Sport (participation): The Anti-Drug

The hegemony of the sportocracy ensures that the polarity of fitness between high-performance athletes and the general public continues to widen, leading to more of the health problems seen in industrialized nations: heart disease, obesity-related diabetes and stress. Yes, maybe more kids are getting involved in sport at a young age — but they are quickly dropping out when they fail to master the motor skills early (this is a generation raised on quick results), and staying dropped out.

Once these kids become adults, their indifference to a lifestyle of fitness is likely to be passed down to their children, and the downward spiral of national health continues.

This is where the sportocracy ties in with another industry: pharmaceuticals. In our quick-fix western culture, it is easier to drug your way back to "fitness" than attack the root of the problem, which is an unhealthy lifestyle. The sportocracy's star system creates the desire to be that fit, but the number of hours we devote to creating the desire (ie. via the media) leaves little time for the actual process of becoming that fit.

The Sport Matrix

Negroponte (1996) is right: atoms are becoming bits and this means that you don't really need the players at the end of the day; all you need is a bunch of information. Input height, weight, the alphabet soup of statistical acronyms — PPG, GAA, RBI, INT and others — left-handed or right-handed, and choreography of victory dance, just for starters. Throw in tendency data for players (which professional teams routinely collect as competitive intelligence in scouting reports) and you've got a pretty solid simulation going.

Heck, you could design the racial profile of the crowd at the stadium if you wanted to, based on civic socioeconomic and demographic data freely available to the public. Couple this simulation with advances in digital animation and you've got a pretty darn good facsimile of a professional sports league. "Characters" can be created for the ongoing drama, who rise to stardom or fail in valiant effort — sounds kind of like the WWF now, doesn't it? The best part is, you can interact with this particular drama.

You think we won't pledge allegiance to a bunch of animated characters? Ever heard of a show called The Simpsons?

The best part about virtual athletes is that they never get hurt, never ask for a raise, and are never unpredictable for the owners, which are three of the most important issues for any organization regarding its labour. In fact, the entire notion of professional sport ownership changes, as production studios would own an entire league, rather than the individual owners each having their own franchise.

The nature of the principal characters in a story has been of little significance — so long as the show is good. We'll watch Gumby, robot wars, and apes from another planet. We'll team up with Sonic, Mario and Crash on epic adventures. We buy T-shirts, soundtracks and lunchboxes in honour of these characters, just so we can identify. The entire media and entertainment industry works this way; virtual sport is the logical evolution.

What would happen in this case? League writers would scour the urban playgrounds, playing anthropologist as they look to sign the next character for the sport drama. Pick-up games will become showcases for aspiring athlete/actors. Promising talents will patent their playground moves in hopes of boosting their signing price, should they ever get noticed by the writers. Agents will require an understanding of patent law on top of fiduciary law. Local publicity via the Internet will revitalize communities.

Sound farfetched? Perhaps. But what I describe here is basically the same scenario that audiences flocked to watch in the movie The Matrix: a massively complex media simulation of human existence.

For those who have never had the pleasure of seeing a game in person at Yankee Stadium (such as myself), but only on television, we take a leap of faith every time we watch the pinstripes host an opponent: that is, this game actually exists somewhere in New York. Having been at many other professional sport stadiums and arenas myself, it is an easier leap of faith, but a leap nonetheless. For those who haven't been to a big-league game, the leap of faith is even greater.

We really have no idea, though, that when a game is on television, it is not the concoction of some studio. The only way we really know at this point is that the graphic capability of computer animation simply isn't powerful enough yet to truly replicate the human form to television or movie quality. But we're getting awfully close to that time.

References

Negroponte, N. (1996). Being digital. New York: Vintage.

e- Equals Emcee Squared

Another element of the professional sport experience has become digitally decentralized to the end consumer: that of the sports broadcaster. FanCast.com has developed a web service that allows the sport media consumer at home to do play-by-play or host a sports talk show over the Internet. From the video side of things, one of the cool features seen in most recent sport videogame titles is the ability to use instant replay from many different angles to create amazing highlight clips. The internal hard drive and Ethernet port that Microsoft includes in their Xbox game console would allow aspiring sport broadcasters to create highlight reel clips and trade them with friends over a peer-to-peer connection.

We'll see how the sportocracy reacts to FanCast.com's technology, even though what they are doing is essentially the same as is being done with the computer games: broadening the distribution of the professional sport product. The difference in this case is control — the leagues are in cahoots with the videogame manufacturers, but Fancast.com operates independently, setting up a potential Napster-like showdown in the courts.

Regardless, if this sort of interactive sport media experience becomes a reality, something has to yield, given the finite number of waking hours in a day — either the time spent watching sports on television or the time spent physically playing sport. This is what the sportocracy should be concerning themselves with, for each scenario radically transforms the nature of professional sport.

Free Speech

Videogames have been denied the constitutional First Amendment (free speech) protection in the United States that movies and books currently enjoy. This idiotic decision shows a complete lack of understanding of the videogame medium.

The Lifeline of Baseball

Erik Brady of USA TODAY notes that McLuhan was wrong about the demise of baseball, but he neglects to mention why he was wrong. Brady does point out that television is a medium better suited to football than baseball, but doesn't explain the reason for baseball's decline and how it is able to hang on in the popular imagination to this day.

The reason: more than any other sport, baseball is about information. Batting average, ERA, RBI, and thousands of permutations and combinations to describe every interaction between pitcher, batter and fielder. Every baseball fan interacts with this information in different ways, from reading it in the sports pages of the newspaper, to playing sport videogames, to watching a highlight reel on television, to playing fantasy games like Strat-O-Matic, to filling out one's own scorecard on a warm summer's evening at the park. It's baseball's richness of information that allows it to survive in the electric age, and it is surprising that McLuhan missed this, given his ability to see almost everything as information.

So while television may have wounded baseball, the Internet offers respite, given that it facilitates the broad distribution of information. Does this mean that McLuhan is completely wrong about the fate of baseball?

I don't think so. As the cultural effects of the Internet become more widely apparent, we will see a new global paradigm for living, with interconnectedness the root basis. Mathematical tools like game theory are part of that global paradigm, as they describe the patterns of competition and co-operation present in an interconnected society. Sport will soon reflect this paradigm (David Ronfeldt's excellent article describes such a scenario), and it is at that time I fear baseball's linearity will be its downfall.

Swinging the Elbows

One of the great scenes from the movie Swingers was the pre-boys' night out game of NHL95. It was a great character study of male bonding through sport videogaming. The action got just as heated as any sporting contest, with elbows thrown and trash-talking…these guys took it seriously. And so do most sport videogamers — they act as if they are the ones scoring the goals. What does this mean about the nature of identity in the context of the sport media experience?