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A baseball player watches a foul ball go into stands filled with photos of fans.

Sports

Can artificial crowd noise match the thrill of packed stadiums?

With spectators unable to watch live sports in person due to the coronavirus, the cheers and jeers must come from somewhere. Teams, leagues and broadcasters around the world are taking different approaches to provide artificial crowd noise for games.

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Oakland Athletics' Stephen Piscotty watches a foul ball go into stands filled with photos of fans during a baseball game against the Seattle Mariners, Friday, July 31, 2020, in Seattle, Washington. 

Credit:

Ted S. Warren/AP

In 2020, the lyrics “take me out to the ball game” have a rather bleak meaning. The only way to watch a game is on TV or by phone at home due to the coronavirus pandemic. There are no roaring fans packed into stands, block parties or neighborhood bars.

Still, the cheers and jeers must come from somewhere. Teams, leagues and broadcasters around the world are taking different approaches to provide artificial crowd noise for games.

In South Africa, curating these sounds has been top of mind for broadcaster SuperSport.

“Replicating the atmosphere of the fans behind a closed-door match is hard because South Africans have a very unique fan culture,” said Dheshnie Naidoo, head of operations production at SuperSport International. “The popular vuvuzela that was made famous at the 2010 soccer World Cup still remains abuzz at our stadiums.”

Related: Washington NFL team retires racial slur from its name and logo

For that reason, according to Naidoo, it’s important that fans at home hear the vuvuzela when football begins in South Africa this week. Those sounds, along with all of the other cheers and crowd noises, are sourced from previous matches.

“We have audio samples for specific scenes. Your penalties, your fouls — the ahs and the oohs. How your fans would react,” Niadoo said.

While the system is vastly different from pre-pandemic life, she added, it’s exciting to see the changes happening: “We’re now getting to try out different ways of doing things from the norm. So, the new normal.”

Related: Women’s pro soccer made gains toward parity. Will coronavirus undo it?

Alvin Naicker, head of content production at SuperSport International, said the company has had to think very carefully about how they want to incorporate crowd noise. One solution they plan to implement is having two audio operators in the stadium who each focus on playing different sounds.

“Obviously, you need a very sharp and cued up audio operator,” Naicker said. “So we decided to have two people: one to control audio for cheering and the other one for disappointment.”

Both Naicker and Naidoo said they’re confident SuperSport’s plans will closely match the real experience of being in the stands.

“When [the camera] is on a close-up and you’re getting all this audio —  you actually forget that it’s an empty stadium. You actually think, ‘Wow, this is actually awesome.'"

Alvin Naiker, head of content production, SuperSport International 

“When [the camera] is on a close-up and you’re getting all this audio —  you actually forget that it’s an empty stadium. You actually think, ‘Wow, this is actually awesome,’” Naicker said. “I think it’s more disconcerting for the players, who don’t have that energy coming through from the 12th person on the field.”

Australia’s National Rugby League and select football teams in Germany have also chosen to input sound from previous matches. The English Premier League and Spanish La Liga, though, have chosen a more synthetic route. They are using sounds from the video game FIFA 20. Sports leagues in the United States are using a variety of tools; the NBA, for example, is allowing 300 fans to “attend” the games by calling in via Zoom to the arena, where their faces appear on large screens.

Part of the fun of cheering, though, is feeling like you’re a part of the action. Now that the logistics of getting teams back on the field are mostly figured out, fan engagement is drawing more attention. 

Related: In Spain after lockdown, soccer resumes for men — but not for women

MyApplause, an app from a Germany-based company called hack-CARE, lets fans control which noises are blasted through stadium speakers. To use the app, people at home simply select their team and the upcoming match. 

“When you download the app, you have four options,” said Brad Roberts, who is in charge of International Sales for MyApplause. “Cheer, clap, sing, and whistle. The sound of the audience —  and this is fans reacting in real-time  —  that gets played through the stadium speakers so the players can hear it. In return, that sound gets picked up through the TV cameras and comes back through the TV.”

That way, Roberts said, not only are the fans transported to the stadium, but the players are also able to receive the energy from the crowd’s cheers. Jürgen Kreuz, the campaign manager of MyApplause, says players have told them that it makes a difference to know that the cheers are actually coming from the fans.

“There were some players from the UK —  from Manchester and from Leeds —  who said that if there is [fake crowd noise], it’s OK,” Kreuz said. “But knowing that it was created by people at home —  that’s a completely different story. Because they feel like, ‘Wow, there are people watching us and supporting us.’”

Screenshot from the app MyApplause

Screenshot from the app MyApplause

Credit:

Screenshot from the app MyApplause

MyApplause has partnered with FanChants.com, a company that has curated crowd noises, chants, and cheers from games over the past 15 years. Because of the partnership, the MyApplause app can be customized for each team. If a Brazilian team is using the app, for example, the MyApplause team could place those fans’ favorite chant into the app.

This functionality is important, too, because certain cheers have different significance and meaning around the world. For example, Kreuz said they received feedback from Australian leagues that their fans don’t “boo” often. 

“In England, if you don’t have the boo or the whistling, that will be like, ok, the app is not worth anything,” Kreuz added.

(Read: Brits like to trash talk.)

But regardless of their team’s chance at winning, fans have expressed nothing short of desperation for sports to reenter their lives. Some people don’t mind the fake crowd noise. Others think it’s distracting and disingenuous.

Broadcasters have largely left it up to viewers to decide by offering one version of a game with artificial crowd noise and one with a more silent stadium.

“We’re very hopeful that we will create the very best audio experience,” Naidoo said. But she also acknowledges that not everyone is a fan of artificial crowd noise. 

“[The viewer] would have the option to switch it off if it’s not their preference," she said. 

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