I Was a Floating Head at an NBA Game. It Gets Weirder

The night of the Sixers-Celtics game, my husband Charlie and I downloaded Microsoft Teams onto separate laptops, logged on, and watched the game from its digital courtside along with the dozen or so other people in our section. (It was mostly other journalists.) Charlie flickered out of his front-row seat and re-appeared in the fourth row; a minute or so later, Scottie appeared in that seat. Our laptops were open side-by-side, and we were sitting next to each other in real life, but on screen, we were separated. “You just got bounced by Scottie,” I teased, leaning over to pass him some pizza.

If I leaned far enough, my head left the first row and entered the fourth row. If I stuck out a leg just so, it looked like Charlie had a leg for an arm! We laughed at my partitioned body, and I tried to subtly adjust my webcam in hopes that Pip might notice the vintage Bulls t-shirt I’d worn in his honor.

The cheerful staffers who moderated our section kept their webcams adjusted so that they appeared to be sitting in their virtual seats normally. The rest of us weren’t doing so hot. Some people sat too far away from their laptop, and looked unnaturally tiny. Some people got too close to their laptop, which gave the impression they’d come down with some sort of gigantic head syndrome. My husband kept sticking his face into the webcam so that his mustache, newly grown during Covid-19, was very prominent on the screen. “Scottie should see my mustache,” he said. I couldn’t disagree with that logic. My general disdain for the concept of virtual fandom melted away, although I did still wish I could turn on a filter that made me look like a cartoon animal instead of my normal self. (Not to brag, but it appears Michelob did take at least a sliver of advice from me—they filled an entire virtual fan section with 32 dogs during a recent Spurs-Jazz game. A good start!)

As the game played on, a well-intentioned hype man tried to strike up friendly banter among the participants, but nobody seemed interested. We attempted half-hearted virtual high-fives, and mostly just kept our mics on mute. I restrained myself from shouting “Thank you for your unparalleled gameplay!” at Scottie, and at his fellow ‘90s Bulls icon B.J. Armstrong, who also sat in our section, but who was greeted with less fanfare. (At one point, I started getting a little indignant on Armstrong’s behalf, because people were definitely more excited to see Scottie. Then I thought, well, it’s nice for Scottie to be the big star for once, you know?) I hoped the Michelob staffers were being compensated appropriately. Thus far, the NBA has avoided any virtual fan behavioral issues—in comparison, the WWE had a fan appear to promote the Ku Klux Klan during a recent live match—and the staffers were diligent moderators.

The Together software is designed to only register human faces and bodies, filtering out anything in the background, but it lets animals through, as someone who got their goat onscreen earlier this month discovered. I put my dog on my lap for the first half, subjecting my Bulls-loving family to a series of brags about how Scottie Pippen and B.J. Armstrong had lain eyes on him. It was fun.

floating heads in NBA bubble
WIRED writer Kate Knibbs (bottom left) sits in the virtual crowd at an NBA game. Photograph: DAVID DOW/NBA
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