Yesterday will go down as one of the weirdest days in the history of English football. One missing feature is well-known by now, but the other became the major talking point of the day. Presumably someone forgot to set goal-line technology to 'on' as an effort that had clearly crossed the line was ruled out. Odder still, you wouldn't have known that if it wasn't for the bemused commentary team. Anger and confusion should have been building in the stands as fans collectively cry foul. Evidently there wasn't a crowd noise button for that.
Yes, the English Premier League is back, but not as it was before. After months of cessation in footballing hostilities, the English top flight resumed yesterday as Aston Villa took on Sheffield United at Villa Park, but arguably without its entire lifeblood: the fans. Arenas that once held tens of thousands of boisterous supporters will stay empty for the foreseeable future due to COVID-19, and broadcasters are going to divisive lengths to make up for them.
Called 'Sky Sports Crowds', UK broadcaster Sky drew on EA Sports' experience in creating digital crowds in sports games like FIFA, Madden, and NHL to simulate the now-absent atmosphere as an option for its exclusively sofa-bound audience. Naturally it isn't ideal, but even though some fan groups have railed against artificial noise, it's hard to argue that it could ever replace fans when things return to normal.
Of course, this isn't the first time match sounds have been enhanced—it just tends to be on the other side of the TV screen. Stadium architecture is often structured around maximising crowd acoustics to give the home side the best advantage possible. Plastic 'clappers' have been given out to home fans to generate more noise. Manchester City are even alleged to have played fake crowd noise to ramp up the atmosphere at the Etihad. But considering Sky Sports and BT paid over £4 billion for the rights to show 160 Premier League matches on television from the 2018/19 to the 2020/21 seasons, both companies are essentially compelled to produce something approaching high-quality home viewing.
Regardless, this fake crowd sound is an intensely odd experience, and arguably pretty generous to the volume of both Arsenal and Man City supporters. But it's also quite remarkable given the circumstances. When the camera is zoomed in away from the stands, the sound feels authentic enough that you could almost mistake it for the real thing at times. It's when the crowd—or lack of—is pictured that any semblance of immersion is lost, with a jarring, even comical result: If a goal goes in, it's hard to resist a chuckle when there's no delighted mass to match the noise from the stands. Whether a chance goes begging or a foul flies in, the boos and reactions from the invisible crowd come just a split-second late, like the correct button has been pressed just a moment after the fact.
And that's because, in many ways, that's precisely what's happening. ESPN spoke to Sky Deutschland about how they did it for the Bundesliga when it returned a few weeks ago, and their SVP of sports production, Alessandro Reitano, explained that it established an "audio carpet" or base layer made of the crowd noise from the most recent example of that feature, on which specific samples are added to react to match events like penalties or fouls. The latter is the hard part: these samples are initiated from buttons on a switchboard, and any errant press can be costly. I certainly wouldn't want to be in charge of that bit of technology.
While that means the Sky Sports Crowds aren't just ripped wholesale from FIFA 20, EA's flagship football sim did play a role. When the Sky Deutschland team first got together to create the artificial atmosphere, they all had to "watch a match on FIFA 20" to get the "right tone, right atmosphere and to put us in a good mood". For me, however, watching matches live in this way rather brings FIFA's arch rival to mind: PES.
While there are mods for FIFA 20 on PC—although using them online could get you banned—they're much more common on PES, the most common being the PES 2020 option file that adds official licenses, club badges, and player names. But you also have the option to mod in certain chants. Console-only baseball sim MLB: The Show takes things up another notch by letting players record their own chants. Or, invariably, trash talk.
So it's in this unlikely way that real football is crossing over with videogames as a kind of virtual sticking plaster over an unsolvable problem. But while it'll never be enough, you need only watch the first Bundesliga games after German football's postponement to see that it does add something, however small or initially disconcerting. Without any noise, matches have the feel of training games, with only the players' swearing and coaches bellowing instructions punctuating the odd silence.
Sky Sports Crowds, then, is an inherently imperfect solution to football played against the backdrop of the world's very worst timeline. For its detractors, it's at least a reminder that it's the fans that make football special, providing a rambunctious je ne sais quoi that computers can never replicate, no matter how sophisticated. On the other hand, as Villa fought for their Premier League survival and City sought to chase Liverpool's near-unassailable lead at the top, the drama of football remains, even if the fans aren't there in person to see it.
Nevertheless, simulated crowd noise is better than nothing. Instead, it's something, and after months of watching old football matches, playing a lot of sports games, and otherwise staring at the wall, that's enough for me right now.