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NBA Games Are More Fun to Watch in the Bubble

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Crowd noise, camera shots, and all the joys of pro basketball in Orlando.

NBA: Miami Heat at Denver Nuggets Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

When the NBA announced they’d be resuming the 2020 season in a bubble in Orlando without fans in attendance, I was skeptical about the potential quality of the games. With no crowds or reactions, I feared the experience would be empty, almost clinical. The best we could hope for was imitation, effect-filled games that reminded us why we missed the live sport.

Boy, was I wrong.

Not only has watching the Portland Trail Blazers (and the rest of the BubNBA) been good, most ways it’s been better than watching the regularly-televised games.

That’s right. I said it, and I’ll stick by it. Here are some reasons why.

Better Camera Angles

Plenty has been said about the sideline and baseline “NBA2k” camera views. They’re great. But I’m going to argue strongly that the standard court camera shot in Orlando is vastly superior to what we see in regular NBA arenas.

Framing makes a huge difference. With the Bubble Cam, we see both sidelines in every shot. The view is pulled back enough that we can watch all ten players on the floor at once. You can still focus on individual stars if you want, but you can actually see off-ball movement and plays developing before your eyes.

Watching everybody, all the time helps the viewer understand how screens work, how defensive rotations go down (or fall apart), and how much difference weak-side play can make, particularly during critical moments. Every possession becomes a clinic. You can see that on most plays, teams matter, not just stars.

Lack of baseline photographers and sideline seats makes the court seem cleaner. It also leaves ample room for players to charge, dive, and leap with abandon at the edges. You might still wince when Jusuf Nurkic falls to the floor, but at least he’s landing on clear hardwood instead of a Dorito-soaked lens jockey brandishing $20,000 of joint-maiming equipment*.

Also if I never see another liter of beer spilled by a courtside attendant, it’ll be six too many. Huzzah for players only on, and around, the floor!

Acceptable Noise

Silence and cheap, canned crowd noises were two of the biggest culture/atmosphere issues headed into the bubble. The noises in play during telecasts may be familiar, but the broadcast techs are wielding them like expert conductors.

I’m still waiting for the ultimate in fake-crowd wizardry: a chorus of boos raining down upon referees after a blown call against the Blazers, starting at Volume 5 then cranking up to 11, still going five minutes later. Short of that miracle, the league and its broadcast partners have done everything possible to make it sound right. They’ve done well. Not only have they “listened to their fans”, they can duplicate the cadence. Every once in a while I forget that the sound isn’t real.

For obvious reasons, there’s also a lot less of the annoying arena “crowd pumping” stuff. (Though it would be funny to hear them play a, “Let’s go fans!” rally only to have the guy on the crowd volume knob turn it down, starting a sound tech war.) The lack of constant audio bombardment helps the viewer tune into the action. I feel like I can actually talk to the people around me about the game during lulls in the action.

Speaking of distractions...

Clear Focus

With all due apologies to hard-working arena crews, I’m not missing the timeout games or other flim-flammery one bit. It feels like without the spectacle, everybody is just here for basketball. The players are playing it, coaches are coaching it, announcers are talking about it, and fans are watching it. It’s almost like a sport!

Considering the tension level in the last few Blazers games alone, the game is more than able to stand up for itself even without the bells and wrapping paper.

They still ought to let somebody shoot from halfcourt for a car though. Or just ship in the Golden State Warriors to do it for them.

Tournament Feel

Give or take the inconvenience of having to work while NBA games are going, having just one or two games in action at a time—followed by several more sets as the day progresses—is simply awesome. It’s far better than trying to track eight scoreboards at once. The schedule gives every game an NCAA tournament feeling. Even the Sacramento Kings are... are... ummmm... even the Washington Wizards are kind of fun to watch!

Virtual Crowds Aren’t Horrible

The screens around the court aren’t bad at all, although I’d love to know what the players think of the huge ones behind the baselines. I bet they create an interesting shooting background. Virtual attendees appear to be getting into their role too. It was cool seeing Bill Walton, Rasheed Wallace, and Bonzi Wells seated among the Portland faithful over the weekend. And we’re starting to get things like this:

If the NBA has to start the 2020-21 season in this fashion, it’d be cool to see them explore ways for virtual fans to interact on screen: emojis or text bubbles perhaps. A tighter link between fans pressing buttons on phones and crowd noise would also be cool.

Pure Ball

The presentation of bubble games has centralized basketball and made it more accessible to digital viewers at a time when in-person attendance isn’t possible. I’ll happily give up trike races and tic-tac-toe to watch benches explode when big shots go in or see a back screen lead to an assist and bucket. Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert, or maybe it’s because I consume most games through a screen. Either way, I like what’s happening to televised basketball right now. I was afraid it would feel less real.

Honestly, at least from the comfort of my couch or desk chair, it feels more.

—Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard / @blazersedge

*We at Blazer’s Edge acknowledge our deep debt to all the Dorito-soaked lens jockeys who provide us with the incredible photo and video material we use every day. Hopefully they’ll forgive a little teasing from their hummus-fingered blog cousins.