Football has finally returned to our TV screens after receiving a sudden halt in action due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the return of football promptly underway, strict regulations have been put in place to ensure that none of the players, staff, or fans contract the virus.
One of these regulations includes playing all the remaining games of the season behind closed doors, meaning no fans are allowed into the ground while a game is being played. This has led many to believe the unique atmosphere that a football match provides will be lost, and the spectacle of watching a live game would be impossible to recreate.
To get around this problem and ensure that fans do indeed get the most entertainment out of a match as possible, the Spanish football league, or LaLiga as it’s more commonly known, has turned to some clever broadcasting trickery to recreate the atmosphere of a live game.
Arguably the biggest challenge LaLiga was faced with was placing virtual fans into the grounds. Many have suggested going down the Hollywood route and placing hyper-realistic CGI fans into the stands, but LaLiga had a different plan. When a viewer is watching a football game, apart from a few breaks in play, all of their focus is placed on the field, and not the stands. This meant the need to recreate hundreds of individual fans, and then place them into the stadium was an unnecessary amount of work, especially with the extremely short deadline given to those tasked with achieving this effect.
Instead, the stands are blanketed in a static texture or ‘hard graphic’ that resembles an audience, and as long as a viewer’s attention is focused on the pitch and the not the crowd, this effect does a surprisingly good job at looking like a live audience.
To achieve this realistic illusion LaLiga enlisted the help of VIZRT, a TV graphics provider, Media Pro, a multimedia communications group in Spain, and WTvision, real-time graphics automation providers, to create the all-important virtual fans.
Placing a hard graphic over a stadium presents its own problem. If for example, the football is kicked high into the air by a player, it would disappear behind the hard graphic for a second or two before returning to the ground, ruining the illusion of having a ‘live audience’. To fix this issue, VIZRT used Chroma Key technology to track the ball as it gets launched into the air to ensure that it never disappears behind the crowd.
One of the other changes LaLiga made was a replacement of the main camera positioning to avoid showing viewers watching at home a sea of empty seats. This was done by moving the broadcasting cameras from the pitchside upwards to the stands.
The next step in creating a genuine atmosphere was to replicate the wide variety of different audience sounds and noises that are present during a live match. To achieve this, LaLiga partnered with EA Sports and its FIFA title to create what they call an ‘Atmospheric Audio’ that replicates the iconic fan chants and reactions for viewers at home.
While there is nothing quite like watching a football match with genuine fans in the stadium, the efforts LaLiga have gone through to ensure that the return of football feels as familiar as possible is a first for the sport, and must be commended.