Liverpool Football Club has been crowned champions of England for the first time in 30 years. This didn’t look likely three short months ago after Covid-19 halted the EPL indefinitely.
The English Football Association strongly considered calling off the entire season, a consideration buoyed by the cancellation of the French Ligue-1 and the discontinuation of the Dutch Eredivisie.
But that wasn’t to be the fate of the EPL because on June 17th the league resumed after a 100-day suspension. Due to the rapid spread of the pandemic, a number of changes were made to the process as well as the rules of the game. Chief among them is the fact that there will be no more fans watching and cheering in the stadiums.
But contrary to what people thought about the games becoming boring and generally lacking the excitement and buzz that accompanies every Premier League game, the resumption has so far been a pretty ‘noisy’ affair with the employment of artificial crowd noise.
Apart from the artificial noise, technology was employed to give the empty stadiums a feel of the old life and make the games a bit more watchable. Owing to the pandemic, several steps were taken to ensure that the players are kept safe at every point.
Let’s review some of these measures:
Artificial crowd noise
Did you hear all the usual crowd noise despite the empty stadium and wonder where it is coming from? Well, you’re not alone.
A lot of viewers who thought EPL games would become hollow affairs after resumption were soundly and pleasantly surprised to find that all the noise they were used to were in place despite the obviously empty stadiums.
For the EPL games, this was majorly the result of a collaboration between the major broadcaster, Sky Sport and EA Sports, producers of the popular football video game, FIFA. The crowd noises are described as team-specific as the producers replicated the exact crowd noises made by teams when they play at home.
Thus, during a Manchester United game, the sounds the viewers hear would be the chants and general sounds typically heard from United fans pre-COVID.
To make certain noises and reactions reflect the action taking place on the pitch, a virtual audio director is used at the backroom for games. With more than 60 different noises and reactions stored in a programme, the job of this virtual audio director is to make sure the appropriate sounds and reactions accompany the action on the pitch.
“A senior producer sits with the virtual audio director and directs the intensity based on what is happening in the game. Big hit – cue the roars and claps. Dropped ball – cue the frustrated fans,”Joe Bromham, executive producer at Fox Sports Australia, the first broadcaster to employ the crowd noise technology for Australia’s Rugby League
Therefore, if a player dribbles past several opponents, or if the home team plays some beautiful crisp passing, there is applause. If a player misses a goal, there is the general buzz of disappointment, sometimes accompanied by applause if it was a good attempt. If he scores, there is the sound of fans jubilating and celebrating.
The German Bundesliga has begun the process of transmitting these crowd noise into the stadiums themselves so as to give the players that feeling of playing in front of the kind of crowd they are used to. With fans not expected back to the stadiums until October and with the EPL resuming in August, the EPL might as well adopt the strategy.
Live video fan wall
While fans might be missing from the games, they haven’t totally missed out as the EPL introduced a live video fan wall. This is essentially two giant screens showing fans at home as they watch the game.
For each game, 16 fans each from both clubs are captured on each wall, wearing their club replicas and sitting on their sofas.
This strategy was first adopted by the Danish football club, AGF Aarhus in May when it used the Zoom platform to show its supporters on a virtual grandstand in teleconferencing style. Thousands of fans are reported to have called in during the game.
But the EPL has modified it to include two giant screens capturing only 16 fans of both clubs. Furthermore, the fans live stream video is made available to broadcasters. The supporters in the giant screen are introduced during a countdown before each game.
If a team scores a goal or misses a good chance, the reaction of the supporters are captured as part of the broadcast.
Fans of clubs that don’t have giant screens are missing out on this piece of virtual action.
Liverpool, for instance, lifted the trophy at Anfield and there were no fans on the wall to celebrate the glory. With the league set to resume on September 12, long before fans will be allowed to the stadiums in October, we expect this trend to continue.
While all cameras on the pitch are available for broadcast purposes, not all are available for goal celebrations. As part of the new resumption rules, players can only celebrate at designated cameras.
The designated celebration cams were introduced by Sky Sports to ensure social distancing while celebrating as well as to entertain the fans.
The cameras will be at a fixed point towards the corner flag of each goalpost. There will be no camera operator manning it for obvious reasons. And players have been encouraged to ‘communicate their celebrations’ to fans at home as they would if they were in the stadium. Players are, however, not encouraged to huddle together as was always the case.
The camera, which will be at a fixed point to the side of the goal and which will not have a camera operator, is intended to encourage players to communicate their celebration to fans watching at home, given the sterile atmosphere of empty grounds and prohibitions on the usual team bundle that follows a goal.
When 40,000 becomes 300
Other measures put in place was the restriction of the number of people allowed into the stadium for each game.
Whereas a regular football stadium could host as much as 40,000 people during a game, only a maximum of 300 people is allowed into the stadium post-COVID.
This includes officials, football teams, stadiums workers, referees, VAR officials and match commissioners etc.
Of these 300, only about 120 are allowed around the ‘red activity’ area which is the areas the footballers and officials will occupy before and during the game.
Balls are also heavily sterilised before each game. So also are the seats, the barricades, team vehicles and other surfaces the players could come in contact with.
Hosting a match with only 300 people in attendance is proving to be more of a handful than the regular 40,000 to 60,000 capacity.
This is due to the unusual times occasioned by the pandemic. Every football fan was happy to see their sport return to their screens. Many would appreciate the technological investment that made sure they didn’t miss anything.
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