Premier League return: are there design solutions to a lack of crowds?

The Premier League returns this week after a three-month hiatus, prompted by the coronavirus pandemic – but how will broadcasters create an atmosphere with no fans?

“Sound is critical, and people assume it’s a given,” so says soundscape designer Martyn Ware. “But when it’s not there, you’ll certainly notice it.”

Design Week chats to Ware on the eve of the English Premier League’s return. The resumption of the tournament following its suspension back in March is highly anticipated, but the form the remaining 92 matches will take will be markedly different to what fans, and players, are used to.

With the UK still in lockdown, footballers will play in empty stadiums. No crowd means no sound, and just how this might affect gameplay and viewer experience is as yet unknown.

But as Ware, who is a lifelong football fan himself, points out: “The narrative of any game is wrapped up in the sound of the crowd.” With no one present in the stands, he says, we risk having a “watered-down version of the sport”.

European solutions

Different countries around the world have posited their own solutions to the problem of no crowds, and by all accounts the adversity posed by the coronavirus has allowed top-flight clubs to get creative.

When the German Bundesliga returned last month, Borussia Monchengladbach, for example, used more than 12,000 cardboard cut outs of fans to fill seats in its Borussia Park grounds, located in western Germany. Fans could pay for their likeness to appear in the seats, with that money then being donated to charity.

The Danish Superliga resumed soon after, with notable efforts being made by AGF Aarhus and Midtjylland to combat the lack of fan support. The former installed “virtual stands” in its Ceres Park grounds in the east of the country, which fans could connect to via Zoom; while the latter set up screens on the exterior of its MCH Arena in central Denmark.

And the recent resumption of the Spanish La Liga has offered yet more ideas: last week’s match between Sevilla and Real Betis saw the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium in the south west of Spain introduce artificial crowd noises and virtual fans superimposed onto stands.

Cameras, microphones and audio

In the run up to the Premier League’s return, plenty has already been said as to how clubs and broadcasters will be approaching the challenge.

In a bid to enhance viewing from home, the Premier League governing body has put forward a number of measures as part of the so-called Operation Restart. These include tunnel cameras at certain stadiums; goal celebration cameras; audio capture from the coin toss; and wraps covering lower tier seating at all 20 stadiums.

Several clubs will also follow a similar path to AGF Aarhus, and set up screens around the grounds featuring 16 supporters from each club per match. Some individual clubs are also finalising unique ways to make fans feel involved.

While these innovations are likely to enhance the viewing of the match itself, just how successful they will be in creating an atmosphere where none exists remains to be seen. Sound, Ware explains, will be a crucial part of that.

With this seemingly in mind, a number of broadcasters have plans to bring in artificial crowd sounds for viewers. Sky Sports, which will be showing 64 of the remaining games, has confirmed its matches will be accompanied by its new Sky Sports Crowds feature. The feature in question is the result of a partnership with games developers EA Sports, and will use sounds from the football video game FIFA 20 to replicate the atmosphere of crowd-filled stadiums.

A similar deal has been struck with BT Sport, which has the rights to 20 of the games. Interestingly, as confirmed by the BBC last week, players will not be given the opportunity to hear the crowd noises on the pitch.

Sound is “part of the value of buying a ticket”

The challenge, Ware says, will be in how these crowd noises interact with the game itself.

“If broadcasters just opt for a continuous crowd sound that doesn’t follow the narrative of the game, it will suck the passion out of the experience,” he says, adding that sound production and atmosphere is “part of the value of buying a ticket”.

If more time, energy and money could be dedicated to sound design, Ware says broadcasters could easily create a “21st century version” of the crowd applause keyboards commonly used by television shows in the 1940s. This could be done, he explains, by trawling through sound archives – the likes of Sky Sports and BT Sport would have “extensive” recordings of past matches which could be used.

“50 different types of crowd sounds for 50 different events on the pitch could be nominated,” Ware gives in example. “Type one could be general hubbub; type two slight excitement moving onto the left wing; type three could be a corner; type four perhaps a close miss; and of course, you’d have several different crowd reactions for goals and so on.”

In this compact final leg of the season, Ware suggests such an idea could initially be triggered live. But with the reality likely to be that fans won’t be returning to the stands for some time, effort could be put into devising a more long-term system that would see the crowd sounds generated automatically and uniquely as the match unfolds.

“When everyone cheers, you hear cheering”

Ware’s ideas, which would make use of football matches past, are but one avenue Premier League broadcasters could explore. Another way to approach the challenge is offered by US-based tech company ChampTrax, whose team designed HearMeCheer in the early stages of the pandemic earlier this year.

The HearMeCheer platform “allows fans to become the crowd from their couch at home”, ChampTrax co-founder Jason Rubenstein explains to Design Week.

Users interact with the platform by visiting the web app on an internet-connected device and pressing the audio button. From there, they simply watch a game or match and cheer as they would normally. Audio is collected via the device microphone, aggregated into a single audio stream and integrated into real-time broadcasts.

It is a platform, Rubenstein says, that aims to get fans reengaged with sport, the idea being that real-time reactions (the latency between receiving and broadcasting audio is under a quarter of a second, he says) are better at uniting a remote crowd than pre-recorded sounds. Since its inception in March, the team has worked with ESPN to accompany two boxing matches with real crowds.

“When everyone cheers, you hear cheering; when everyone boos, you hear booing,” he says adding that the tech also allows for athletes or players to hear the crowds too if desired. In this way, he says, HearMeCheer is akin to the likes of Twitch. “Platforms for gamers allow fans to feel like part of the community by watching and sending messages to their favourite players.

“This is a similar idea: obviously it’s not feasible for fans to send messages to players mid-game, but their cheers are another way of communicating with their teams,” Rubenstein says.

The HearMeCheer web app as it appears to boxing fans right now

“Giving people the means to still participate is really important”

When Design Week speaks to both Ware and Rubenstein, both point out another facet to the challenge at hand: that the resumption of sporting competitions like the Premier League are just an early step in a much longer journey.

As Ware points out, even when lockdown measures are eased and fans are allowed back into stadiums, it will likely be with significant social distancing regulations in place. A 25,000-seat stadium with only 5,000 attendees, for example, will still pose issues when it comes to atmosphere. The necessity to “sweeten” – a term used in sound design to refer to the “juicing up” of a piece of audio – the crowd could be just as prevalent.

But perhaps this is where platforms like HearMeCheer will come in. Rubenstein tells us he doesn’t envisage the relevance of the platform disappearing when fans are allowed back in venues. This is both because of the global nature of sport (“Even watching international games could feel like a local pub”) and the aftereffect, both because of the global nature of sport and the aftereffects of the virus.

“Tickets are going to be generally unaffordable for a lot of fans who have been put out of work because of the pandemic, and others will still be concerned about health risks long into the future,” he says. “Giving these people the means to still participate is really important, we think.”

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