How technology is changing the way we experience sport / Humans + Tech - #37

From virtual cheers to virtual races to virtual reality headsets to viewing the real-time vitals of athletes, the pandemic is changing our consumption and experience of sports as fans.


Sports worldwide came to a complete standstill for a few months. That is the one aspect of life that I’ve missed the most due to the lockdowns and social distancing. I really miss getting together with my fellow Arsenal-supporting friends every weekend to watch the game together on a big screen at our favourite bar, over a few drinks, celebrating goals and victories, suffering the anguish of defeats together, and sharing friendly banter with opposing team supporters. I can only imagine it must be much worse for those in London who go to watch the games live at the stadium regularly.

For the foreseeable future at least, our consumption and experience of sport is going to be drastically different. Technology is trying to fill in the gaps to replicate that experience, but it’s still not the same.

⚽️ The English Premier League resumed last month with the games played in empty stadiums. Networks broadcasting the games insert crowd noise into the broadcast for TV viewers, but the players themselves don’t hear it, and sometimes the sound engineers get it quite wrong [Techradar].

When Sheffield United's Enda Stevens fired a shot into the side-netting against Aston Villa in the opening game a cheer erupted, as it often does when fans mistakenly think their team has scored, but it faded away just a little bit too quickly.

Perhaps the biggest giveaway that it wasn't real though, was the fact that it wasn't met by jeers from the opposing fans. Similarly, when Raheem Sterling tripped over his own feet towards the end of Manchester City's win over Arsenal, there was no mocking 'wahey!' from the virtual away end.

Understandably, the sound engineers have to react very quickly to select the right sound clips that match the actions in the live game in real time, and that can be very challenging to get right for each event over a 90-minute game.

I watched one game where there was no simulated crowd noise, and all you could hear was the shouts from the players on the field, other than the regular TV commentary. It felt like I was watching an amateur football game. Even watching over TV, hearing the chants of the fans in the stadium as well as those from opposing fans significantly adds to the experience.

🏟 It must be a huge adjustment for the players too. The home advantage is substantially reduced as they don’t have thousands of supporters cheering them on, giving them that extra boost of energy and confidence. The only home advantage now is the familiarity of the stadium.

🇯🇵 Japan has trialled a system called "remote cheerer," which allows the players in the stadium to hear these "cheers" from fans watching at home. Spectators at home use a dedicated app to tap items like “goal” or “clap,” which are then heard over speakers setup in the stadium [Kyodo News].

A former player who participated in the experiment said it felt "very realistic," while the noise prompted a person outside the stadium to ask, "Is there an event going on inside?"

Other sports are adapting in different ways.

🏁 Nascar is holding virtual races in iRacing every week until the real racing resumes [Axios].

🏎 Formula One also held virtual races, even shipping the simulation rigs for racing to the drivers [MIT Technology Review].

Rather than video-game controllers, Formula One e-sports use cockpit-size simulators. These were sent out in flight cases containing chassis, seat, steering wheel, foot pedals—not to mention powerful PC and large screen.

A virtual 24-hour Le Mans was also held in June. Each team was required to include a mix of Formula One e-sports racers and Formula One drivers. The event was a huge success.

🏀 The NBA is likely to make its NBA League Pass free, worldwide, once the league resumes. This will allow anyone with a virtual reality headset to experience the game as if they are in the stadium [VRGear].

🚴‍♀️ Tour de France held a virtual race in which the world’s best cyclists competed from stationary bikes in their living rooms. In her OnTech newsletter, Shira Ovide writes:

The Tour de France, like many major sporting events, is on hold because of the pandemic. But last weekend, I watched cartoon likenesses of professional cyclists fighting to win a virtual version.

Connected to the Zwift virtual world for running and cycling were the real-life athletes riding stationary bicycles in their dining rooms, garages or backyards. When they had to ride up a steep virtual French mountain, I watched a split-screen video feed of their real-life faces straining and their heart rates soaring. It was genuine fun.


“We’re all competitors, and this pandemic has taken that opportunity away from us,” said Lauren Stephens, who won a mountainous virtual Tour de France women’s race on Sunday. “To be able to compete at this level in your living room — for me, it’s pretty enjoyable.”

Shira says she particularly enjoyed tracking the vitals of the athletes as they competed. Perhaps, tech like that will make home viewing more enjoyable. Although, if I was an athlete, I’m not sure I would be comfortable sharing my vitals in real time with thousands of people worldwide.

These are just some of the adjustments and innovations being introduced in the sporting world. And if Apple’s acquisition of NextVR in May [CNET], is anything to go by, watching sports in VR is going to become mainstream in the near future. NextVR is the technology behind NBA’s League Pass and they also have a partnership with Wimbledon to broadcast matches in VR.

It’s going to be interesting as a sports fan to get used to these new ways of immersing ourselves into sports. Perhaps as these virtual experiences mature and get better, we may even wonder how we enjoyed sports the old way.

Quote of the week

Technology is changing the world; it's changing our sport. It's changing the way people are following the NBA.

—Adam Silver

I wish you a brilliant day ahead :)