Filmmakers have gotten a lot wrong about the future. We're in the year 2020 and there are no flying cars. You can't purchase a condominium on the moon. Aliens don't walk among us earthlings providing snarky comic relief. But there is one area where pretty much every movie about the future nailed it.
In "Back to the Future II," set in 2015, Marty McFly receives video calls on his living room TV. In "Demolition Man," set in 2032, the nefarious Dr. Raymond Cocteau engages in a full-on video conference, with the live feed of his colleagues' faces displayed on rotating rectangular monitors. "Black Mirror," a more recent show that's also more realistic (and pessimistic) about the future, took things a step further by depicting a full studio audience represented by animated avatars, while the actual humans controlling them remained in their homes.
So when we watch games from the NBA bubble at Walt Disney World and stare at a sea of cheering fans who are nowhere near Orlando, it's a stark reminder that we're living in the future that these movies tried so hard to predict. The pandemic has purloined the possibility of thousands of spectators gathering to share a common experience, but technology has stepped in to give us more than an adequate substitute.
If you haven't yet been able to witness an NBA game as a "virtual fan," you might wonder exactly how the whole thing works. I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to watch the Boston Celtics' 102-94 Game 3 win over the Philadelphia 76ers from the Michelob Ultra Courtside Seats that you've no doubt seen if you've watched any NBA game from the bubble. People throw around "this is the most 2020 thing ever" quite a bit, but for me, this was quite literally the most 2020 thing I've done all year -- getting bored one day and driving 10 miles down the freeway, turning around and coming back just to get out of the house is a close second.
The process for virtual fan selection varies from team to team, with some giving season-ticket holders preference and others (like the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers) filling their virtual seats on a first-come, first-served basis through registration on the team's website. Once selected, you receive a series of emails (with a "Hello beer lover" greeting) to complete the registration process, including the all-important terms of service where, among many other vows, you promise not to do anything that you would later regret doing on live TV:
Participant may not engage in any offensive or obscene behavior or language or any other inappropriate behavior or language as determined by any NBA Entity.
So far the NBA fans have been great at avoiding violations of this mandate, unlike the WWE, whose pixelated spectators ran the gamut of inappropriate behavior on their very first night in virtual attendance of something called ThunderDome. But I digress.
Once all the T's are crossed and I's are dotted, the magic begins. And when I say magic, I mean a miracle of logistical majesty. As fans trickle into the Microsoft Teams room and get placed in a virtual seat, a small group of magnanimous, infinitely patient staff members soothingly talk you through the process of getting your screen to look the way it's supposed to look: half of your screen showing the game, and the other half showing your section of virtual fans.
Because fans trickled in at different times prior to tipoff, the staff members must have explained the process of pinning the game feed and accessing "together mode" no fewer than 15 times. It was actually somewhat comforting, a reminder that no matter how advanced our technology gets, it's still actual human beings who burden themselves with the all-important task of making people feel taken care of and at ease.
We also had two special guests in our section, former members of the unforgettable mid-'90s Chicago Bulls dynasty Scottie Pippen and B.J. Armstrong. It was truly fascinating to observe the 30-minute-long process of trying to get Pippen (or rather, his virtual representation) into one of the front row seats from his original spot in the fourth row. I'll spare you the minutiae, but it involved Pippen turning off his webcam, a staff member occupying the front row seat then turning theirs off, followed by Pippen immediately turning his webcam back on with Mission Impossible-esque precision in order to occupy the vacated front-row seat. Needless to say, the final successful attempt just minutes before tip-off was greeted with a rousing applause -- and possibly tears of joy -- from our section. Hey, during the pandemic we relish every small victory we can latch onto.
Once the game starts, you watch the broadcast on your laptop or device, but one cool part is that you're about a minute ahead of other fans watching on their TVs -- appropriate given the whole "living in the future" theme. I'm not ashamed to say that more than once I texted friends making impossibly accurate prognostications about what they were about to watch on their screens: "I don't know why, but I just get the feeling Jayson Tatum is gonna miss a 28-foot jump shot on the next possession. Call it a hunch."
Sadly, my Nostradamian exploits curried me no favor with my disinterested text chain.
You're encouraged to cheer and interact with the other fans in your section, and another fascinating aspect of being a virtual fan is that the players on the court can actually hear you -- sort of. Fear not if you reflexively and impulsively shout out that Joel Embiid is a bum, the players can't hear specific comments like that. Instead the sound from all of the virtual fans is mixed together to create ambient crowd noise in the Disney arenas. So despite being potentially thousands of miles away, you can still quite literally be a part of the game.
Our section wasn't too talkative during the game, but we did have a Michelob-provided hype man -- appropriately named "Hype" -- who helped get the energy going. At one point I clicked on his individual live feed at the bottom of my screen, only to reveal that he was actually in a moving car for the majority of the game -- even more impressive. He sparked up conversations with several of the fans, including a young man named Xavier who sat in his father's seat for parts of the game. Later Hype asked another virtual fan for his name and the fan replied, "My real name or Instagram?" What a time to be alive.
We were located behind one of the baskets, so during free throws we were told to make noise and wave our arms since there was a possibility we would be on camera. Sadly I missed my one moment in the sun -- I was looking down at my phone for the duration of my five seconds of screen time. You only get one shot in show business, and I've apparently blown mine.
Pippen and Armstrong were kind enough to field questions from the fans in our section at halftime, mostly surrounding the '90s Bulls and the current state of the NBA. Their most touching responses, however, came to Xavier, who asked what he and his sister should do to become better basketball players.
"When I grew up, I wasn't a great basketball player," Pippen said. "I believed in my dream and I worked hard at it. Physically I knew I had to get stronger, but I stayed in the gym working on my ball-handling, working on just the little things, footwork. And I believed in myself. My advice to you is if you believe in yourself, don't let nobody outwork you."
Armstrong followed up his former teammate with his own sage advice.
"Confidence is they key," Armstrong said. "Having the confidence and believing in yourself will go a long way in whatever it is you do. ... If you really want to take the game seriously, I can't stress enough, learn to play the game with the fundamentals and it will carry you a long way."
We were lucky enough to be treated to a close game in the second half, but as the Celtics pulled away in the final minutes and my time in the virtual courtside seat drew to a close, something dawned on me. This was the most time I had spent with anyone outside of my family in nearly six months. When the final buzzer sounded and it was time to sign off, I felt like I had gotten to know the fans in my section. I'll likely never again cross paths with Guy In Striped Shirt, Long Hair Don't Care, Woman With Dog, Guy With Glasses In The Front or Xavier's Dad, but -- much like a live sporting event -- you form instant bonds with fans around you gathered for a common purpose.
Watching a game from a virtual courtside seat was an experience I'll never forget, and it shows how technology, combined with genuine human enthusiasm, patience and determination, can help get us through even the most unusual, frustrating and unprecedented of times.