Talking Points

The pandemic is accelerating the video gamification of sports

How do you "take me out with the crowd" when there's a global pandemic? By filling the stadium with people who can't get sick.

Fox Sports announced Thursday that its broadcasts of Major League Baseball games this season will utilize "cutting-edge" technology to populate the stands with "virtual fans." The Sims-like creations will wear their teams colors and thin out if the game is a blowout. They'll cheer, boo, and — abominably — even do the wave.

If Fox's intention was to make empty stadiums less eerie, they've definitely failed. But its choice represents an even bigger shift in professional sports: the creep toward becoming more and more like video games.

Sports and video games have been in conversation with each other for decades; 1958's Tennis for Two, played on an oscilloscope, is considered one of the first video games ever. But while electronic games used to be more influenced by live sports, that relationship has shifted thanks to advances in television graphics, made possible in part by "a new wave of high-resolution cameras and smart algorithms," Fast Company reports. Since ESPN debuted in-game box scores in the mid-'90s, networks have tried to cram screens with as many angles and statistics as possible — much like the stat bars and camera toggles available in a video game.

The push for electronic strike zones also pursues the mechanical perfection of a video game: a pitch either is or isn't a strike in the eyes of a computer, leaving no room for subjectivity or the delightful randomness of human error. The use of digital avatars in the place of human fans seems to take this to a Philip K. Dick extreme: Why involve real people at all, who might run onto the field, look bored on camera, or interfere with the game, when you can replace them with a sea of faces right out of MLB: The Show?

Of course, there's an extreme beyond even digital fans: That the players themselves could eventually be replaced by algorithms, where stats are crunched in simulations, so no games need to be played at all (it would certainly save teams some money). That might sound laughably impossible — but hey, so would have a 60-game MLB season played in empty stadiums just six months ago.