Now you can join an ongoing NBA game like it’s a video conference

Microsoft Teams will put fans in virtual stands around basketball games.
Fans in stands via Microsoft Teams at an NBA game
Last summer the NBA collaborated with Microsoft Teams to bring fans to its "bubble." Microsoft

Microsoft teams didn’t enjoy the same kind of cultural moment that video chat darling Zoom experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as many coworkers suddenly found themselves spread out around the country—and sometimes even the world—Microsoft’s collaboration suite quickly became a crucial product for many employees. While teams is typically better for discussing the latest batch of financial reports than enjoying yourself, the NBA is tapping the tech in order to put some semblance of fan interaction back into its socially distant games

The NBA collaboration is based on the Together Mode Microsoft built into Teams software. It works similarly to other video chat services, which detect a person and make it look like they’re sitting in front of a different background. Rather than arranging everyone in a simple grid pattern, however, Microsoft super-imposes the participants into a single background. So, if you’re attending a lecture, everyone will appear in a single virtual lecture hall. 

In the NBA’s case, fans will watch games directly through the Teams app. Their images will then appear on 17-foot-high digital screens that surround the court in the arena. The virtual “stands” can accommodate more than 300 fans at once. It’s unclear, at the moment, if there will be any kind of moderation in place to keep people from making lewd gestures or generally acting in such a way that they try to ruin it for everyone. 

Leagues have been trying a wide variety of ways to inject some fan-driven excitement into live games without live bodies in the seats. Methods include everything from pumping crowd noise into the stadiums to adding fancy camera angles and audio features to try and make the most of the unique situation. 

NBA Microsoft Teams
What a player might see when playing in the arena. Microsoft

Microsoft’s solution is clever and seems more fun than hearing ever single noise that would otherwise come from the court. However, watching basketball through Teams doesn’t seem ideal for a downtime activity. Teams is, after all, something many people use for work. Typically, people who work in offices typically switch from the “work screen” of a company computer or laptop to the “fun screen” of your phone or a TV during downtime. It’s a small enough shift as it is. Now, you’re simply shifting from your work tab to your enjoyment tab, all of which is starting to feel a little claustrophobic. 

The NBA season is set to come back on July 30th, then we’ll find out what it’s like to watch basketball during the pandemic. Baseball is already back and it brought some interesting fan tech of its own. Cardboard cutouts with pictures of fans have appeared behind home plate. Fox Sports will pump the empty stadium full of virtual fans during its televised games this Saturday. It’s eerie, but in a different way than the NBA’s solution. It all feels undeniably appropriate for 2020.