The National Football League is an alternate reality, with its own culture, legal regime, and sense of right and wrong. In between the wealth and the hits to the head, most of its denizens have what might generously be termed a tenuous grasp on reality.
As if this alternate reality wasn’t enough, the NFL is now getting into virtual reality. Tech Crunch reports that the Dallas Cowboys, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets, and some other teams too that are too secretive to release their names are clients of a company called STRIVR, which loads some of their playbook into a VR headset so players can practice the playbook without contact.
We’ve been here before, albeit with collegiate football. There, the use of VR seemed like a way to entice athletes who couldn’t be paid—at least not officially. In the NFL, however, labor dynamics are different; players are paid—sometimes highly so—and that changes coaching dynamics. Granted, the end goal is similar at both levels: turn players into chess pieces with minimal agency who can be moved around by coaches.
Professionals see the field in a different way. TV broadcasts are shot from opinionated viewpoints that emphasize the action, though not the player’s point of view. Teams, on the other hand, use “all-22” footage, which shows what every player was doing during a given play. (This has slowly been released to the public and imitated in games like Madden.) VR takes this focus on alternate angles to its logical conclusion. Once fully fleshed out, systems like STRIVR’s could allow players and coaches to relive and revisit individual plays ad infinitum.
The pursuit of the robot-athlete
This ability to do endless repetition while controlling as many external variables as possible slowly moves players closer to being automatons. To an extent, that’s desirable. Professional sports is, in part, about weeding out variance. Athletes are not just stronger or faster; they are also more consistent. But weeding out variance is only desirable up to a certain point. In his response to Malcolm Gladwell’s strange argument why the “granny shot” (read: underhand foul shot) hasn’t taken hold in the NBA, Richard Whittall notes:
The pointless added difficulty of the overhand shot from the free throw line isn’t just “less efficient”, it’s pleasant, for a host of reasons that have nothing to do with points. The overhand shot requires more concentration, more focus, more risk, and yes—more difficulty. This is the entire nature of sports—teams use a set of athletic skills to overcome a series of challenges to achieve a goal. Maybe the underhand would be nice to add to the repertoire once in awhile, tied games in the fourth quarter maybe, but generally they take away rather than add to the game. Despite what it might say on a Nike shirt, when you scratch the surface you learn that yes, there are sometimes things in sports that matter more than doing whatever one can within the bounds of the rules to score as many points as possible.
To better illustrate why efficient point-scoring can involve significant tradeoffs, imagine if humans developed football-playing androids with ten times the skill of Lionel Messi, and by some miracle FIFA allowed clubs to put them out on the football pitch. Almost overnight, human players would disappear. Androids would score spectacular goals and then run efficiently back to the centre circle with no understanding of what they accomplished. Teams would be separated only by the quality of the android they could afford.
The pursuit of the robot-athlete, then, is worthwhile—until it isn’t. We haven’t really hit that inflection point yet; there are still plenty of inefficiencies for teams to chase and root out. But with the rise of VR training, that specter looms a bit closer. Football, like other sports, is an entertainment product in which competition is but one component. The balance between these elements is always being worked out, but as chasing inefficiencies becomes a larger part of sporting discourse, this work is increasingly be done in public. Sports fans aren’t used to discussing the balance between competition and aesthetics, but that’s where they’re headed.