Messing with a Good Thing?

Will the XFL come to be known in the future as the New Coke of the professional sport industry? It did last longer than 77 days (although for all intents and purposes it was dead after three weeks), though it did cost McMahon et al. considerably more than the $35 million Coca-Cola shelled out in 1985.

Though the XFL had slick packaging and the marketing whallop of the WWF, fans were never willing to suspend their disbelief for football — one of the most hallowed institutions in American society — the same way they were for wrestling, a sport the general public had never followed seriously anyways.

The WWF's partner in this venture, NBC Sports, chalked up another dinger in their list of recent bad decisions. (Update: they lost the rights to the NBA as well.) What's interesting to the sport media enthusiast, though, is how the NBC's XFL broadcasts pushed the envelope of sports broadcasting. They had carte blanche to try new things — watch more than a few of their innovations appear on rival networks in the near future.

Today's lesson: XFL football, bad…sport media, good…um, tacky…I mean, innovative.

The Artist and the Athlete

I've always been in awe of artists. I'm not one myself, but am sufficiently right-brained to appreciate art and the creative process.

My True Colors test suggests that this is because I am predominantly green and thus appreciate competency in any form, which is true. But it goes deeper. I've always held a special place for creative people — their ability to turn nothing into something is a trait I greatly admire.

The dominant belief in society today is that sport and art are about as completely opposite as possible. This is no doubt due to the social structures of one versus the other (ie. competitive versus cooperative) and the resultant political tendencies of the two groups.

I've always felt, however, that there was a great deal more common ground between the two than either camp let on. And the first place to uncover these shared experiences is improv.

As my university basketball coach was fond of saying, "if you want to become a player, you gotta play." This meant countless hours of pickup basketball in the summer with anybody that would show up to the gym. Games to 7, defence calls the fouls, winners stay. Obviously there were mixed results, varying between successes and failures on both a personal and team level.

Many times I wondered with envy why I couldn't jam like jazz musicians are so often wont. Then I finally realized that jazz musicians probably thought the same thing about pickup basketball players. It's the same thing! Both create with a loose set of rules and peers that bring myriad skills to the mix. Where the jazz ensemble offers a pulsing bass to complement a burning sax, the cagers counter with sweet guard penetration for a no-look bounce pass to the backdoor cutter. Sometimes there's successes, sometimes there's failures. It's the same thing…

(Is this a possible reason — besides race — for the link between basketball and hip-hop culture?)

Athletes and artists are cautiously approaching the middle ground. HoopsTV.com, the now-defunct web site devoted to all things basketball, broke serious sport media ground by covering pickup games from influential playgrounds across the U.S. It marked the first time that the general public could bear witness to some of the great basketball improv sessions (don't give me that shit about the NBA All-Star Game, probably the most scripted event of them all).

(More on HoopsTV.com later)

On the other side of things, improv art is becoming more athletic. Case in point: the Just for Laughs Improv Championships. In each game, two teams go head-to-head in a series of improvised skits, chosen by the "referee." The studio audience judges the winners of each skit and the overall match, with teams from Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, New York and Chicago.

We have seen digital technology alter the experience for the consumer for years, and we are now starting to see it creep in at the level of the performer. But no matter how sophisticated the AI becomes, it will be impossible to perfectly capture the star experience; no code or formulae will ever be able to duplicate creativity.

And that's what elevates the truly timeless athlete above the others: the ability to improvise, reinvent or otherwise create.

NoSport

In 1997, a group of students at Helsinki's University of Art and Design developed NoSport for their year-ending Future Media Home project. NoSport presents a technologically feasible blueprint for a 3-D position recognition system to be used as an interface for home fitness or entertainment. The authors conclude that while exercise will still be hard work, at least they can make it a little more interesting.

Gadgetry aside, the question of what future household media will look like is certainly relevant. But why the title NoSport?

I suspect it has something to do with the solo pursuit of sport. If a kid is in the backyard shooting hoops, she is not playing a sport, but practising the skills required of its associated sport: basketball. Similarly, running by oneself is considered leisure, but if racing against another it becomes the sport of athletics (the irony here is that contestants are actually racing against time rather than each other).

The prerequisite here seems to be an element of competition. NoSport allows users a biophysical sport media experience, so what if the competition is from a computerized opponent? Does this still constitute sport? What if the competition is from a representation of another human opponent networked from elsewhere on the planet? Is this sport?

I think this situation parallels the basketball example above: the former is a practice of the requisite skills necessary for the sport and the latter is virtual sport. Sport philosophers take note: to the laundry list of sport's classification factors add human versus computer-mediated competition.

Virtual sport allows users to experiment with many different sports, with only basic rule understanding and skill acquisition required, and without fear of being a complete jackass for trying. Since the Internet is content-on-demand, kids can check out other sports tomorrow like they would rent a movie today, which is beautiful for the naturally curious.

All of which means that NoSport just might become mo' sport.

Dateline: 08.09.2036 @536

Hearken back to the early Nineties, when everyone wanted to ?be like Mike.? All three of the major American professional sports leagues — the NFL, NBA and MLB — had recently signed lucrative television deals, and there were still a few competitive Canadian teams left in the NHL. Cable all-sports specialty channels in the form of ESPN and TSN were flourishing on both sides of the border.

In retrospect, it would prove to be the golden era of professional sport.

Fans of different generations can recall the lucrative contract that killed pro sport — Rodriguez's $250 million in 2000, Garnett's $125 million in 1998, Ruth's $10,000 in 1936. The true culprit, though, was fathered by an engineer at a large military electronics development and manufacturing company named Ralph Baer.

Back in 1966, Baer created computer games using a two-way television interface; a year later, the concept was refined to simulate sports games. Baer's creation evolved to popular culture status in 1972 under the guise of the Atari entertainment company and its flagship product PONG.

Fast forward to the present and the videogame industry annually grosses sums reaching into the billions, with sport-related titles earning a hefty chunk of the dollars. As the Ben Johnson doping scandal illuminated the blurring of sport and science, and the World Wrestling Federation blurred the line between sport and entertainment, now videogames are blurring the distinction between sport and media, and it may soon be impossible to differentiate the two.

The irony in the decline of the professional sport empire is that virtual sport was originally an ally, serving to expand distribution in an industry that was rapidly globalizing. But as the technology driving virtual sport improved, children preferred to spend their time indoors emulating their idols via media rather than outdoors actually playing the sport. Over time, the talent base required to sustain a global sports league diminished, a situation akin to the lumber industry running short of trees. The product suffered considerably.

And like the fashion industry at the turn of the century, professional sport became a parody of itself.

The Sport Media Interface

I don't want to confuse sport videogaming with virtual sport, since they are different, although related, concepts.

Virtual sport supersedes sport videogaming, requiring by definition an element of athleticism to perform the necessary skills. Athleticism is a combination of various biophysical characteristics, including speed, strength, power, agility, flexibility, coordination and endurance.

While a Jolt-fueled late-night session of Madden 2001 resembles "speed" and "endurance," in reality the only biophysical characteristic seen in sport videogaming is hand-eye coordination (though this should not be considered trivial).

The sundry attempts to date to bring a biophysical component to sport videogames have been amusing, if not particularly successful. Nintendo's Power Pad, introduced in 1988, was a boon for parents, whose sweaty kids would collapse into bed after an evening of World Class Track Meet (a console rip-off of HyperOlympics). For the hyper athletes themselves, though, the technology proved suspect, as competitors would often lie down on the floor and slap the pad to victory much more quickly than if they had actually been running.

Radica PlayTV Baseball, released in 2000, was revolutionary in that it allowed the player to virtually "hit" and "pitch" in a game by means of motion sensors in a ball, bat and home plate attached to the game system. Unfortunately, Ruthian swings with friends had to be put on hold when the bat flew apart after a particularly aggressive cut, nearly maiming a "fan" before embedding itself in a plaster wall. Alas, the product had been recalled only days earlier.

There have been other attempts at increased user interactivity, with equally dismal results. Although rudimentary, these interfaces are in fact quite significant when viewed as a portent of things to come. They represent the next evolutionary step down the path to virtual sport.

The New Dualism

With every day that passes by, "being online" is becoming less an activity than a state of being. We turn to the Internet more and more for a wide range of reasons, from banking and shopping to education and entertainment.

Whoa. Entertainment, you say? Didn't we used to play with other people for entertainment? Didn't kids use to kick a ball, play catch, jump rope? Wasn't going outside with others a good thing? How did everything change? And above all, what will happen to sport?

Let me respond to these questions with another question: what exactly is sport?

Sport scientists cannot even agree on an answer to that question. The degree to which an individual is willing to consider a particular activity worthy of the term "sport" is highly personal — some cynics would argue that sport is whatever the International Olympic Committee perceives to be high theatre at the time. Most definitions agree, however, that a sport involves some form of competition in a physical setting, a formalized rule structure and governing authority, and a combination of strategy and chance.

My goal is not to critique the definitional efforts that currently exist, but rather to ask the reader to consider the possibility that a computer-mediated combination of the aforementioned elements might indeed be sport.

Virtual sport, if you will.