LaLiga has resumed without fans in the stands due to health measures following the global COVID-19 pandemic. In anticipation of this, LaLiga spent two months between April and June developing technology that would help enhance its TV match broadcasts.
Through partnering with VIZRT and EA SPORTS the league created virtualised fans and crowd audio, creating the impression of full, lively stadiums while fans cannot physically attend.
LaLiga has been investing in match broadcast technologies for several years, through innovations such as volumetric video in the form of 360° replays, real-time statistics through its in-game video analysis tool Mediacoach, the installation of spider cams in more stadia than any other league and more. This commitment put the league in a strong position to meet the new challenge of behind-closed doors games.
As LaLiga’s Chief Communications Officer Joris Evers explained: “We have history in terms of being at the leading edge when it comes to our broadcasts. We’ve pioneered various technologies to make LaLiga look great on screens around the world and to give fans, wherever they are, the sense that they’re as close to the action as they can possibly be. Now, I think LaLiga is the only sports broadcast today around the world that offers this kind of viewing experience with the virtual audience as well as the virtual audio. It’s a big responsibility because millions watch LaLiga around the world in more than 180 countries.”
While some of the technology is brand new, the concept behind it is not. “It’s important to note that LaLiga is entertainment, it’s not information,” Evers added. “These virtual audiences are nothing new in the world of TV. They’ve actually been around since the 1960s. TV viewers are very used to them when you think about other entertainment products, like sitcoms. They’ve always had laugh tracks of audiences that are virtual instead of real.”
A unique broadcasting challenge
Óscar Lago, Mediapro’s Chief Match Director, outlined the three main changes that have been made to broadcasts of LaLiga matches compared to before the pandemic.
The first is that cameras have been moved to different positions and actually placed in the stands where fans would normally be seated, in order to obtain higher shots and different angles, ones that limit the views of the empty stands. The other two are the introductions of the virtual fans and noise.
Creating new technologies in a short period of time is a difficult task, even more so when transporting hardware and personnel has been more restricted than ever before. “For me and for us, it has been the biggest challenge in my 30-year career working in TV,” said Lago.
“More so than ElClásico matches or the Champions League final last year in Madrid. It’s an unimaginable scenario that nobody was prepared for,” he continued.
However, Lago argued that all of these efforts were necessary given there were 238 fixtures remaining for the season between LaLiga Santander and LaLiga SmartBank. “We have never had such a long period of professional sport without fans,” he said. “We wanted to help them be as focussed on football as to feel the same excitement when watching as they did before.”
The image of the virtualised stands is designed to create the impression of a full stadium, rather than try to replicate fans. “Our goal was not to make hyper-realistic pictures of fans,” Lago continued. “It was to show something that would help the TV viewers to forget that they were watching a match taking place in an empty stadium. Fans bring the passion to football. What we’re doing helps the viewers to have an experience similar to that which they had before the pandemic.”
After evaluating various possible partners, LaLiga and Mediapro decided to work with VIZRT due to their expertise in visualisation technology in live broadcasting, such as overlays in news and weather programming and advertising graphics in sporting broadcasts.
As VIZRT’s SVP of Global Sports & Virtual Advertising Jonathan Roberts explained: “By having a strong calibration and by knowing exactly where the stands were using the plans provided, we were able to overlay a graphic and then when the camera moved we were able to change the perspective of that graphic in relation to the stadium.”
“The second piece of technology that we provided was a chroma key. You need to be able to chroma key the ball so that we recognise the ball in front of the crowd and we say ‘follow that ball and make sure you’re always showing that ball as it goes up and as it comes down.’ Those are the two very important parts that we contributed to this project: solid calibration and effective chroma keying.”
The final images are then produced in the Mediapro control rooms. Willem van Breukelen, Spain Country Manager for Mediapro subsidiary wTVision, explained how this process was carried out.
“One of the strong points of Mediapro is that they’re in control of the entire chain, from the camera operator to the control room,” he said. “You have to take care of the different delays, as the master feed is coming in a bit earlier than the programme feed. So, everything has to be tweaked.”
As for the crowd audio, LaLiga partnered with EA SPORTS for this due to the quality of the audio that is already being produced between the two organisations. Live recordings of LaLiga matches, which were originally developed by the league for the EA SPORTS FIFA games, have now been re-mastered by EA SPORTS to enhance the live match broadcasts.
Each LaLiga Santander club has its own track featuring its typical local chants and songs, but further human efforts are required to create an authentic experience. Additional audio tracks have been created to enhance key moments of all matches, such as a goal, big chance or foul, which are managed by sound engineers who act as DJs, playing the relevant sound to support the on-field action.
Incorporating virtual and real
Throughout this process, LaLiga is working with clubs to allow them to create the most personalised experience possible in line with the new technologies. Many have chosen to display banners or to highlight their sponsors and partners, which can be shown alongside the virtualised stands during TV broadcasts.
This same approach could also be used when fans begin to return to the stadiums. “The idea is for this technology to be complementary to people in the stadium,” Evers continued. “With club banners, the technology is complementary to what’s actually in the stadium. The objective would be to keep it that way.”
Since the competition’s return, fans have responded to the changes in a positive way. Spanish viewers have the option to select virtualised or non-virtualised matches, but a large majority have opted to watch the feed that includes the virtualised fans and audio.
Meanwhile international audiences, where all viewers receive virtualised images, increased by 48 percent in the first round of matches after LaLiga returned.
The innovations are also making an impression on professionals who cover Spanish football on a daily basis. “One match commentator told me that during a broadcast he almost said that the home fans were really getting behind the team,” Lago said. “He had forgotten that the atmosphere in his headphones wasn’t actually real.”
A temporary measure, lessons for the future
While these temporary measures have been a success, Evers insisted that getting fans back in the stands remains the long-term goal at LaLiga.
“We want real fans to be there as soon as that can responsibly be done because they’re a key part of the LaLiga experience,” he said. “But, given the unfortunate fact that we cannot do that due to the coronavirus pandemic, we want to make the viewing experience better by filling the empty space.”
Roberts pointed out that LaLiga’s existing suite of technologies will provide a platform to meet challenges of the ‘new normal’, including using machine learning to study images from the screen and adding virtualisation to enhance that image.
“As this situation evolves and changes, we will see how we can use technology that will overcome challenges that are presented to us,” he concluded.