Is authenticity as important as the game-play itself?
When sporting events were returning without fans and spectators present in stadiums nor arenas, broadcasting companies were tasked with replicating the missing atmosphere. The English Premier League, as well as other European leagues, used simulated crowd noise from EA’s FIFA video game series, tailoring the audio to on-field events: jeering, nervous cheer, and exhilaration, for example. The central question for fans at home revolved around authenticity.
As with every pursuit and the fans and audience which gather, there will always be a question of authenticity; both as a fan – being a fan – and the clubs’ relationships with the fans through, for instance, how they price and provide access to tickets, amongst other fan-centred experiences. There will always be complaints about both: i.e., “tourists” getting tickets to games, supposedly diluting the atmosphere (though a lot of these accusations do tend to be levelled at non-native, “foreign” fans, in a racist/xenophobic manner, consciously or unconsciously); also, fans believing clubs run themselves as businesses first, which, for instance, cause them to lament a lack of investment in players and, therefore, not caring about the their demands and dreams.
Fans in the stadium represent those at home. There’s a certain you’re-there-we’re-there feeling. Some fans couldn’t stomach the hollowness of the simulated audio while watching their teams play on TV in the league’s resumption. A disconnect. In the nervous cheer of the “crowd” as a team looked to score, the absence in the stadium was signified, more so than the empty stadium seats covered by banners and flags printed with team-specific slogans (“#ApartButTogether”, “#UnityIsStrength”, and “Everyone Together”) and asking fans to stay safe and support the team from home. Crowd noise and reactions, the authentic sound, are emotions made audible and communal. The simulated audio expects and predicts these emotional responses. Coupled with the hollowness, there was a continual eeriness to the atmosphere, as a TV spectator. It didn’t feel representative. The spectator was aware that there was an attempt to represent them: either a biopic or a datapoint.
Main channels have crowd noise as a default accompaniment, but there are alternative channels which have no such accompaniment, where on-field and touchline shouts can be heard. A peek-behind-the-curtain situation evolves. These moments when on-field communication are featured in football were rare pre-COVID-19. E-sport broadcasts of titles like Call of Duty feature “drop-ins” on squads in-game talk, where the spectators will hear the competitors call out points of interest and issue instructions to teammates.
Audio serves as a crucial component in the live sporting event experience… even if nobody is present
By Tyler Bonson: Music Columnist
Select NBA players get “wired up” on game night for broadcasts; their pre-game and in-game banter and discussions are aired in brief montages. Football doesn’t tend to have this level of intimacy of action, when distinctions between the dramatic event and technical event are blurred. Though a notable exception was how during Euro 2016 a “tactical” camera view was available via the BBC iPlayer for the audience to watch games from high behind one goal, to see the whole pitch for the whole game, rather than a director dictating what is seen. (The crowd remained visible and heard, a legitimate figure.) For football, it seems, there’s a total on-field majesty that can’t and shouldn’t be disrupted.
The two competing teams, during the game, are only infiltrated by information given to touchline reporters to feed to the commentary team or the pundits – an internal-to-external transfer, rather than external-to-internal. An elitism, to an extent, is created and reinforced by broadcast norms and practices, while the game is ongoing. There are press conferences and interviews before kick-off and after the final whistle, where players and managers give as much of an opinion as they can, within the limits of what they are trained and expected to say. No fans in the stadium adds to this protected environment. If, as a fan, the experience you want is predicated on a communal experience of the drama – there is you and millions at home, or you and tens-of-thousands in the stadium – and your spectating tendencies emphasise this, it can feel hard to access. Therefore, authenticity lacks.
Though, at the same time that it feels more secluded, the stripped back broadcast did provide those fans interested in the technical and tactical aspects of the game access to the training-ground feeling, of how the best teams could operate without the pressure, positive or negative, from fans: a peak-behind-the-curtain situation. If and how the lack of atmosphere might’ve affected the style and play. Julian Nagelsmann, head coach of RB Leipzig, said in a press conference that there is an “emotional aspect” missing, without the fans, but that the players would be able to hear him and each other better, so the communication will be easier. The elitism is exposed and reinforced.
Audio, then, plays a defining role in the reception of sporting events, specifically football, or is a defining clue to its reception, more so than visuals. It is the indicator that there’s a community in the immediate moments of sport. At least, in the traditional expectation of sports. Social media may well pose a threat to the consumption of sport in this way, if fans change habits and expectations. But for now, fans need to hear themselves to see themselves.
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