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Used by all major sports teams during the COVID-19 pandemic, artificial fans are an emblematic, eerie example of simulacra in action. What makes these cardboard cutouts and incorporeal chants seem so strange?
What are simulacra?
The most famous development of the idea came from the 1981 treatise “Simulacra and Simulation” by French philosopher Jean Baudrillard.
A simulacrum is different than a simulation. A simulation replicates something that exists. A simulacrum replicates something that no longer exists.
Baudrillard used the short story “On Exactitude in Science” by Jorge Luis Borges to illustrate the concept. In the story, a fictional empire creates a map that is on a 1:1 scale to the kingdom itself. The cartographers continually revise the map to make it a perfect copy. When the empire collapses, all that is left is the map.
The map began as a simulation but became a simulacrum.
Baudrillard and other thinkers explored what happens when simulacra or the “hyperreal” replace things that are “real.” Examples include banknotes and credit cards, digital media, and mass production that obliviates the idea of an “original.”
The 21st Century rise of the internet and artificial intelligence has only heightened the usefulness of these concepts. Even if the word is not familiar, the eerieness of simulacra has become a sci-fi staple, from The Matrix to Westworld.
The 2020 Major League Baseball season was an exercise in simulacra and simulation.
Sports video games naturally fall under the category of “simulation.” The blockbuster games with official licenses work to recreate the appearance, skill levels, and movements of the characters’ real-life counterparts. This was how “MLB The Show 20” began – as a simulation of real life. The game would even replicate the real rosters and weather conditions of each match scheduled on the calendar.
But the day before the game was released, Major League Baseball announced its season would be postponed indefinitely due to the spreading pandemic.
At this point, “The Show” became a simulacrum. Gamers made their way through a hyperrealistic world meant to precisely replicate something that never actually happened. As the baseball season fell away like the map in Borges’ story, only the map remained.
The story didn’t end there. The simulacrum that was “The Show” began to create its own reality.
In April, Major League Baseball sponsored a video game tournament in which real-life baseball players took control of their virtual teams to compete in the “Players League.” (Tampa Bay pitcher Blake Snell won)
The “baseball season” had become a simulation of itself.
Fortunately, MLB was able to put together a shortened season that began in late July.
Fans weren’t allowed into the stadiums due to concerns about social distancing. This created a problem both for players used to feeding off crowd energy and for audiences watching the games at home. Would baseball be baseball without the sound of fans cheering and jeering every play?
Baseball turned to a simulacra solution. MLB The Show 20 had the sounds baseball needed.
The game’s creators, San Diego Studio, had visited every major league stadium in the country to gather situation-specific sound and make the game as realistic as possible. So, MLB used these simulated crowds to replace the real crowds.
“Keep in mind that these sounds—artificial, determined by an algorithm that’s getting cues from a system designed to track and record every pitch—are heard both by the players on the field and the fans at home. Fans are hearing, through their TV, artificial sounds from a baseball video game that are piped into the stadium’s PA, with their texture determined by the same video game’s algorithm, mediated by the broadcast speakers in the stadium designed to pick up the “crowd” noise, in order to relay it back into your home. If you could watch the exact same sequence of pitches and plays on MLB The Show, you would hear the exact same crowd. An illusionary crowd.” – “Baudrillard in the Time of COVID” by Chad Post, Three Percent
The NBA, WNBA, NFL, and others have also been broadcasting fake stadium noise, sometimes supplemented with a “tap-to-cheer” app.
And as if to make things even creepier, baseball teams began selling fans cardboard copies of themselves to sit in the stands. Other leagues followed suit.
The NBA one-upped them all, putting fans in virtual seats using Microsoft Teams when it returned in the fall to wrap up its season. This created a bizarre display that was pretty distracting for people watching at home. The league did away with them for the 2020-21 season.