On August 6th, FOX broadcasted a baseball game between the Chicago Cubs and Kansas City Royals to a national audience. While watching this Royals team, who I thought to be completely dead in the water, earn thirteen runs to beat a strong Cubs team, I noticed an uncanny presence.
FOX’s baseball broadcasts this season have included both canned audio to mimic the roar of a crowd, something relatively common and also used by broadcasts of MLS and NBA games, and a collection of computer generated fans in the empty seats. FOX, to my knowledge, is the only broadcaster using a technology like this.
They are an odd sight. Unsettling may be a better word. They were only in frame on shots of the outfield, not during at-bats, so they came up relatively infrequently, something that added to the low-level shock of seeing figures out in the stands. From afar, they don’t move like real people do. They’re a little too dynamic, constantly in motion, often synchronized, in a manner so close to human but so far from real that it kind of chills me. You can see it in the highlight video available from MLB’s YouTube channel. The best instances are in Whit Merrifield’s second-inning home run, where the entire crowd rises in unison as the ball flies towards left field but has no reaction to its hitting the foul pole. As the camera pans, the crowd struggles to remain in its section.
The angle then cuts to a shot behind a section of virtual fans seated in the lower bowl along the left-field line. At close, they look straight out of The Sims 2. But more curiously, they fill a section of the stadium that was not filled only minutes before.
That feels strange, immediately. I know, cognitively, in the front of my brain, that those fans aren’t really there, but somewhere deep in my brain, probably in the bit that’s closest connected to my simian ancestors, I sense something deeply wrong. It’s the same thing in the outfield shots. Compare this shot from Soler’s 7th-inning home run last week to a similar shot of Eric Hosmer’s home run in Game 3 of the 2014 ALDS:
The virtual fans are positioned neatly in their rows. The real fans are scattered across the walkable pavilion behind the outfield wall, along with being unorderly even within the seats. Obviously, I don’t expect whoever’s in charge of the FOX virtual fans to accurately portray things in that depth, but it worsens this uncanny valley effect that underlies every time the virtual fans appear on screen. For a split-second, my brain doesn’t calculate that they’re not real. I’ve watched plenty baseball games, and fans are always there, so there’s nothing strange about people being there in this case. Over the course of the next few seconds, every little detail that becomes clearer makes everything worse. Why are they all lit the same way despite the sunlight hitting them differently? Why are they all doing the same motion at slightly different intervals? Why is it that certain sections are completely filled and others are empty? Why are there so many fans at a Royals game in mid-August when they’re currently sitting at fifth in the division having lost (at that point) three times as many games as they’ve won?
Every one of those details slightly worsens the effect to the point where that unnatural feeling evoked makes the experience actively worse. This was supposed to make things seem more natural, more normal, and instead it reflects terrifying abnormality.
But what a perfect metaphor for living in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic? Incredible efforts put towards restoring normalcy during a time when it’s impossible to truly do so. The virtual fans join the inner-tube tables, the Saturday Night Live Zoom episode, and everyone trying very hard to convince you that wearing a mask isn’t a hindrance at all, as residue of a general American delusion regarding the pandemic response. This is not a normal time to be living, and trying to hide from that through a series of half-measures that ultimately serve to remind you of its abnormality will only hurt you in the long run.
We are suffering right now. In ways small and large, we are suffering. It might sound petty, compared to the vast number of other sufferings going on, but losing shared cultural events like baseball games and bar outings is diminishing people’s quality of life. These diminishments are smaller than the diminishments brought on by suffering through a particularly difficult COVID infection, or getting evicted because the lockdown forced you to lose your job, but they’re diminishments nonetheless, and recognizing that you’re suffering right now will help out going forward.
I like to think in terms of the very deep future right now. After finding the entries in the journals referenced in a prior post, I started to really think about what a long-term future would look like, how I’d look back on the pandemic experience and how I would grow from that. In five years, I’m going to be able to look back upon my time during the COVID pandemic and say that I suffered through something quite difficult and came out on the other end of it a changed, better, person. It is through suffering and adversity that we grow, and recognizing that we’re suffering is the first step to that growth.
These delusional cosplays at normalcy, like seeing the characters from Another World in the stands at Fenway Park on FOX, or watching another all telecommunication edition of The Daily Show, will only slow down that recognition. I would rather see the empty seats and feel what we lose when spectators aren’t in person, because it’ll help me appreciate them when we’re back in the stands. Much in the same way, I would rather recognize that it’s hard to breathe when I walk around in my daily life because it will help me appreciate the day that I’m able to walk around unhindered. I would rather recognize that going to a bar or restaurant would be an absolutely dreadful experience for me right now, so that I can really appreciate the next time I’m surrounded by fellow sweaty people.
But I will not, and we will not, get there if we can’t recognize where we are right now.