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FOX announces plan to utilize virtual fans during MLB telecasts

FOX will attempt to inject some life into otherwise sterile ballpark environments devoid of fans because of the coronavirus pandemic by utilizing virtual ones during MLB telecasts this season.

The New York Post was among the first media outlets to report on the news, and Andrew Marchand reports that FOX will debut virtual fans Saturday during the telecast of the New York Yankees-Washington Nationals game.

“The original concept sounds like something that would never even happen — pie in the sky,” Fox Sports executive vice president Brad Zager told The Post. “Pretty quick after this pandemic hit we thought we could be in a position to produce games without crowds.

“We were dead set on trying to make the broadcast with no crowd feel as authentic and organic as possible. We want to give people an escape.”

FOX Sports on Thursday morning shared footage of how virtual fans will be employed through its social media channels.

FOX Sports explains in a statement that the network will be “[u]tilizing cutting-edge Pixatope software, the network teams with Silver Spoon Animation and SMT to deliver an elevated viewing experience to sports fans around the nation.”

Zager added that FOX is not “trying to fool” viewers with the use of virtual fans, and no other network set to carry live sports has plans to employ such technology at this point.

As sports leagues across the country are ramping up to either resume or open play, networks are unsurprisingly scrambling to come up with truly unconventional methods through which a quasi-gameday vibe could be artificially created with augmented reality.

There has been some pushback by purists, however, not to mention resistance from some pretty big-name players in response to the plans. Despite this skepticism, FOX Sports is considering the use of virtual fans for the upcoming 2020 NFL season as well.

“When people see it I think there is a comfort to seeing sports the way you are used to seeing them in a time like right now,” Zager said. “What sports are is an escape to all the things that are going in the world. We want to make this escape right now as close as it was before and have as much fun as possible.”