The Return of Sports Is Great. It's Also Deeply Weird.

Playing baseball in the uncanny valley


Kyle Schwarber crushes a baseball towards centerfield. The crowd oohs, and the cheers grow louder as a Milwaukee Brewers' outfielder watches the ball sail over his head. Fans in the bleachers stand to try to snag one of the season's first home runs.

At least, that's how it looked and sounded if you watched Sunday's nationally televised game on FOX—and if you weren't watching too closely. In the real world, the only cheers came from Schwarber's Chicago Cub teammates, and no one was scrambling to catch the baseball as it thunked off the empty stands beyond the outfield wall.

Like all professional sporting events right now, the game was played behind closed doors. But viewers at home still got something vaguely akin to the "normal" experience. Simulated cheers and general background crowd noise have been edited into soccer matches by Fox, ESPN, and other networks during the pandemic too. But last weekend's baseball games marked the debut of Fox's use of "simulated fans" to make stadiums appear jam-packed even when they're virtually empty.

In some ways, it's a cool idea—one that the Miami Marlins probably wish they'd dreamed up years ago. Fox and Major League Baseball borrowed from video games, hired artificial reality programmers, and edited the whole thing together using a more advanced version of the computer that seamlessly draws the yellow line-to-gain on football fields during broadcasts. The Verge has a terrific deep dive into how it all works, if you're curious.

But does it work? Not really.

Those simulated crowds are an attempt to embrace the idea that the return of pro sports to TV represents a return to normalcy. But the uncanny valley that Fox and MLB have created serves mostly to reinforce just how weird, how abnormal, things are right now. That's not helped by the fact that the fake fans only show up in certain shots. (Fox programmed four of its camera angles to include them.) Even if the simulation were convincing, TV viewers would be left feeling like they were whipsawing between two different realities.

It's also not helped by the stories that have surrounded baseball in the week since the Washington Nationals and New York Yankees belatedly opened the season. Within days, 20 of the Marlins' players had tested positive for COVID-19 and another outbreak popped up in the Philadelphia Phillies' organization. Both teams (and some of their would-have-been opponents) have been stuck in limbo since Monday. More than a dozen games have already been canceled. It's still unclear when or if either of the affected teams will be cleared to resume games—or whether those players will be able to hit a major-league fastball after two weeks of being quarantined in hotel rooms.

On Friday, the St. Louis Cardinals canceled their scheduled game due to multiple positive tests. There's been widespread speculation that the baseball season may have to be abandoned entirely.

Zoom out a little further and the picture gets worse. This week saw the 150,000th recorded American death due to COVID-19. We also got a better sense of the economic destruction that the disease and the response to it have wrought. It's becoming apparent that most schools are not going to open on time. President Donald Trump is skylarking about delaying the election.

Good luck convincing anyone that things are returning to normal under those circumstances.

But the return of professional sports still matters, even in these somewhat bizarre forms. The National Basketball Association returned to action on Thursday night, and the National Hockey League will join the party this weekend. Both are hoping to finish seasons that were suspended in mid-March, and both have concocted expanded playoff tournaments with the goal of crowning champions by mid-October.

Unlike baseball, those two leagues are playing all their games in one or two locations—the NBA is in Orlando and the NHL is divided between Toronto and Edmonton. Creating "bubbles" means no travel will be necessary, and the leagues hope it will reduce the potential for the pandemic to disrupt seasons again. Whether it works remains to be seen.

Sports in the uncanny valley of fake fans, simulated crowd noise, and quarantine bubbles is better than no sports at all. Certainly, it is better for the players and coaches who can get back to doing what they love to do. And for fans, the explosion of televised sports is a rush of blood to the head. Soccer, golf, and tennis have been back for a few weeks now, but the sudden return of the major North American team sports is especially exciting.

But I could do without the digital mannequins in the bleachers.

NEXT: This Year, Summer Television Means Dragging in Shows from Canada, England

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  1. But does it work? Not really.

    Our virtualized, digital utopia is a bit like a salad without croutons.

    1. And bacon bits. Don’t forget the bacon.

      1. Needs more Russian dressing.

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    2. Fuck the commies and their fabricated destruction of America.

      Anyone who buys into this virus hysteria is an enemy to freedom and civil war 2.0 will not go well for them.

      1. No human being in his right mind could possibly ever support the liberal scum who did this to us over nothing but the raw desperation for political power.

        But tens of millions will, because a lot of people aren’t in their right minds.

  2. I turned on a baseball game the other day to see the cardboard cutout “fans” behind home plate, and figured I could give it a go to watch sports again.
    It was the middle of the game, like 3rd inning or so.
    Within 30 seconds the broadcasters started talking about “social justice”, so I turned it off.

    1. Too many white cardboard cutouts?

      1. No cutouts were wearing masks – – – – – – – –

        1. One in the lower right.

      2. The female cardboard cutouts were too thin and were obviously selected to represent men’s sexualized conceptions of real women.

        1. Those cardboards aren’t diverse enough.

          1. And the few oppressed peoples they do show are decidedly two-dimensional.

            1. The trans cardboard people are feeling especially oppressed.

      3. I want to know how much money they made selling tickets to cardboard cutouts.

    2. It depends on the broadcast. I’m enjoying getting my local broadcasters back, but don’t watch the games on ESPN. They have to have “narrative” in order to satisfy the viewing experience, for some reason, instead of letting the game speak for itself.

      I’m still not going to watch the NFL, though. Sports need to realize that I’m watching them as an escape and I want to tune out all that other shit for a couple of hours. Just let me enjoy seeing skilled athletes competing against each other!

      1. you got a f#cked up life if you have to keep “escaping”

        1. How weird is it that, in a world where everyone is always screeching about politics, I want to find some entertainment that’s not political? Hollywood has been inserting their hamfisted messages into every movie for the past thirty years or more, most TV is much the same.

          There’s no need for sports to have to take sides on current issues, it adds nothing to their value.

    3. Day to day life must be such a chore for easily triggered bitches like Nardz

  3. >>Simulated cheers and general background crowd noise

    yeah fuck that. no gracias. just pay the babies to stay home like the teachers.

    Cards @ Brewers canceled because the shortstop caught a cold.

    1. This is the Os year! As long as everyone has to keep forfeiting games.

    2. It would be great if some hacker put in nothing but jeering.

      1. the NBA had Zoom fans, except on Microsoft. I wonder if they filtered them out if they made uncool hand gestures.

  4. How about we just cut to rollerball?

  5. Didn’t we all agree the laugh track was a shitty idea like, fifteen years ago?

    1. Announcer: “I’m hear to tell you, folks, you can barely hear your own thought crimes over the din of these delirious Potemkin Village fans here today!”

  6. Professional sports will never recover the ground they are going to lose from all of the headwinds they face today. The fans don’t need them as much as they thought. The greed and virtue signaling are the final blow. Bunch of over paid spoiled millennials. With the exception of the NBA, the fan base is older and whiter and they don’t care anymore. Not worth the hassle.

    1. “The greed and virtue signaling are the final blow.”

      I don’t care one way or another about the greed. I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit there and listen to a bunch of wokeness wrapped around a ballgame though. I hope the advertisers take it in the shorts, too.

      1. I should say “I don’t care one way or another about the greed as long as I don’t have to listen to either side bitching about it”.

        Carry on.

      2. This. First time I see “Black lives matter” painted anywhere, or I see anyone fail to stand for the anthem, or I hear any virtual signaling, I’m out. Come to think of it, if I see any masks, I’m out then too.

        So there’s no sports this year, apparently. No big deal there.

  7. I was a sports junkie for over 40 years. I went cold turkey. No more sports for me. Done with the five major sports leagues.

    Bunch of whiny, self-entitled, over-compensated, political drama queens.

    They’re ready to shut it down for this non-lethal virus with a high survival rate? Weak mettle man.

    1. There are only 3 major sports leagues.

      1. Only one…UFC

      2. Ouch! Rufus is Canadian.

        And hockey is the only one worth watching right now.

      3. Rufus is Canadian. The local hockey rec league is a major sport to him

    2. Check out the Premier Lacrosse League. So far not woke.

      1. I saw a dude wearing a Black Lives Matter T shirt in his post-game interview the other day. That directly contradicts your statement.

  8. Won’t watch pro sports. I have watched since I was a kid for decades and last year was it. Not interested in overpaid whiners and cheaters. I regret the time wasted on those fools.

  9. I dont understand why people can’t attend group events as long as they accept the risks

    1. I don’t understand why a independent businesses can’t tell governors and legislators to fuck off. Has there been a single case where a judge said someone caught COVID at a business so the business owner is responsible? I’d love to see the section 230 defenders explain that one. It would be hilarious as fuck when the next social conservative gets elected and shuts down every gay bar and bath house in town.

      1. “…I’d love to see the section 230 defenders explain that one…”

        Uh, WIH does section 230 have to do with any of this?

    2. It would be easy to social distance in a stadium. Just sell 11 percent of the tickets and no one would be sitting next to you. You’d be like Alice in the Brady Bunch intro, minus the Bradies.

    3. Politicians don’t want people to get used to the idea of having agency over their own lives or thinking for themselves. It’s taken a long time to train people to let politicians do all of the thinking for them, and they’re going to make sure they don’t let anyone get an idea that making decisions like an adult is even a possibility. Why do you think they had to vilify Sweden so much? Sweden wasn’t playing right when they refused to treat their citizenry as if they were all overgrown toddlers (except for those who are actual toddlers at the moment). That kind of thing has to be NIPPED IN THE BUD! (imagine Barney Fife here).

  10. Also someone should photoshop the bleachers filled with NPCs

  11. The Vuelta de Burgos is on daily. Webcast in spanish. Cycling is back. And they are not backing down as near as I can tell.

  12. There are no more professional sports.

    There is political theatre, with an occasional break for games between commercials and indoctrination.
    If Trump really wants to explode a few more fascist heads, he should issue an executive order that no ‘sports team’ can use the word “National” as a descriptor unless ALL players, coaches, and staff stand at attention during the National Anthem with their right hands over their hearts.

    Kind of reminds me of the old joke about going to the Friday night fights and having a hockey game break out.

  13. And now governments are mad because baseball players aren’t that scared of getting sick, since they’re generally healthy individuals with minimal risk factors.

    State and local governments have pressured baseball about players skirting the mandates outlined in the league’s 113-page operations manual, sources told ESPN. Broadcasts that have shown players high-fiving, spitting and not wearing masks have left government officials wondering how seriously players are taking the protocols, sources said.

    Further, there is concern about off-the-field choices, with one high-ranking official saying: “There are some bad decisions being made.”

    Good to know that government officials aren’t letting the power to mandate individual behaviors go to their heads.

    1. I can assure you, the players are taking all this bullshit as seriously as the rest of us.

  14. The cardboard cutout fans are funnier. Just show them and the empty stands. Cut the fake crowd noise and play music instead.

    And baseball has had very few positive COVID-19 tests, except for the Marlins. Maybe scheduling that exhibition game in Atlanta right before the season opened was a bad idea. I wonder if the Marlins players tried the Lou Williams Lemon Pepper wings when they were out partying.

    1. Strange that the Braves aren’t dropping like flies.
      I wonder what else the Marlins were up to?

  15. The highest profile people seen by the masses of the General public are professional sports leagues. People are just realizing that most of America doesn’t know anyone infected by COVID or who died form COVID.
    Q. So how do you maintain the Hyteria over COVID? (Ask any industrial psychologist)
    A. Randomly infect players in Professional sports and the fear/hysteria will be maintained.
    Would Bill Gates really do that to sell vaccines?

    1. On Reason today: “Lots of dumbasses like conspiracy theories.”

    2. Were you the other guy on the grassy knoll? Asking for someone who cannot be mentioned.

  16. Soccer game was playing at the gym. All the players were wearing BLM t shirts while they warmed up. Pissed me off sufficiently that I will be avoiding sports until this hysteria abates.

  17. This is “the return of sports” like Newsom’s ‘opening’ of the CA economy is the “return of commerce”; some scumbag tin-pot-dictator-wanna-be’s wet dream of what sports would look like if s/he were in charge.
    Hint: Make the politicos’ pressers given before cardboard cutouts of ‘journalists’.

  18. Ha ha ha…

    I’ve given up on the “woke” MLB, NBA, and NFL. the only two sports that are really sports anymore are UFC (Dan White is the greatest league president ever)…and rugby. Neither are “political” and they actually play. MLB, NBA, and NFL are dying leagues…UFC baby….

    I don’t want to hear millionaire athletes who majored in “undergraduate studies” for a few years lecture me on anything.

    1. Interesting how many things rhyme with “woke.”

      Toke… which would explain why they say such dumb things.
      Choke… which people will reflexively do when they hear them say the dumb things.
      Joke… which it is.
      Broke… which the leagues will be.
      Coke… which if you’re on it, might make some of the stuff seem logical.

      And so on.

  19. Most US states locked down for 6 months with only 150k kungflu deaths while infected. Meanwhile, 500k + Americans died of other causes in the same period.

  20. The way the NBA set up the arena with the curtains hiding the seats is brilliant. I won’t be watching though.

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  23. Why isn’t Reason, which in theory at least is supposed to be an intellectual publication (I know, I know, try not to fall out of your chair from laughing so hard) spending way more time talking about how the fucking teachers unions are going to successfully shut down in person schooling so that they can be paid to sit at home and do almost nothing at all?

    Not only is the absence of school and real education WAY more important than the return of professional sports, it will be the single worst, most disastrous policy decision in American history.

    1. Not forcing kids back into nationalized neo-Marxist indoctrination centers as quickly as possible doesn’t have any up sides?

  24. Rufus is Canadian. The local hockey rec league is a major sport to him

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  26. Is there a single instance of a professional athlete needing medical attention when testing positive?

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  28. The virtual fans are weird, the BLM t-shirts worn by players at NBA games is political theater. These guys are just like the rest of who leave the hood as soon as we make enough money to finance our escape. I don’t know anyone I grew up with that have made decent, like above 50k a year, who said I’m gonna stay in this crappy poor neighborhood and raise my kids around high crime and educate them in low quality schools just to prove im not a sell out to my race. If they really believe BLM so much they cab sell the gated community mansions and take the kids out of private schools and move back. Any idiot can virtue signal with a t-shirt. They are selling them for $10 a pop all over the place. I have no time to watch overpaid posers anyway. I’m too busy trying to salvage my livelihood.

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