When it comes to football, do you prefer the sound of silence or the roar of a fake crowd?

IMAGE: Jim Gibson on Twitter — Status update #1271177141846147077

Enrique Dans

Last night, hungry for football after a three-month fast, I watched part of the first match in the return of Spain’s top-flight division, La Liga: the Sevilla — Betis derby. As much as anything, I was impressed by the technology used to try to create some atmosphere in a stadium devoid of fans. The Verge covered the event here: “Spanish soccer returns with computer-generated crowds, and it actually works”.

For the rest of the games to be played over the coming weeks in Spain, La Liga will allow fans to decide if they want to watch matches with empty stands and no background noise other than the players and commentary. But should they want a bit of old-school soccer stadium rowdiness, they can flick to another channel with fake crowd noise and a static texture that has been superimposed on the stands, complete with generic chants and songs, the volume of which goes up and down to supposedly reflect the ups and downs of events on the field, including goals. Having seen a couple of Germany’s Bundesliga matches that were broadcast with just the commentary, I have to say that I prefer Spain’s approach as a way of filling the awkward emptiness of an empty, echoing stadium.

The sound is provided by Electronic Arts (EA), the creators of the FIFA videogame. As anyone who has played the game will know, the stands are filled with synthesized human figures, a solution that La Liga has decided not to use. Instead, they cover the stands with a static texture produced by Vizrt, a Norwegian company. The idea isn’t to mislead viewers, who can always switch to the channel with the original signal, but simply to make the event look and sound more natural.

Watching a match played behind closed doors is obviously not the same as the real thing, and looks and sounds more like a training session, but filling the stands with computer-generated human figures would probably have been a distraction. The static texture generated by Vizrt does the job reasonably well and allows us to focus on the game.

That said, the technology is still not perfect: when the camera moves closer to the stands, the static texture fades away and they are glaringly empty. Admittedly, this is somewhat paradoxical, but is at least in line with the principle of not trying to hoodwink the viewer. Last night, sometimes, the static texture took a few seconds to disappear, giving the impression of overlapping polygons where they clearly shouldn’t be. But after a short time, I decided that I would rather watch the match in this way, rather than in silence: in short, the technology did its job reasonably well.

Matches played in empty stadiums with the stands filled with computer-generated artificial sounds and textures. Welcome to the future 🙂