NBA is using Microsoft Teams to brings virtual fans into its real-world games


The NBA is using a fitting hashtag, #WholeNewGame.


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When you tune in to an NBA game after the league restarts its coronavirus-interrupted season on July 30, things will look a little different. There won’t be empty stands and fake crowd noises like we saw this week at the season openers for Major League Baseball. Instead the NBA will invite fans to attend virtually, displaying their real-time heads in the stands using massive screens and Microsoft software.

The socially distanced fan experience, which the NBA and Microsoft announced Friday, will be displayed on 17-foot screens on three sides of the court, designed to reproduce the look of otherwise standard stadium seating. Microsoft will use its Teams software’s new Together mode to pipe the faces of up to 300 fans into the “seats.” The fans will need to have special tickets to participate.

“Our goal is to create an enjoyable and immersive experience where fans can engage with each other and maintain a sense of community as we restart the season under these unique and challenging circumstances,” the NBA’s head of Next Gen Telecast, Sara Zuckert, said in a statement.

The NBA’s digital-fan project marks the latest way we’re turning to technology to help bridge the forced distances we’ve been keeping as a result of the novel coronavirus, which has infected more than 15.5 million people and killed more than 634,000 patients since it was first detected in December. Apps such as Zoom, Slack, Google Meet and Microsoft’s Teams have become essential tools for businesses, schools and families attempting to work and communicate amid social distancing and lockdown procedures that’ve swept the globe.

Fans, photographers and pets in the stands in Taiwan.

Cardboard fans, photographers and pets in the stands in Taiwan.

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As entertainment and sports organizations attempt to reopen amid continued danger from the virus, they too are forced to look to alternatives to the once normally packed stadiums and concert halls. The MLB has opted to pipe in the sounds of crowds to its otherwise empty seated stadiums. 

When Taiwan’s baseball games resumed in May, fan faces filled the stands, printed atop cardboard cutouts installed in the seats. They even have cardboard cutout photographers in the front, facing real-world cheerleaders still dancing in front of the stands.

“At first, everyone felt it was a bit weird,” Chu Yu-Hsien, a player for the Rakuten Monkeys, told The New York Times when talking about the cardboard cutouts. “But as they grew in number day by day, we started to see it more as an unusual marketing campaign.”

The NBA’s approach, which includes screens branded by Michelob beer, uses Microsoft’s Together mode, which was first announced earlier this month as part of an effort to make meeting participants feel like they’re more connected with one another. The technology does this by removing participants’ individual backgrounds, placing their heads in stadium seating they all see on the screen.

“It looks like we’re side by side, sharing one giant virtual Zoom background,” CNET’s Scott Stein wrote when describing his first time trying the technology. “While the overlaid auditorium with us all seated in it seems silly at first, it’s based on careful observations, including mirroring your face to match how you’re looking around. As you watch your classmates, they may notice you subtly leaning towards them in the room.”

The NBA’s screens will be on three sides of the court.


In addition to fans being able to “attend” games, the NBA and Microsoft said Teams participants will have access to “more than 30 cameras,” including some positioned “closer to the court to showcase never-before-seen camera angles.” The NBA is also installing microphones around the court to capture more sounds from the floor, so you get listen to sneaker squeaks and ball bounces to your heart’s content.

Fans will also be able to do “virtual” cheers, through the NBA App, or on Twitter using hashtags, which the NBA will then display with animations on its video boards.

“We hope Together mode helps fans feel more connected and immersed in the game, and helps teams feel the energy of their fans, even when they can’t be in the arena,” Jared Spataro, a Microsoft corporate vice president overseeing Teams, said in a statement.

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