“I watched the Nationals game last night,” says Mike Swartz, principal at the design firm Upstatement. “It was weird with a camera panning empty seats. [Baseball is] a prolonged view of seats behind a catcher. There was one guy, and he was on his phone the entire time. And it was like, this is fucked up!”
To break through the empty library effect of professional baseball, some teams are letting fans pay to put their own cardboard avatars in the stands. Fox is going so far as to add virtual fans to broadcasts (even dressed in their team colors!). All 30 MLB teams are pumping in crowd noise for the players.
But is there a way for players to feel the real energy of the crowd, and for the crowd to impact the energy of the game remotely? Maybe, according to a new concept from Upstatement and the sensory space design firm Sosolimited.
Their idea is a baseball stadium filled with a ring of screens. As fans watch the game on their phones, using a connected app such as MLBTV, they can emote much as they can on Facebook, with options such as surprise and anger. However, when they do, that emotion will actually beam to the stadium itself, translated into colors and patterns on the screens in the stands, with fan reactions for each team blending just as they do in real life.
In the business of data analytics, the emotions are called “sentiment.” In the world of architecture, the experiences are called “activations.” But combining the two ideas inside a stadium makes a lot of sense, creating a physical manifestation of what the crowd is feeling at any given moment. That feeling would feed the psyches of players. Perhaps an anxious crowd would glow blue before a high-stakes full-count pitch, and then red with anger if the umpire made a bad call. And that feeling would also be captured on broadcast, reverberating back to the at-home crowd, similar to how the cheers of a televised crowd can still fill your living room with emotion.
While the concept proposes that stadiums install a halo of new screens around the stadium field or concourse, there’s no reason they couldn’t use their existing screens to a similar effect. But Swartz imagines that stadiums might lean into this idea aggressively, going so far as to actually add LEDs to seats, which would be visible even when crowds return. These LEDs could fit in the empty spaces between headrests, he suggests. Assuming those LEDs weren’t blindingly bright for people sitting in the stands, they could serve as avatars for those watching the game from home, as a way of connecting and visualizing hundreds of thousands or even millions of more people who can’t fit their real selves into the stands.
“That was one of the things we were thinking, not having this be a Band-Aid over the current [lack of] butts in seats, but something that could augment the experience [long-term],” says Swartz. “Let’s assume there’s a vaccine and we come back. This doesn’t have to go away.”