the terraces. That’s the opinion of Jonathan Emmett, Sports Facilities Leader at Gensler. ‘Using audio elements triggered by at-home fans within the venue, players may be able to hear virtual fans cheering remotely for their home team,’ he suggests. Indeed, Yamaha has started developing a system that allows viewers to applaud or chant over the stadium speakers by pressing buttons on an app. It’s currently being tested at clubs across Japan’s top three football leagues. Canadian startup ChampTrax is building a similar application, but one which will actually combine and transmit supporters’ voices. ‘By tethering the digital to the physical, what emerges is a new fan experience that merges the best from traditional sports with e-sports to heighten engagement,’ Emmett notes.

Home viewers watched an augmented reality dragon circle Beijing's Birds Nest stadium during the opening ceremony of the 2018 League of Legends world finals, above 40,000 oblivious attendees.

Sharing screens

This last point is particularly prescient given how many traditional sports fans turned to e-sports for their fix whilst activities on the field were paused, as well as how many sports franchises created their own e-sports teams to keep up engagement (something we’ve previously written about). These converts will have experienced firsthand what it’s like to cheer and be cheered on digitally on streaming platforms like industry leader Twitch, which saw up to 22 per cent spikes in user numbers during lockdown. They’ll also likely have discovered how the industry augments the live experience for remote audiences. In 2018 League of Legends’ world finals won an Emmy – a first for an e-sports title – for its use of an augmented reality dragon that home viewers watched circle Beijing's Birds Nest stadium during the opening ceremony, above 40,000 oblivious attendees.

Conversely, the degree to which the in-person sporting experience will be mediated by screens is also set to increase. Take Los Angeles’s SoFi stadium, which is set to open in August of this year. It features a 6,500-m2 4K circular display that dominates the interior, as well as 1,860 m2 of additional screen real estate around the bowl. These will show the sort of play-by-play analysis and infographics fans are used to seeing from broadcasters, and perhaps now livestreams from remote fans’ living rooms. Undoubtedly they will also be used for e-sports – the owners have already expressed an interest in hosting the League of Legends world finals in the future. As resident NFL team the LA Rams reports on its website, the idea behind the design is that ‘no matter where a fan sits in the stadium, they will have a video surface in front of them’, offering an experience that ‘aims to be better than what fans would see compared to watching the broadcast at home’. It’s an ambitious claim, but one that may not now be as relevant as once was thought.

This piece will feature in our upcoming issue, Frame 136.