Notes on the Virtualization of Hockey

Jon Azpiri writes that if the NHL closes down business next year over the expired Collective Bargaining Agreement (great article on the CBA at Ordinary Least Square), the only professional hockey that fans can see may be in videogames.

Note 1: Videogame Realism

The article goes on to describe the increasing realism of hockey video games, a feature that is driven by consumer demand:

Where most video games create fictional worlds, sports games aim to replicate real people and places. Realism is an important selling point, according to EA producer Todd Batty, who works on NBA Live. "We're constantly compared to reality, and the reality is on TV every single night," Batty says in his office at EA Canada's Burnaby headquarters. "It's on the highlights every single night. Any slip-up where our game differs from reality is where we're instantly going to hear criticisms." The company's producers provide a level of detail that borders on the absurd. In the "dynasty mode" of EA NHL 2004, users can oversee every aspect of their own pro-hockey franchise, from negotiating contracts with players to hiring medical staff to scheduling practices to buying new furniture for the GM's office.

In this model of sport mediation, the athlete's contribution is diminished to producing statistical information that will make the model more robust. As Azpiri notes, this statistical information as well as motion capture information of players performing actual hockey movements is "coordinated with an audio engine that features music, sound effects, and words by Canucks play-by-play broadcaster Jim Hughson and former NHLer Craig Simpson. The game stores more than 35,000 bits of their speech and stitches them together to form a running commentary that matches the action on the ice."

Thus, the Lineage of Radio Hewitt ends up running through the Television Cole and Neale to the recombinant nature of the Videogame Hughson and Simpson, suggesting a Third Golden Age of (fantasized and fragmentary) professional sport that is mediated by virtual space and artificial intelligence engines.

Note 2: Videogame Engines

Though the term "engine" in information science can be traced back to Babbage's Analytical Engine, its usage seems more in line with the automobile references we have become used to as we continue our journey onto the Information Highway. The engine features prominently in videogames:

Each EA NHL disc features more than a dozen "engines": specific sections of programming that drive a particular area of the game. NHL 2004 features a powerful graphics engine that renders every physical detail of a player–from his facial features and body type down to his skin tone and hair–as well as accurate 360-degree replicas of all 30 NHL arenas. The new consoles allow for a palette of more than a million colours and much greater resolution than previous games, Warfield says. The PlayStation 1 could process 360,000 "polygons" per second; the PS2 can process 20 million. On today's systems, a player's glove has more polygons than an entire player model had on the original PlayStation.

The first definition listed by the The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language for "engine" is "a machine that converts energy into mechanical force or motion," with "such a machine distinguished from an electric, spring-driven, or hydraulic motor by its use of a fuel." It is interesting that the term "engine" is used in the context of videogames, since the fuel of such an engine is information, and that which the fuel is converted into is also information. The irony is that instead of mechanical force or motion being created, it is in essence destroyed, since the athlete's motion, once captured digitally, need not be repeated. "Rendered" athletes, indeed …

Corporal Ownership

From Wired: Major League Baseball recognizes that it is irrelevant save for the information:

"If someone is communicating information about a game in real time, on a pitch-by-pitch basis, that's an exhibition of that game," said Bob Bowman, the CEO of MLB Advanced Media. "There's no difference, in our eyes, between exhibiting a game using text and graphics and doing it on radio or television."

The Third Golden Age

A futurist's first attempt at what the next golden age of professional sport will look like:

  First Golden Age Second Golden Age Third Golden Age
Geographic focus nationalization globalization glo-localization
Sport MLB/NHL NFL/NBA ?
Hero Babe Ruth Michael Jordan youth
Media channel radio television Internet
Media personality Graham McNamee, Foster Hewitt Howard Cosell, Marv Albert prosumer
Key commodity uncertainty of outcome image/information aesthetic body movement

I will continue to flesh this out, but it must be noted that this is the utopic version of the scenario. A less ideal (in my opinion) version would look like: geography = virtual space, sport = contest of amplified humanity, hero = avatar, media channel = virtual reality, media personality = AI + prosumer, commodity = fantasy.