Artificial crowd noise: An unnecessary, detrimental addition to live football

(Image courtesy of Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC on Twitter)

After BT Sport’s Bundesliga coverage included artificial crowd noise, Premier League broadcasts are set to follow suit. It’s not for me…

This weekend featured another round of Bundesliga action, to cap off the long-awaited week in which we were finally given dates for the diaries — if not confirmation of where a select few games may be held — regarding the Premier League’s return.

As the Germans’ version of Project Restart remains in full swing, another talking point arose with the introduction of artificial crowd noise being played over live BT Sport’s live TV coverage of Bundesliga round 30. It has long been mooted and as with much of the Bundesliga’s new-look appearance, is likely to shape how the Premier League will look (and sound) come June 17. This viewer will be opting out and muting the reactionary soundtrack, but it is worth considering the advantages and disadvantages of what it provides the viewing experience.

As with every football-centred debate, the artificial crowd noise swiftly became a polarising one. It is still, though, an interesting one to have and in a strange way, provides some light relief from the ongoing but altogether more important and harrowing issues of our time.

The focus of football fanatics in this country has been given a boost and shifted towards a concrete return of Premier League football, with the confirmation of the return schedule released this week. But as viewers of Saturday’s Bundesliga coverage were met with the chanting of imaginary match-goers — achieved through the use of an “audio carpet” — one question came to mind. What’s the point, no matter how cleverly done, of trying to recreate an atmosphere which we know doesn’t exist within the realms of the live occasion we are watching?

In the article linked above, the BBC ran a poll asking for the views of fans regarding the integration of crowd noise into the viewing experience. At the time of writing, 62% of voters say they “neither like nor dislike it”, while 30% of the remaining votes were split between the “like a little”, “like” and “like a lot” options, with the latter taking 17% of the overall selections. 

I can, to some extent, understand the appeal. Watching a game with the noise of some crowd — whether truly connected to the action or not — is routine for many viewers. Without crowd noise it can become eerie and is entirely unnatural considering how accustomed we are to watching football in a ‘normal’ world. With the artificial yells comes, for some, a semblance of normality. As Gary Lineker admitted, the noise itself is not necessary, but in his words, “adds to the watching experience”.

But football is returning to an abnormal, changing world. As per the BBC, the audio carpet for the game’s soundtrack is taken from previously broadcast games and is mixed with the real noise of match action. What’s more, as viewers got a taste of this weekend, samples of reactionary noises for scenarios such as goals and fouls are created and ready to be inserted by a producer watching just like those at home. This way, there is a coherent sound appropriately matching the action.

More interestingly, Lineker also suggested that the manufactured crowd noise may also benefit commentators, presumably more so the ones working from home. Regardless, this won’t be a problem for Premier League commentators given that they will be in the stadium and viewing the action in person. Business as usual.

Based on this weekend, it would feel rather more natural and, from my perspective, a more complete experience without the noise. If anything, the insertion of monotonous background fan noise served as a distraction and detracted from the game’s action. It jarred with the echoing shouts and reactions of players and staff invested in the game, those having to create their own intensity without the backing of supporters. Plainly, playing crowd noise — even if it is intelligently reactive to in-game scenarios, such as cheering when a goal is scored — conjures images of the broadcast producer resembling an enthusiastic DJ reactively pushing buttons on his set.

“We want Sky Sports viewers to still feel it all and have the best possible viewing experience — even if they can’t be in the stadiums or watch with their family and friends.”

SKY SPORTS MANAGING DIRECTOR ROBERT WEBSTER

BT Sport presenter Jake Humphrey shared his thoughts during the Bundesliga action on Saturday, while watching from home: “When I mentioned fake crowd noise should be put on live PL games a few weeks ago, I got pelters from purists. Put @btsport on now and tell me it doesn’t improve the experience!  Nothing is the same anymore, so let’s make the best job of it we can…”

But why do many feel that artificial noise is “making the best job of it we can”? I would rather hear the interaction between players than artificial attempts to recreate what the scenario would sound like in pre-pandemic circumstances, with fans inside the stadium. We know there are no fans to cheer and jeer every phase of play, so why is there seemingly a desperation to have some noise to replace it? Less is more, and based on my experience so far and what I can hope for when watching games I am more personally invested in, no crowd noise presents the better option.

It is not a case of taking sides, of the perceived ‘purists’ or the ‘open-minded’. As we consider the Premier League’s impending return, the utilisation of such technology on the part of broadcasters is almost certainly connected to the language that would inevitably tarnish the viewing experience they provide. By giving viewers that choice, they can essentially absolve themselves of guilt when the inevitable “f*** off”s and other colourful phrases are tossed around between players.

On another note, surely the audio carpet must incorporate the “you s*** b****** ahhhhh” that is mandatory following the away goalkeeper taking a goal kick — regardless of match time, context or success of the kick itself? If at all realistic, the bellowing chorus of “the referee’s a w*****” will ring out through our living rooms, no? I’m only half joking.

The point here is that the experience of watching German football with artificial crowd noise is inherently different to watching the Premier League with the accompanying in-game reactions of English fans. It is something that needs considering, and that may force broadcasters to air even less realistic and more artificial-sounding noise to fill the void for those in need. When the Premier League returns, don’t we want to hear what the players are saying? The stakes will be high for a variety of reasons — at the top and bottom of the table — from the off. It is a chance to gain an increased level of access to top players through TV coverage that has simply not been possible before.

Generally, the exploration of optic-enhancing improvements seems sensible and beneficial. Earlier this week, Sky Sports announced a variety of new innovations that will make up its innovative coverage on return and we now know that both Sky and BT — who will broadcast the majority of the remaining Premier League games, with just four games given to the BBC — will offer viewer discretion regarding the artificial crowd noise to go with game coverage.

The acoustic adjustments, however, aren’t needed. In truth, there is no way of imitating the genuine noise production of fans at games, although it can be said that this is the best attempt at doing so. Real crowd noise represents the authentic emotional reaction to how the action is unfolding and fluctuates between silence and mixed shouting, as opposed to the largely unwavering audio tune only altering minimally based on in-game scenarios.

The main positive is that viewers will be provided a choice, and broadcasters can base their soundtracks on the primarily positive feedback of this weekend’s experiment. Sky Sports managing director Robert Webster has said of the initiative, “We want Sky Sports viewers to still feel it all and have the best possible viewing experience — even if they can’t be in the stadiums or watch with their family and friends.”

For many — myself not included — of the vast viewing population awaiting the resumption of English football, the experience is set to be enhanced by this introduction. It’s a case of each to their own, with a red button solution.

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