What it’s like to be an NBA virtual fan for a bubble game

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

If you’ve watched any of the NBA games from the Orlando bubble, you’ve surely noticed the virtual fans surrounding the court. Here’s what it’s like to be one.

Even when watching an intense NBA game from home, there’s often something added by the crowd. Their cheering after a great play and the way they are silenced by a road team’s clutch bucket helps give the game a rhythm, a soundtrack that can help the viewer, separated by hundreds or thousands of miles, to feel more immersed in the game. With filling arenas an impossibility right now, the NBA has been experimenting with the concept of virtual fans since the season resumed last month. If you’ve watched any NBA games from the bubble, you’ve surely noticed the board of mostly anonymous faces, watching in from around the world as the league tries to create some semblance of familiarity in an unprecedented situation

Once Michelob heard that the NBA season was set to return, they thought, “There must be a way in, to bring that energy, the joy of fans back into the game,” according to Ricardo Marques, Michelob’s VP of marketing. The company contacted the NBA about the possibility of creating some way for fans to watch and participate in the games from a distance. Upon reaching out, they were told that the NBA and Microsoft were already working on a similar idea and the three organizations teamed up to create the virtual fan experience. After watching a number of games, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to partake in the virtual fan experience, becoming one of the roughly 300 crowd members for game three of the first-round series between the Celtics and the Sixers.

What is the NBA virtual fan experience really like during a game?

When the time came for me to open Microsoft Teams and log-in to section two of the virtual stands, I was not particularly looking forward to it. Not due to anything having to do with the specific viewing arrangement but because, even though I’m not a Sixers fan or anything, the prospect of watching their desultory season wind towards its inevitable end was bumming me out. Once I’d joined my group, I was greeted by a small chat-box consisting less of thoughts about the upcoming game than it was of people trying to sort out technical issues before tip-off. Yet there was a face I recognized in the center of my screen. I took out my phone and did a quick Google Image search for “BJ Armstrong today” to make sure I wasn’t deceiving myself and my search, plus the fact that he was soon addressed by his name let me know that I would be watching the game with a three-time NBA champion. He watched with a headset like he was about to start providing color commentary, sitting in front of framed jerseys belonging to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain

Armstrong was not the only former Bull joining us as, after being welcomed by Marques, those of us in the room heard overlapping chatter about “Scottie” as the Michelob team worked to ensure his camera was working and that he was in the front row. Moments later, we were all welcomed by the visage of a Hall of Famer, languidly sipping a Michelob as a number of brand managers made sure that everything was organized the way it should be. Others in the group were told to turn their cameras on and off at certain points to ensure that Pippen would be prominent on the TNT broadcast and after a few minutes of confusion, things were settled and the game began

Introducing star athletes and celebrities has been a staple of the broadcasts so far as Peyton Manning, Lil Wayne, and Shaquille O’Neal among others have participated in the virtual broadcasts and Marques claims that “there’s a lot more coming… we have a bunch of different cool ideas and guests who are certainly going to be extremely well received.” In spite of the inherent distance, and the fact that I felt it would have been brazen to start casually chatting with Armstrong and Pippen in spite of my desire to, I must concede that it was nevertheless pretty cool to have them there

Watching the game itself was actually a bit difficult. My laptop screen was split into nine separate rectangles and the game was in one of them, persistently moving around as others joined or left the room. Perhaps there was a way to remedy this situation, but if there was, I did not discover it. Hoping to highlight the communal experience of watching the game together, the game itself was a bit lost. Though to be fair, pretty much every time I get together with friends to watch an NBA game, I’m not paying nearly as much attention to the action on the court as I am when I watch it alone

But getting lost in conversation with old friends was not an issue here. The experience, which simulated a highly orchestrated Zoom call, simulated live attendance in one clear way: you are sitting near strangers that, in spite of your apparent shared interest, it would be awkward and perhaps presumptuous to initiate conversation with. Anyway, any attempts to chat would have been immediately drowned out by the broadcast as several people discovered throughout the course of the game. Plus, as anyone who has ever participated in a Skype or Zoom call knows, it is easy to become more fixated on your own appearance in the corner than on the conversation itself. Similarly, throughout the game, I often found myself more curious about the lighting in my room and how my hair was lying than focused on the Sixers’ offense and whether they were getting the ball to Embiid down low enough

The highlight of the game for those of us in section two took place during a break in the action. At halftime, we were treated to a Q&A session with Scottie Pippen and BJ Armstrong. Nothing exactly surprising was revealed — Pippen sees a lot of Toni Kukoc in Luka Doncic and believes that LaMelo Ball should be the number one pick — but it was tremendously enjoyable to just hear stories from these two former stars. Particular highlights were when Pippen mocked Armstrong for laughing like “an old Kawhi” and when Armstrong told a story about how, as a rookie, he was locked in the bus bathroom by Scottie as an act of initiation. It was not until the final question had been asked that I gasped and realized that I had had an opportunity to ask Pippen about his infamous and iconic (at least in my heart) Mr. Submarine commercial from 1989 in which he eats a massive sub with two Luvabulls while sitting on the court and, in the end, dunks a basketball that transforms into a sandwich upon breaking the cylinder. Rarely have I felt regret more acutely than I did at that moment

As the game progressed, and Joel Embiid turned the ball over twice in the closing minutes, essentially giving the game and the series to the Celtics, there was something amusing and almost voyeuristic about seeing the elation on the faces of Boston fans and the frustration on those of Sixers fans. In those moments, ones that cannot be predicted or prepared for, it felt more like watching a game with others than at any other point and it was exciting. It did not capture the same high as watching a game in person. I could not let loose in excitement when exciting plays occurred — I did not wish to disturb anyone else in the house with me, after all — but it at least, for a few intermittent moments, felt communal. And in the midst of a pandemic, where social connection is rarer for most of us than it has ever been before, that’s worth something. Yes, the whole arrangement felt vaguely dystopian at times, but in times like these, something being only vaguely dystopian isn’t so bad.

If you want to be a virtual fan yourself, go to ultracourtside.com and enter to win a seat.

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