People

How tech is packing empty stadiums with (fake) raucous crowds

Computer-generated fans could allow smaller sports events to make it big on TV.

A baseball game with fake fans

Real game, fake fans: Fox Sports is filling empty stadiums with computer-generated fans for MLB games during COVID.

Photo: Courtesy of Fox Sports

When Fox Sports aired the first MLB games of the new, shortened season this past weekend, it filled parts of the stadium with digital people, as the pandemic is keeping the real ones at home. These virtual crowds were a first for U.S. sports, but we'll likely see a lot more examples in the coming months. CGI animators have seen a flood of incoming requests to generate crowds for sports events and concerts alike, and insiders say that the trend could provide the industry with new opportunities even after COVID subsides.

Fox Sports only added CGI crowds to some of its camera feeds, leading to a somewhat dissonant mixture of shots of empty seats and shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. The results were nonetheless real enough to confuse some viewers. "Fox fooled me for a second with the digital fans," wrote one viewer on Twitter. Another asked: "Wait there are fans there? Are they all wearing masks?"

Movies, commercials and video games have long used virtual crowds as stand-ins for real humans, but up until now, the craft of generating those digital crowds has gotten very little attention. "There is really no difference between a crowd and a tree," said Dan Warom, who has been producing digital crowds for visual-effects company The Mill around 15 years.

Crowds provide important visual cues to viewers, allowing them to get a sense of scale in a scene. But if CGI artists do their work well, crowds simply blend into the background. "Everyone needs it. But it is not sexy," Warom acknowledged about his line of work.

That changed dramatically over the past several months, as sports leagues and broadcasters tried to figure out how to safely bring sports back to TV. Leagues initially used cardboard cutouts, stuffed animals and even sex dolls to fill the stands, often while augmenting games with prerecorded crowd noise, which itself has come from video games in some cases.

At the same time, the industry began to look for technology that could help make games look and feel more familiar. "Most of the big broadcasters started to seek out a solution to this," Epic Games product manager Andy Blondin said. Epic is best known for Fortnite, but the company also makes the Unreal Engine, a key production tool for video games that is increasingly being embraced by the entertainment industry as well.

Over the past few years, Hollywood has been moving away from adding visual effects in post-processing and toward generating them in real time while actors are being recorded playing in front of green screens. This approach gives directors of feature films a way to watch an approximation of the final shot live on set, an approach that Lucasfilm's visual effects unit ILM used extensively for the latest "Star Wars" movies.

The same technology also makes it possible to add virtual fans to sports games in real time, but there are some unique challenges. For one thing, sports games are being broadcast live, and crowds have to be overlaid over the actual camera feed without noticeable delays. As a result, broadcasters may have to compromise on visual complexity — something that some viewers complained about. The digital assets to create these crowds also have to be customized for each game, "to dress them properly, to put the jerseys in there," Blondin said. "All the nuances that make them feel real."

Adding to the illusion are AI algorithms that allow these virtual fans to respond to cues from the game. Fan behavior in a baseball stadium is very predictable, with viewers sitting on their chairs for much of the game, only to jump up and cheer when someone hits a home run. "The actual AI requirements are very, very low," Warom said, adding that AI can also be used to lighten things up a bit: "You can have the wave propagate through the crowd."

The technology that is now being tested by Fox Sports and others could come in handy even in a post-COVID world, after fans are allowed back into stadiums. For instance, it could give smaller regional sports teams a chance to shine. "For smaller stadiums, you may be able to augment with a second deck," Blondin said.

Broadcasters could potentially also augment and air games that traditionally happen without sizable crowds, like training matches. A team could have its training match on a regular field, and a broadcaster could then add a whole virtual stadium to the TV feed. "It's the difference between playing for the Premier League and playing [on] Sunday morning," Warom said. Adding virtual crowds could also give smaller leagues new revenue opportunities, for instance through commercials. Warom even mused that one day, parents may be able to add virtual crowds to their kids' Little League games.

In the more immediate future, the technology is being adopted by music festivals and others looking to put on believable digital events without real crowds during COVID. Having broadcasters like Fox Sports pilot digital crowds has demonstrated the possibility of the technology, according to business-development manager at Epic Games, Craig Laliberte. "It's opening up a lot of doors," he said.

Climate

Supreme Court takes a sledgehammer greenhouse gas regulations

The court ruled 6-3 that the EPA cannot use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases. That leaves a patchwork of states, utilities and, increasingly, tech companies.

The Supreme Court struck a major blow to the federal government's ability to regulate greenhouse gases.

Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Striking down the right to abortion may be the Supreme Court's highest profile decision this term. But on Wednesday, the court handed down an equally massive verdict on the federal government's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. In the case of West Virginia v. EPA, the court decided that the agency has no ability to regulate greenhouse gas pollution under the Clean Air Act. Weakening the federal government's powers leaves a patchwork of states, utilities and, increasingly, tech companies to pick up the slack in reducing carbon pollution.

Keep Reading Show less
Brian Kahn

Brian ( @blkahn) is Protocol's climate editor. Previously, he was the managing editor and founding senior writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate site, where he covered everything from the weather to Big Oil's influence on politics. He also reported for Climate Central and the Wall Street Journal. In the even more distant past, he led sleigh rides to visit a herd of 7,000 elk and boat tours on the deepest lake in the U.S.

Every day, millions of us press the “order” button on our favorite coffee store's mobile application: Our chosen brew will be on the counter when we arrive. It’s a personalized, seamless experience that we have all come to expect. What we don’t know is what’s happening behind the scenes. The mobile application is sourcing data from a database that stores information about each customer and what their favorite coffee drinks are. It is also leveraging event-streaming data in real time to ensure the ingredients for your personal coffee are in supply at your local store.

Applications like this power our daily lives, and if they can’t access massive amounts of data stored in a database as well as stream data “in motion” instantaneously, you — and millions of customers — won’t have these in-the-moment experiences.

Keep Reading Show less
Jennifer Goforth Gregory
Jennifer Goforth Gregory has worked in the B2B technology industry for over 20 years. As a freelance writer she writes for top technology brands, including IBM, HPE, Adobe, AT&T, Verizon, Epson, Oracle, Intel and Square. She specializes in a wide range of technology, such as AI, IoT, cloud, cybersecurity, and CX. Jennifer also wrote a bestselling book The Freelance Content Marketing Writer to help other writers launch a high earning freelance business.
Fintech

Can crypto regulate itself? The Lummis-Gillibrand bill hopes so.

Creating the equivalent of the stock markets’ FINRA for crypto is the ideal, but experts doubt that it will be easy.

The idea of creating a government-sanctioned private regulatory association has been drawing more attention in the debate over how to rein in a fast-growing industry whose technological quirks have baffled policymakers.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Regulating crypto is complicated. That’s why Sens. Cynthia Lummis and Kirsten Gillibrand want to explore the creation of a private sector group to help federal regulators do their job.

The bipartisan bill introduced by Lummis and Gillibrand would require the CFTC and the SEC to work with the crypto industry to look into setting up a self-regulatory organization to “facilitate innovative, efficient and orderly markets for digital assets.”

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Enterprise

Alperovitch: Cybersecurity defenders can’t be on high alert every day

With the continued threat of Russian cyber escalation, cybersecurity and geopolitics expert Dmitri Alperovitch says it’s not ideal for the U.S. to oscillate between moments of high alert and lesser states of cyber readiness.

Dmitri Alperovitch (the co-founder and former CTO of CrowdStrike) speaks at RSA Conference 2022.

Photo: RSA Conference

When it comes to cybersecurity vigilance, Dmitri Alperovitch wants to see more focus on resiliency of IT systems — and less on doing "surges" around particular dates or events.

For instance, whatever Russia is doing at the moment.

Keep Reading Show less
Kyle Alspach

Kyle Alspach ( @KyleAlspach) is a senior reporter at Protocol, focused on cybersecurity. He has covered the tech industry since 2010 for outlets including VentureBeat, CRN and the Boston Globe. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and can be reached at kalspach@protocol.com.

Policy

How the internet got privatized and how the government could fix it

Author Ben Tarnoff discusses municipal broadband, Web3 and why closing the “digital divide” isn’t enough.

The Biden administration’s Internet for All initiative, which kicked off in May, will roll out grant programs to expand and improve broadband infrastructure, teach digital skills and improve internet access for “everyone in America by the end of the decade.”

Decisions about who is eligible for these grants will be made based on the Federal Communications Commission’s broken, outdated and incorrect broadband maps — maps the FCC plans to update only after funding has been allocated. Inaccurate broadband maps are just one of many barriers to getting everyone in the country successfully online. Internet service providers that use government funds to connect rural and low-income areas have historically provided those regions with slow speeds and poor service, forcing community residents to find reliable internet outside of their homes.

Keep Reading Show less
Aditi Mukund
Aditi Mukund is Protocol’s Data Analyst. Prior to joining Protocol, she was an analyst at The Daily Beast and NPR where she wrangled data into actionable insights for editorial, audience, commerce, subscription, and product teams. She holds a B.S in Cognitive Science, Human Computer Interaction from The University of California, San Diego.
Latest Stories
Bulletins