Scottie Pippen wanted a different seat.
“Am I in the back row?” he drawled in his famously beautiful baritone. The third playoff game between the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics was about to begin. The former Chicago Bulls small forward was mellow, courteous—and steadfast in his rejection of a subpar vantage point while gracing the 2020 Michelob Ultra Courtside virtual fan experience with his presence. He did not want to be in the back row, even a virtual back row.
Thankfully, the obvious folly of relegating a six-time NBA champion to a less-than-premium seat was quickly rectified. (“They better respect Pip,” I found myself muttering.) On screen, Pippen flickered in and out of the vile back row as he turned his camera on and off. Then he popped back up, front-and-center, in his rightful place of honor, grinning in his gray hoodie.
As anyone watching the NBA during the Covid-19 pandemic can observe, the games being played in the league’s “bubble” in Orlando are played without flesh-and-blood fans present. Instead, 17-foot LED screens project the pixelated faces of around 300 basketball lovers from across the country along three sides of the court each game. Many are season-ticket holders, or family and friends of the players. Others are fans who registered online for the lottery. Some are members of the media, like me. Then there are a few who are offered seats because they are one of the greatest basketball players of all time, like Scottie Pippen. (Shaq is also a frequent virtual attendee.) Non-basketball celebrities pop up too—Lil Wayne made a memorable appearance recently. It’s a futuristic stab at preserving some of the hyped-up ambiance of a pre-pandemic professional basketball game. (I should note, the game I watched happened two weeks ago, before NBA players stepped off the court in protest of police brutality and anti-Blackness, following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.)
One of the major innovations behind all of this face-beaming is Microsoft’s “Together” mode. The idea for Together, according to technologist—and virtual reality pioneer—Jaron Lanier, came partly from ideas he was dreaming up to help Stephen Colbert host The Late Show remotely. (A talented musician, Lanier sometimes plays in Colbert’s house band.) Now the NBA is using it to allow select fans to congregate remotely, with each seating section holding its own virtual group-watching session. It then broadcasts those sections onto the sides of the court, giving players and people watching on television a sense that this is still a spectator sport, even when the spectators are all safely ensconced on their couches alone, appearing only as ghostly-looking simulacra.
The upside of beaming fans’ faces onto an LED screen instead of having them attend in real life is that it will prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, saving lives and avoiding the deliberate exacerbation of a public health crisis.
The downside is that it looks like the basketball game is being haunted by spectral, legless beings from another realm, or Oz.
Watching another NBA game a few weeks ago, I wondered what the players thought of the virtual fans. Was Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry cracking Black Mirror jokes after work? Was it more or less distracting than the real thing? Would they prefer whimsical cartoon animals as their crowd instead? I honestly thought the digital fans were creepy, a dispiriting attempt at recreating an inimitable experience. I said as much on Twitter, and after the tweet went lighty viral Michelob invited me to judge the merits of its virtual fan experience for myself.
The night of the Sixers-Celtics game, my husband Charlie and I downloaded Microsoft Teams onto separate laptops, logged on, and watched the game from its digital courtside along with the dozen or so other people in our section. (It was mostly other journalists.) Charlie flickered out of his front-row seat and re-appeared in the fourth row; a minute or so later, Scottie appeared in that seat. Our laptops were open side-by-side, and we were sitting next to each other in real life, but on screen, we were separated. “You just got bounced by Scottie,” I teased, leaning over to pass him some pizza.
If I leaned far enough, my head left the first row and entered the fourth row. If I stuck out a leg just so, it looked like Charlie had a leg for an arm! We laughed at my partitioned body, and I tried to subtly adjust my webcam in hopes that Pip might notice the vintage Bulls t-shirt I’d worn in his honor.
The cheerful staffers who moderated our section kept their webcams adjusted so that they appeared to be sitting in their virtual seats normally. The rest of us weren’t doing so hot. Some people sat too far away from their laptop, and looked unnaturally tiny. Some people got too close to their laptop, which gave the impression they’d come down with some sort of gigantic head syndrome. My husband kept sticking his face into the webcam so that his mustache, newly grown during Covid-19, was very prominent on the screen. “Scottie should see my mustache,” he said. I couldn’t disagree with that logic. My general disdain for the concept of virtual fandom melted away, although I did still wish I could turn on a filter that made me look like a cartoon animal instead of my normal self. (Not to brag, but it appears Michelob did take at least a sliver of advice from me—they filled an entire virtual fan section with 32 dogs during a recent Spurs-Jazz game. A good start!)
As the game played on, a well-intentioned hype man tried to strike up friendly banter among the participants, but nobody seemed interested. We attempted half-hearted virtual high-fives, and mostly just kept our mics on mute. I restrained myself from shouting “Thank you for your unparalleled gameplay!” at Scottie, and at his fellow ‘90s Bulls icon B.J. Armstrong, who also sat in our section, but who was greeted with less fanfare. (At one point, I started getting a little indignant on Armstrong’s behalf, because people were definitely more excited to see Scottie. Then I thought, well, it’s nice for Scottie to be the big star for once, you know?) I hoped the Michelob staffers were being compensated appropriately. Thus far, the NBA has avoided any virtual fan behavioral issues—in comparison, the WWE had a fan appear to promote the Ku Klux Klan during a recent live match—and the staffers were diligent moderators.
The Together software is designed to only register human faces and bodies, filtering out anything in the background, but it lets animals through, as someone who got their goat onscreen earlier this month discovered. I put my dog on my lap for the first half, subjecting my Bulls-loving family to a series of brags about how Scottie Pippen and B.J. Armstrong had lain eyes on him. It was fun.
As the game began, the major drawback of the virtual fan experience became apparent. The Together function allowed us to watch the game streaming on a split screen, with our virtual fan section on one half and the action on the other. I was not especially invested in the game’s outcome—I rooted for the Sixers, as some of my best friends are Philly fans, while at least one of my most annoying enemies loves the Celtics—but had I been, I would’ve probably had the game up on a TV, too, since a split screen on a laptop is not the ideal viewing experience.
But the point of going to a basketball game isn’t to stare at the game itself with undivided attention. It’s about being in the same room! Eating snacks! Spotting celebs!
To that end, the virtual fan experience was a great success. During half time, we were allowed to do a surprisingly extensive question-and-answer session with Scottie and B.J., which was by far the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me at a sporting event, real or virtual. The Q&A did bleed over into the start of the second half, which probably would have been annoying had I had a vested interest in the final score. As it was, though, I was rapt, and praying that they’d notice that my T-shirt said “Repeat the Threepeat” on it. (They didn’t.)
As a social experience, it was a lot more like attending a game in real life than I’d guessed it would be. For example, we were cajoled into doing the wave, and you could tell some people didn’t really want to do it, but felt socially obligated. Like attending an event in-person, it was kinda inconvenient to get set up—you had to download a Microsoft app and sign on well before the game started. While not as bothersome as commuting to an actual game and either piling into a crowded train or paying $241 for parking, it was also significantly more involved than just turning on a television. You also weren’t supposed to leave your seat. If you left for longer than a few minutes—say, if you had to take your dog for a walk after they had been sitting patiently on your lap—you got booted out, and had to ask to be let back in. There were a few times I wished I was just watching it on TV in private, so I could sprawl out on the couch in my normal cloud of filth throwing carbohydrates into my open mouth instead of trying to look presentable on the off chance a digital effigy of my noggin got on basic cable.
Nothing will replace watching sports in person, especially not a mashup between a Zoom happy hour and a celebrity meet-and-greet which also allows participants a free livestream of a playoff basketball game. But after the final buzzer, I felt tired, even though I’d been sitting on my couch eating pizza in sweatpants. The experience had actually felt like a new kind of public gathering, complete with awkward banter and seating issues. Plus, after the noble Sixers lost and the foul Celtics paraded around the court in their silly green-and-white outfits in triumph, one huge benefit of being a virtual fan became apparent: All I had to do was close my laptop to leave.
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