Andy Phillips, a soccer fan from Kent, England, has a modest expectation for the games he watches on television: that what he is seeing and hearing is real and actually happening.
The coronavirus pandemic has made this complicated.
Watching a German soccer game at home on a recent weekend afternoon, Phillips, 53, was “aghast” to find that the TV network had layered artificial crowd noise over the live broadcast from the stadium, which had been closed to spectators because of the pandemic and was therefore mostly silent.
He listened, “psychologically annoyed,” as the fake crowd cheered for goals, booed for rough fouls and hummed with anticipation when the ball drifted close to the penalty area.
“It was horrendous, to be honest,” he said. “Not because I don’t enjoy the sound of crowd noise, but the fact it was fake.”
As professional sports have tiptoed back to the playing field, league officials and television executives around the world seem to have come to a consensus: that sporting events without the accompaniment of crowd noise are simply too jarring, too unfamiliar and too boring for the typical fan to endure.
And so prerecorded crowd audio tracks have quickly become the go-to solution for live showings of such disparate sports as Hungarian soccer, South Korean baseball and Australian rugby.
For every fan like Phillips, who finds the embrace of aural artifice bizarre and existentially troubling — “Who needs people in the ground, when you create your own atmosphere?” he said — there are also those for whom the simulated noise provides feelings of comfort and normalcy.
“Anything is better than hearing the echoes around a quiet stadium,” said Hunter Fauci, 24, of Highlands, N.Y., a member of the American fan club of the German team Borussia Mönchengladbach who appreciated the artificial noise. “Silence would make a lot of fans depressed.”
These sonic sleights of hand, then, can be polarizing. But they are about to become even more prominent in the coming weeks as other major leagues inch back to competition.
For instance, Joe Buck, the Fox Sports play-by-play announcer, said last month on SiriusXM Radio that it was “pretty much a done deal” that the N.F.L. would use artificial fan noise for its live game broadcasts this year if games were played in empty stadiums.
When it returns this week, England’s Premier League will offer viewers simulated crowd noise with help from the Electronic Arts’s “FIFA” soccer video game series. (While audiences in the Premier League and Bundesliga’s home countries have the option to switch between audio feeds on parallel channels, television viewers in the United States watching on NBC and Fox networks will get the augmented audio as the default for these leagues.)
Spain’s La Liga returned last week, also with virtual stadium sounds borrowed from “FIFA.” Similarly, The Athletic reported earlier this month that the N.B.A. had discussed the possibility of using audio from the “N.B.A. 2K” video games to enliven its own broadcasts.
Reactions to having the quietude of real life smothered by manufactured noise have ranged from dystopian anxiety to resignation to relief.
Twenty years ago, CBS drew criticism when the network used taped nature sounds to brighten up a broadcast of the PGA Championships; avian experts noticed some non-indigenous bird calls chirping out of their speakers. But today’s circumstances seem to have created a more welcoming environment for experimentation.
“We’re kind of in a try-anything mode,” said Bob Costas, the longtime sports announcer. “You just don’t want it to sound like the laugh track on a bad ‘60s sitcom.”
But old-school canned laughter may be the most fitting reference point for what is happening now.
Alessandro Reitano, vice president of sports production at Sky Germany, said the goal of the Bundesliga’s “enhanced audio” initiative was to “forget a little bit that you’re seeing an empty stadium” — an effort that has also involved the increased use of up-close camera angles — and to elevate the atmosphere beyond the feeling of “kids playing in the park.”
Viewers, this way, could get immersed again in the narrative of a game. Emotions could be stimulated.
Still, Bundesliga officials were hesitant about the project. Fans in Germany take particular pride in the organic and democratic quality of sports in the country, and in recent years anything that has appeared to de-emphasize the importance of live audiences, especially in the service of television, has drawn an intense backlash.
But because of the unprecedented circumstances, the league went ahead crafting a proprietary system in which a soundboard with more than a dozen carefully selected audio samples — as specific as a nervous crescendo of applause while a team chases an equalizing goal or lusty jeers for a call overturned by video review — sits at the disposal of an operator watching from a studio in Munich.
“They have this imagined sense of what the spectacle should be and how the consumer should experience it, and they manipulate the representations of it to produce that for the consumer, and it’s just taken to the nth degree,” David Andrews, a professor of sports culture at the University of Maryland, said of these leagues and television networks. “Baudrillard would have gone mad with this.”
Jean Baudrillard, the French theoretician, postulated that simulated experiences were replacing real life in postindustrial society.
He described a media-saturated culture moving toward the realm of what he and other critics called hyper-reality, a state where the simulated can be more prominent than the authentic and where images and copies can be considered realer than real life.
(It may be worth remembering, as well, that Baudrillard once described Disneyland as “a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation,” a fantasy representation of an idealized image of American life, as the N.B.A. and Major League Soccer finalize plans to resume their seasons this summer at Disney World.)
“We can look at sports and see how close we are moving toward that model,” said Richard Giulianotti, a sports sociologist at Loughborough University in England.
Once, long ago, watching a game on TV felt akin to eavesdropping on a party happening at some faraway place. Now games are specifically tailored as made-for-TV spectacles, and the screen — in your living room, on your phone — is where the action is.
Examples of sports’ long journey toward hyper-reality abound: electronic screens that instruct fans to cheer; luxury boxes that recreate the plush feeling of a living room inside a stadium; instant replay and video-assisted referee systems; digital strike zones and glowing first down markers; e-sports.
Whether this is a good or bad thing is left to the observer to decide.
Two months ago, Ross Hawkins, 44, a software developer from Auckland, New Zealand, sat down to watch WrestleMania 36, the professional wrestling event, which took place this year without fans.
The absence of crowd noise, he said, “killed sports” for him.
Several weeks later, Hawkins tuned in to watch Australia’s National Rugby League, which restarted play late last month with fake crowd sounds. The gentle hum of the fake crowd washed over him, and his mind felt suddenly at ease. He forgot the world had been turned upside down by a virus. He could enjoy sports again.
“As a reasonably intelligent person, I knew it was fake, and I didn’t expect it to make such a difference, but it did,” Hawkins said. “It feels like it’s the brain clamoring for some normalcy in 2020.”