We’ve all wanted to be a fly on the wall at some point in our lives.
The NBA has come up with the next best thing.
Those virtual walls behind the team benches that are full of cheering fans, mascots, babies and even celebrities during NBA games from the bubble have become quite the topic.
Thanks to technology from Microsoft, individual teams are able to have fans watch a game on their laptop or tablet while their images and actions show up in the virtual seats on the screens along the sideline and at either end of the court at the games at Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
To many of us, it’s all next-generation electronic hocus-pocus. But it’s a remarkable and creative way to keep people involved and give players at least a reminder of one of the key reasons why they play – for the fans.
“This is awesome,” said Mavericks’ legend Shawn Marion, who was a virtual fan for the Mavericks’ game against Utah. “This is a way to keep people engaged with the team. They’re going to keep finding creative ways.
Before the games began in the bubble, it was kind of an unknown thing. There was a lot of uncertainty as to how the NBA could pipe in sound and the images of fans and have the reactions come to life in real time?
It’s amazing what the digital age can allow them to do.
And MFFLs are thankful for the opportunity. Many Mavericks have had family or friends be part of the virtual crowd.
“My dad watched and my brother watched one game,” veteran guard J.J. Barea said. “But Sebastian (his son) can’t stay still. If you want to watch those games, you got to stay still in front of a computer. He’s been watching the games, but not on the virtual fans.
“I think it’s pretty cool to look behind us and see family or friends watching the game.”
A small reminder of how things used to be with packed houses at American Airlines Center.
Now, it’s a few rows of seats projected onto the screen and fans – most wearing Mavericks’ gear – sprinkled into those seats.
So how does it work?
“It wasn’t much different than a Zoom call,” said Bradley Marshall, 36, a longtime Mavericks’ season ticket member. “The league and the team make a concerted effort to make you feel like you’re part of the game.
“It felt like the best part of sports that I’ve been involved in since March.”
That was when the coronavirus hit and everything in sports and beyond shut down.
The NBA started working on ways to bring some sort of fan experience into the bubble, where 22 teams played 88 seeding games to finish out the regular season.
They came up with the projection boards and teams got to work on finding some of their most loyal customers to fill the virtual seats.
“It made me feel like I was a part of things,” said David Stern, 47, whose family has had season tickets since the Mavericks’ inception. “It’s certainly not a replacement for being at the arena for a game. But I can’t tell you how many people said they saw me sitting behind the bench.”
Stern, by the way, is no relation to the late NBA commissioner David Stern.
Virtual fans get prepared during a pregame tutorial. They get a link to log on to the game, which they see in real time.
They are prepped on what to do – and not do – before the game starts. They can be bounced out of their seats for using foul language. And no signs are allowed.
Other than that, the rules mainly consist of just cheering and making noise, although they can’t hear their fellow fans during the telecast.
“You get into the (virtual) room pregame and you can see who else is in your section,” Stern said. “I had Champ (the mascot) beside me and (Mavs entertainment host) Chris Arnold beside me. Once the game started, I just tried to do what I normally do at games.”
Stern and Marshall made inquiries to their season-ticket representatives at the Mavericks, who in turn got them hooked up with the virtual seats.
It’s not for everybody, of course. You have to watch the game on a laptop or other electronic device. The television feed is as much as 30 seconds delayed. So watching it on your 50-inch flat screen doesn’t work.
The NBA has worked on making timeouts an interactive event, too. While commercials play on the television feed, fans can be involved in contests or other activities.
Boban Marjanović hasn’t had any family or friends taking part in the virtual fandom, but he likes what he’s seen of it.
“I think it’s cool to have somebody watching you,” he said. “You really feel like you have a full crowd of people. They do a great job with the sound effect, fans cheering, you hear them and see their moves.”
One of those making a lot of noise is “Big Rob” Maiden, one of the original Mavericks’ ManiAACs – that’s the group of mostly burly guys who entertain fans during games and at other events.
Maiden has been a regular in the virtual seats as have many of the other ManiAACs.
“I’m pretty terrible when it comes to technology, but when the Mavs asked us if we wanted to be part of it, we said: sign us up every time,” Big Rob said. “You get a log-in and from there, you get in a room with the other fans in your section.
“It comes with some rules. You can’t sit too close to the camera. And you have to watch your language. But we’re used to that because we interact with the fans and kids all the time.
“We are like virtual hype men.”
And you never know who’s going to pop into the room. Benny the Bull showed up in a Mavericks’ virtual crowd. So did Shaquille O’Neal. The Dallas Wings represented at one game.
But mostly, it’s just diehard fans who have been yearning to have something to cheer about since life was interrupted five months ago.
“It’s given a lot of folks something to smile about – and we all need it,” Big Rob said. “There’s nothing like being there live and nothing compares to the AAC. But this has been a genius idea by the NBA.”