Ten years ago, I sent a speculative e-mail to Syd Mead, the futurist and artist who designed the look of films such as Blade Runner and Aliens. I was interested in where he thought sports was headed in the next 50 years.
Mead’s reply was as wacky as I’d hoped. He conjured an image of sports being played on “space-based platforms” in zero gravity.
He predicted an interactive medium, viewers standing amid the players in a 3-D recreation of the field. We’d bet in real time and determine outcomes with those bets.
“I see American football as being played by huge robotic duplicates of celebrated athletes, both current and deceased,” Mead wrote.
There is so much about that sentence I love, but in particular the placement of “and.”
Of course, this all sounded completely bonkers.
It was 2009. We were still getting used to being chained to our phones. We weren’t yet hooked into the main source at all times.
You consumed sports in the same ways you always had – in person or through cable television.
Where robots came into this I was not at all sure.
Now I’m half-convinced he’s going to be proved right. Or, at least, half right. And that it’s not going to take 50 years.
What has changed about sports over the course of the 21st century? People tend to focus on the delivery methods. You can watch baseball on your iPad. Whoop-de-doodle. Turning everything into a TV is not a revolutionary act. It’s a terminal lack of imagination.
The money got ridiculous. Back in the late 1990s, Fox established itself as a major media player by going over the top on CBS and acquiring a package of NFL broadcast rights. It paid US$550-million a year for football. Now every NFL broadcaster pays more than a billion. Those rights come up for bidding again in a couple of years and will probably jump again, though perhaps not as dramatically.
Concussions became a thing. Russia fixed the Olympics. People turned on fighting in hockey. For a little while there, sports appeared to wobble a bit as it was drawn into the culture wars. Its most brutal and venal aspects were held up for consideration.
But when it came to sports, people proved they would say one thing out loud (“I hate the violence”) and do another at home (“Honey, what time is the violence on?”).
Sports countered with a PR campaign framed around the idea of safety. Leagues built quiet rooms and put blue tents on the sidelines – sort of modern-day MASH units where a doctor could say to you, “What year is it?” and if you came within a decade one way or the other, you got sent back out there.
As long as no one spoke the obvious truth – that most sports are specifically designed to be unsafe – we were all given renewed permission to cheer while grown men crippled themselves for our amusement.
But what really changed about sports over the past 20 years is they became a constant presence in our lives.
Sports was once a nightly thing. And not every night. You might catch highlights in the morning. If you missed them, then you went on about your business, perfectly happy not knowing.
What happened behind the scenes stayed there. You got only one perspective on the lives of professional athletes – the professional part. You didn’t know where they’d gone to dinner or what they said to each other on the charter. You might have a regular TV date with your heroes, but they were remote from you. You didn’t know them.
But those first three things – the delivery systems, the money and then the need to push back on sports non-believers – combined to create a need for more. More content, much of it produced by the teams themselves. More varieties of that content. More intimacy.
HBO’s 24/7 series on NHL teams now seems as though it were first broadcast forever ago. It was only 10 years.
This day-in-the-life genre created a new visual touchstone – athletes talking to cameras while they drive to work. That’s how you know you’re getting the real dope. Because they are just average guys and there is no way they can perform two complicated tasks – keeping their eyes on the road and talking in clichés – at once.
Knowing that Bruce Boudreau likes ice cream and is the sweariest man alive does not enhance the NHL viewing experience. What it does is turn hockey into a soap opera. You aren’t cheering for a sweater number any more. You are watching people you know. This isn’t sports. It’s post-sports.
Eventually, the players wanted in on the action. Social media turned all of them into miniature conglomerates. They didn’t need their employers or the media interpreting what they said. All of a sudden, they could say it directly.
Now the content is coming at you from all directions. There is the game. Then there is what everyone says about the game. And the behind-the-scenes from the game. And an Instagram story LeBron James made about the game. Eventually, there will be a documentary about all those things.
Everyone is their own production facility. Someone tweeting from their couch can have as much impact on the conversation as ESPN. The sports themselves are only the leaping-off point for the drama because they don’t fill enough time in the 24-hour cycle. What’s important is that sports never stop.
Seasons began to bleed into one another. You can watch summer league, rookie camp and predraft workouts. Trade deadlines and free-agent windows are more obsessed over than postseasons. We’ve taken all the ancillary things about sports, things once considered tedious – contract negotiations and boardroom conversations – and made them the focus.
This need for a constant flow of content turned 21st-century sports into a meta-drama. It is entirely self-referential. The games are the excuse to talk about all the other things that have nothing to do with the games. The stars of the show are morphing from athletes into actors. They play themselves on the internet.
Going post-sports has made some players bigger than any association or league. Bigger and more powerful than any athlete has ever been.
If free agency was the first leap in that direction, the atomization of media is the second.
Nobody has decided to fully leverage that power yet. Being under the protection of a corporate entity that handles the ugly business of marketing and logistics is a pretty tidy arrangement if you can still make tens of millions of dollars.
But someone is eventually going to figure out they don’t need an intermediary between themselves and viewers. As long as they have profile, it can be leveraged.
The Alliance of American Football – a league you probably never heard of, much less saw – didn’t fold because it isn’t as good as the NFL. It died because it had no stars. This should terrify the NFL, but all leagues continue to operate as though they have a perpetual monopoly. They’re applying 20th-century thinking to a 21st-century problem. It’s hard to blame them. Circumstances are changing too rapidly to stay ahead of.
Could a player such as James start his own basketball empire, removed from the NBA? It sounds fantastical, but so does James’s five-year-old daughter getting her own TV show. And that is happening.
You can already see James untethering from the league while still being arguably the best player in it. He doesn’t play for the Los Angeles Lakers. It would be more correct to say the Lakers provide the backdrop for The James Family Channel.
What if Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer decided to play only each other four times a year and get Netflix to pick up the tab? What could the ATP do about it? Ban them? Good luck with that.
There is a revolution going on. What we’re waiting on is for the players to realize they are the soldiers in it.
This is where the robots – or something like them – come in.
What Mead was envisioning sounds very like video-game culture. If you’ve ever sat with a bunch of kids watching other kids play video games on YouTube, you get the idea.
E-sports solve many modern problems. The competitors are interchangeable. They build their own brands and need only be thinly connected to leagues. They can’t get hurt. They don’t miss time on IR.
Most of their earnings come from purses, rather than salaries. They can play anywhere. They require almost no infrastructure and therefore no sunk costs. All you need is a terminal and a headset.
What they have created embodies gig culture. They are freelancers playing for whatever or whomever will pay them. If they’re savvy, they can build up enormous followings outside the mainstream. They don’t need TV deals. They can make their own TV.
An example of this would be the multimedia empire called FaZe Clan. It’s a Los Angeles-based collective of teenagers and twentysomethings who live together, play video games and film every single moment of their lives.
If you’re older than 25, you’ve probably never heard of them. But when a couple of these yo-yos showed up in New York last summer, word got out. The crowds outside their hotel grew so large they had to shut down a swath of Manhattan.
FaZe Clan exists outside any sort of sports structure, but it is a recognizable sports team. The players have uniforms, nicknames and do active things together. What they are not is superhuman. Rather the opposite.
But for the past 20 years, the actual superhumans have been devaluing their uniqueness. In order to make themselves more accessible and marketable, athletes came down off Olympus and let us watch them ordering takeout and bickering with their teammates.
Other people – people who aren’t seven feet tall or run like gazelles – can be accessible, too. This is the problem with wanting to appear average – people will start to believe you.
FaZe Clan is not a team as you or I – children of the 20th century – would understand the term. But it is redefining what words such as “sports,” “team” and “athlete” mean. They are doing what the Federers and Jameses will not – playing on their own terms, without bosses.
There is something delightfully Marxist in the midst of this rampant capitalism. The kids have decided to control their own means of production.
There is no world in which this sort of change – or any sort – ends in the death of sports. Sports aren’t going anywhere. We will never stop playing and watching them. But how we do both those things will change.
If “robots” is a way of saying “virtual players," it’s no longer hard to see how that might happen. It makes too much financial sense. (Though I still think playing in space might be problematic. With the total lack of oxygen and all.)
At some point in the near future, the past 20 years may look like both a golden age and a first step. Sports has never made so much money or accrued so many eyeballs. But peaks are usually followed by valleys. Complex systems are, well, complex. They have a tendency to behave in ways you didn’t see coming.
Now that sports have built themselves into a monolith, it’s only a matter of time before someone decides to begin tearing it down and rebuilding it as something else.
Where are sports headed next? It’s possible they may no longer be “sports” as we currently understand them. The only thing that seems certain is there will be more. Of what, we have yet to decide.