What will sports look like without fans? We designed a dozen concepts that could bring you even closer to the game.

For some of us, the announcement that the NBA season was cancelled was the moment it really clicked. Covid is here. And it could eliminate one of the key aspects of game: dense crowds cheering in unison and the drama of an audience responding to events unfold live. This has been the magical part of the game for 150 years.

Back in the day, radio brought the game to scores of new fans. TV and Twitter have further extended the audience. But these models were built around the magic that happens within the ballpark. What happens when the stadium is empty?

Technology enables us to create experiences that have never been possible before. Now more than ever, people are willing to try new ways of doing things. Communities of fans can interact with each other and the game in real time. We can bring the energy of millions of fans into the stadium.

The audience is potentially unlimited, but the product has changed. Sports have always brought us together. Now we have to figure out how to do this in a whole new way.

Digital product + physical space

Sosolimited and Upstatement collaborated on a design sprint to unite engineers, architects, strategists, and designers around this problem. Sosolimited activates spaces with technology. Upstatement builds digital products. We’re design + build shops with over a decade of experience, and together we see an opportunity to create new types of fan interactions.

We imagine a fan universe where you can stream the game alongside your friends. Users customize the experience with a digital avatar builder and a livestream with full camera control. Fans and players are brought closer together by connecting stadium lighting to digital fan engagement. And it’s all packaged in a slick app that reinforces the fun, crazy energy of fandom.

User research and personal experience taught us about fan behavior. Design thinking workshops helped us prioritize the most impactful ideas. Rapid prototyping got us looking at things from the user’s perspective.

A digital universe of fandom

With the real world full of potentially lethal germs, why not give fans a dedicated digital universe of their own? Fans are already uniting on social media, but Instagram and Twitter communities are fragmented and often missing key elements like livestreaming. Animal Crossing and Fortnight have shown that creating rich, customizable digital spaces can be therapeutic and profitable. And unlike an IRL sports experience, the potential audience is unlimited.

Customizable avatars center the platform around personal icons and provide an outlet for fan creativity. Level up from experience or interactions in the app. Upgrade gear with digital currency, giving fans a reason to keep coming back. Reward large groups with unlockable items to grow the audience organically.

Bringing fan energy to empty stadiums

While fans are having fun online, what about the teams playing in empty arenas and stadiums? Digital platforms can create powerful feedback loops between fans and players. We want to bring the energy of the arena into the living room — and bring that back to the players in low-capacity arenas.

Quick-responses take this experience to the next level as fans express a range of emotions with reaction buttons right in the livestream. Real-time reaction feeds will drive lighting in the venue to bring the energy back to the players.

Teams have already proven that live audio and video streams can connect fans and players in the stadium. Live fan avatars and soundscapes of shouting fans can amplify that even futher.

Customizable viewing experience

Just like in a stadium, you can look anywhere. Follow your favorite player, focus on the action, or explore the energy of the crowd.

NHL players already show off their skills wearing GoPros today. What if you could watch from the first-person perspective of any player in the arena? Jump to any seat in the venue? Or unlock premium angles with in-app currency.

We’re way past camera angles. Unbound by physical space, in-game entertainment can be as mesmerizing as Travis Scott’s concert in Fortnite. Replays can get commentary from celebrities or friends. 8D sound can transport the fan to hear the #$*! frustration of the penalty box.

Apps for safer arenas

The virtual fandom is here to stay, but it also provides tools to creatively manage the experience of an IRL, in-arena game. As communities open, fans can safely congregate for games.

Stadium apps can offer scheduled arrival times and tell users how long the lines are. Contactless concessions can get drinks, snacks, and merchandise delivered right to you. And reactions used in the stadium can control lights around your seat.

Looking into the crystal ball

Covid’s unpredictability is frustrating. No one can tell us when or if it will end. Without intervention, games will feel like a shadow of what they used to be — overly reliant on physical spaces that are now empty and crowds who are no longer safe. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

We have a huge opportunity to give fans the integrated experience they deserve with holistic digital strategy, creative product design, and native apps connected to physical space.

As leagues and venues plan safety measures and media companies prioritize digital distribution, let’s get to work alongside them to open up the world that Covid shut down. Insert inspiring sports metaphor here, reader’s choice!

Sosolimited activates spaces with technology. Upstatement builds digital products. We’re both Boston-based studios. Want to build something amazing with us? Contact Upstatement or Sosolimited.

Thanks to Vago for character illustrations, to Dalma Földesi for stadium illustrations, to Danny Bollinger and ErikDrost for basketball photos, and to Library of Congress for their picture of an old baseball game.