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La Liga: Virtual crowd and sound: La Liga’s path to the new normal | Football News

KOLKATA: Fans, they say, are the driving force of any team. Bill Shankly had once famously mentioned the ‘holy trinity’ at a football club, comprising the players, the manager and the supporters.
That holy trinity is eternal and will stand the test of time or any other challenge. However, the coronavirus outbreak has led to the unusual situation where the supporters in the top European leagues — which have restarted — are unable to be at the stadiums on the match days and forced to root for their teams from their homes.
Closed-door matches are surely not desirable but that is the only option during this pandemic.
For the viewers at home, it is quite peculiar to watch the matches without any people at the stadium and also sans the sound and din accompanied with a game of football.
Thus, La Liga — before the season restarted around mid-June — set out to find a way to fill those empty spaces and provide the television audiences a better viewing experience. Working and coordinating closely with the stakeholders, La Liga decided on having virtual supporters and sounds, something that can be experienced now.
“La Liga is entertainment. So to find the best way to enrich the viewing, we engaged with our production partner Mediapro. After detailed evaluation, we landed with VIZRT for their expertise in visualization technology used in live broadcasting and with EA SPORTS for the quality of the audio, which comes from real fans in real stadiums,” said Joris Evers, chief communications officer of La Liga, during a webinar recently.
It is a challenging project as it is live broadcast dealing with real stadiums, real stands and real pictures.
Evers mentioned that virtual audiences have been around since the 1960s, like the applause or audience reactions in sitcoms. He further added that in their endeavour to find the right partner, La Liga had also spoken to Hollywood companies that are into building crowds in motion pictures but learnt that those don’t work for live broadcast.
Another major constraint was time.
Oscar Lago, match director for Mediapro, detailed out the chief aspects that went into delivering this innovation.
“It was a new scenario and we started to find new tools to improve the viewing experience. The first thing was to move some cameras to new positions to avoid the empty stands. The next feature was to add the virtual sounds as it’s not nice to watch football without the sounds of the crowd. Finally, the crowd picture. We analysed what picture we usually see from the main camera and tried to find some technology that would help us get some kind of graphics to achieve a similar experience with the main camera. This would make the viewers forget that the stadium is empty and focus on the game,” he said, adding that preparation time for every match is about six hours.
“One of our commentators in Spain told me that during a match he was about to say that the fans of the local team are really encouraging their club. With the virtual sound and audience, the empty stands almost skipped his mind. That made me happy.”
There are a lot of meticulous functioning and details that go into achieving this target.
“It’s for first and second divisions, which means a total of 42 stadiums and 21 stadiums for every round. We realised we needed to implement tracking by image system and we ended up with VIZRT because their tracking my image system is very good and they were willing to adapt the software to our requirements. We receive the master and programme feed simultaneously, calibrate, insert the graphics and push out. The challenge is to have everything in sync. We decided to have still images and we change the colours for each club,” informed Willem van Breukelen, country manager of TV graphics company WTVision.
“We have 3D models of all the stadiums and we wanted to fill up all the seats. But, some clubs put up some boards on the stands and we have to work accordingly, so that the boards are visible.”
According to VIZRT’s Jonathan Roberts, the company’s background is in virtual advertising and they have enriched the experience. What also stood VIZRT is good stead is that they anticipated such a situation quite early and prepared for it.
“We started to think about the virtual fans’ back in February and early March when fans were not being allowed in for games. We deliberated on how to achieve continuity in case fans are not allowed for the time being. The main areas of understanding here are calibration and understanding where the camera is because when the camera moves, the graphics need to be placed in that perspective. Also, equally important is how to overlay the stands in the right manner so that the ball doesn’t get obscured by the graphic. When the ball goes up in the air, you want the ball to be in front of the overlay and not behind it. We are trying to give a normality to the viewing,” analysed Roberts, SVP, global sport and virtual advertising at VIZRT.
“It required a lot of effort from all concerned because we had to do it in 30 days’ notice with hardware in short supply, ship things quickly and all that abiding by the Covid-19 regulations.”
Viewers in Spain are being offered the option of choosing between real and virtualized feed.
“Spain is the home market and fans going to the stadium would primarily be these people. So, it was interesting to see what they would choose and the vast majority are preferring the virtualized one. We tried to give the option for international feed as well but it was difficult as so many different partners are involved,” added Evers.
“We are very happy with the largely positive response to the virtualizations. We are also thinking of how to do the celebrations when there is a champion.”
There are some talks about a small number of fans being allowed to the stadium in Spain before the season gets over.
“La Liga will be happy to have the fans back as soon as that can be done in a responsible way. In such a scenario, we would look to do a combination of virtual and real supporters at the same time,” Evers signed off.

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