This season, the NBA took a different approach to gather crowds for its live games. Instead of filling its stadiums in-person, they opted for a virtual approach. One where its crowd sat courtside via Microsoft Teams. And it went great.

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Video boards surrounding an NBA basketball court will project images of fans watching from home. (NBA Photo by David Dow)

On March 11, the NBA suspended its 2019-20 season after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. Three months later, the NBA Board of Governors approved a restart of the season, hosting its 22 teams (six games within playoffs) at Walt Disney World. Here, the NBA established a bubble for those teams, ensuring that the pandemic would not affect any prospective games as well as its players.

To recreate the atmosphere of past games, however, they needed a virtual audience. A live one. And so Adam Silver, Commissioner of the NBA, came up with the idea of replacing its in-person audience with 17-foot tall LED screens. These screens making it possible for almost any NBA fan to sit courtside in the comfort of their own homes.

In order to make the vision a reality, the NBA had to partner up with Microsoft Teams. Through this partnership, Microsoft Teams released “Together Mode”. A feature that lets all participants in a video conference call together into one virtual space. These spaces can be an auditorium, coffee shop, meeting room—any place.

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A preview of “Together Mode” before it was released to the public. Here, participants are placed together in an auditorium. (Microsoft)

“This new experience—the first to go live as a result of the NBA / Microsoft partnership — gives participating fans the feeling of sitting next to one another at a live game without leaving the comfort and safety of their homes,” said Jared Spataro, head of Microsoft 365. “Players, meanwhile, will experience their energy and support as they dribble down the court and see fans’ real-time reaction. And viewers tuning into the game from home will feel the crowd’s energy as well as they see the virtual stands filled with fans.”

And since its release, “Together Mode” has become a staple in the NBA. This will likely continue into the 2020-21 season as well, as cold weather continues to be a problem for many cities and states dealing with COVID.

“First and foremost, we want to make it easy to be an NBA fan,” said Chris Benyarko, NBA Executive Vice President, Direct to Consumer. “By creating a new platform that brings together all the things that make up being an NBA fan..we can use that platform to re-imagine and diversify what it means to be an NBA fan.”

Becoming a virtual NBA fan is easy (though you do need an invite). First and foremost, you have to download Microsoft Teams. Next, log in with the username and password provided to you. Then, find the meeting invitation and optimize your settings. After that, you can join the game and optimize your viewing experience.