You could say that we are living in the age of artifice: While politics has been consumed by fake news, one day soccer may be consumed by fake noise. Last week, when watching Sevilla against Real Betis, I caught an uncomfortable glimpse of the game’s future; a few days later, as Atlético Madrid took on Athletic Bilbao, I caught another. In both cases, as part of the safety measures imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19, La Liga had ruled that the games be played with no supporters in attendance. However, to provide some semblance of atmosphere for the TV viewer, La Liga had collaborated with EA Sports to accompany the live footage with artificial fan chants, while superimposing images of crowds over the empty seats. At first, the effect was bizarre: These players, set against this somewhat tacky backdrop, reminded me of characters from Knightmare, that mid-1980s TV show where you had to help your friend navigate through a series of computer-generated mazes. But then, as the games rumbled onward—Sevilla asserting their dominance, and Atléti fighting Athletic to a predictable stalemate—my attention drifted, and then something odd happened. I began to enjoy it.
I began to enjoy it the same way you enjoy warm water rushing around your feet at the edge of a beach, your toes welcoming the ocean, or the same way a quiet song whose lyrics are just out of reach soothes you asleep. In that instant, I was a passive fan, letting one more of the endless livestreams wash over me, and that’s when I thought how successful this concept might be long after lockdown has ended. I imagined that there might well be a moment when, to give poorly attended games a greater sense of hype, television networks might simply augment the existing crowds with graphics and sounds.
Why wouldn’t they? We are a generation raised on enhanced reality, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that: Many of us already add filters to our photos on Instagram, while a growing number of us are using virtual-reality headsets to immerse ourselves in different worlds. Escapism has long been big business, and La Liga’s experiment is merely another step along that path.
Yet it is not an inevitable one. Like my Stadio colleague Ryan Hunn, I am instinctively anxious about the addition of these extra trappings to our game. I believe that the match-going fan is as close as anyone to the soul of our game; it is they who provide the tifos, who so often set the tone on the big occasion, who so often embody and emanate the spirit of the game. Yet they are routinely disrespected: Matches are scheduled for the benefit of television audiences without any thought for how those in the stadium will get home, while tickets are priced at such a level that going to see their team is a financial sacrifice that increasingly few fans can regularly make. And now those same television networks, mindful of the grand revenues to be reaped from those millions of viewers watching from home, are gradually starting to lay digital wallpaper over them.
Perhaps this sounds dramatic. At the same time, when I watched these two Spanish games, I couldn’t help but think of one evening when I went to a work event. That night we all stood smartly around and plucked canapés from passing trays as the speakers talked. From the corner, almost as an afterthought, came the forlorn strains of strings; there stood a group of musicians playing a corporate gig, their work drifting out into the room and into our indifferent ears. This is what we risk doing to our match-going fans: We risk turning these supporters who are so skilled at building an atmosphere, these craftspeople and architects of mood, into little more than the background soundtrack of a cheese-and-wine night. The more we ignore them, the more we disconnect from what made this game beautiful in the first place.
There were a couple of comically dystopian moments during the Atléti-Athletic game. One arrived when, as the Spanish Football Podcast noted, the blocks of virtual fans were “sliding unexpectedly out of position,” as if this artificial world were still getting used to its suit. The other was when, during a break in the play, the camera panned away from the pitch and toward the roaring crowd, only to reveal a handful of substitutes scattered among a vast gallery of vacant seats. On both occasions, the game’s bold new future sank into parody.
It’s unsurprising that, of the different leagues that are trying to fill the silence of the empty stadium, La Liga has been the most extreme. Indeed, if you are looking to draw analogies between European football leagues and American sports leagues, then La Liga is like the NFL: the first to embrace the idea of staging games overseas, the most robust in trying to extract profit at the cost of all else. La Liga makes you hear the artificial crowd, because someone within that organization has clearly done the sums and has worked out that there is a significant appetite, among the 90-odd percent of fans who will never have the privilege of seeing their team play live, for a synthetic match atmosphere that removes them at once from the drudgery of daily life.
Meanwhile, the Bundesliga is akin to the NBA: still concerned with finance, not without its fair share of problematic owners, but one where progressive activism by players is encouraged and where commerce more regularly takes a second place to ethics. If you are watching German football on television, the Bundesliga has given you the option of listening to fake crowd noise if you wish, but if not you are still welcome to hear the echo of the coach’s voice as they yell from the bench, the crack of shin pads during a reckless tackle. (By this analysis, the Premier League is somewhere in between the NFL and the NBA, which is to say that it is Major League Baseball: financially rapacious, beset now and then by scandal, increasingly beholden to stats gurus, but at times still stubbornly traditional.)
Maybe, one day, it’ll be possible to customize the matchday experience just as you want it: You’ll be able to place holograms of your friends and family in the stands, along with chants from your favorite games. It’s your footballing neighborhood, and you’re entitled to have it just how you like it. But when I see what La Liga is doing, I can’t help but think of a bar I used to know just down the road from me in Berlin. It was the spirit of the neighborhood. I’d walk past it on wintry nights, shuffling through the snow at 3 a.m., and there would always be revelers beckoning me inside. One day, though, it was gone; it turned out that someone with a bit of money had moved into the flat above that bar, and had subjected it to so many legal challenges—so many complaints about the wrong kind of noise at the wrong time of night—that it had to close down. Now they have got the noise they want: They have their surrounding environment just so. Every so often I go by where that thriving bar used to be, and all I see is just another faceless café, with a bland facade that foreshadows the even more bland coffee and cheesecake you’ll find within. And I think: Our neighborhood got gentrified because the wealthiest tenants became obsessed with the wrong kind of noise. I hope that football does not develop a similar obsession.