How virtual fans found their seats at NBA season restart

ORLANDO, Fla. — Phoenix is 2,000 miles and two time zones away from here, although for one brief and glorious moment, dozens of people made the cross-country trip in seconds and announced their arrival very vividly.

This happened last week when Devin Booker, the young star of the Suns, elevated for a jump shot while being distracted by the LA Clippers’ ace defender, Paul George, just before time expired. As Booker released and fell to the floor while he watched the ball fall softly through the net, humans shown on the three video screens surrounding the court completely lost it.

These were Suns fans, and they were inside the building at Disney’s Wide World Of Sports both vivaciously and virtually. To put it simply, Booker and his Suns teammates didn’t celebrate alone. The game wasn’t won in Talking Stick Resort Arena, their normal home in Phoenix. It only felt that way when the buzzer sounded and the fans erupted.


Devin Booker nails the game-winner to put away the Clippers.

And that’s the purpose behind the NBA’s idea to use virtual fans at every restart game on the Disney campus. Without actual fans due to the coronavirus, the league created the next best optic: Invite fans to watch the game, in real time, through livestream and show their reactions inside the Disney arenas.

The virtual fan experience has suddenly become a thing on social media. Not only are basketball-starved die-hards getting arena face time, the technology hasn’t escaped the notice of famous faces who are angling for their close-up. Was that really Lil Wayne at the Lakers’ game giving the fan “next” to him a cyber hi-five? Somewhere in New York, Spike Lee, hard-core Knicks fan, might feel compelled to adopt a playoff team just this one time.

The league collaborated with Microsoft on the technology, and partnered with Michelob Ultra to promote and roust the demand, although as the playoffs approach, getting fans into their virtual seats will be the least of the NBA’s worries on this restart.

Not only are the fans shown inside the arenas, but the national networks often cut away from the game to reveal who and what’s on the video screens, which extend along each baseline and the sideline behind the team benches.

The fans are selected multiple ways. They register on through Michelob and are also selected by each of the 22 participating teams, who favor their most loyal followers and also families of the players. It’s a digital stay-at-home meeting, the only difference is basketball’s version is a lot more exciting than your office’s.

“With the unfortunate situation involving the pandemic that we’re in, we began to focus how to bring our fans closer to the game in different kinds of ways,” said Sara Zuckert, the league’s head of next generation telecasts. “We’re in such a different scenario now, with the way everyone is consuming media and watching sports. We knew this would be something different. I don’t think we could’ve predicted the response. I’m just thrilled to see how popular it is.”

Rapper Lil Wayne was among the fans in the virtual crowd for a recent Lakers game.

At each game, it’s easy to tell the fans apart from the team attire which apparently is mandatory. Almost everyone’s wearing a logo cap or T-shirt. Sometimes there are empty “seats” although that’s misleading; the fan simply left view of the computer camera, either to answer the call of nature or fetch a refill on the bowl of chips.

Also, with increasing frequency, seats are occupied by … pets. In that sense, the game has truly gone to the dogs; creative fans even share their seats with stuffed animals.

“Those are slightly surprising additions,” said Zuckert. “Been very funny to see. We liked it.”

The lords of the project do police the audience to make sure the visuals and behavior are up to professional standards, and anyway, the NBA hasn’t had issues. Folks are keeping it clean.

“We’ve had such great participation so far and we’re optimistic about that continuing,” Zuckert said.

The most heartfelt fan sightings involve personal connections to the teams and players. It’s common to see family members of the players, which is welcome because they’ve been kept from the campus and the players have been here over a month now.

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