Most major sports leagues sit in a sweet spot for content rights and media technology. Where on-demand platforms have disrupted everything from network television to lining up on release day to buy a game disc, sports have remained fairly insulated from that disruption. The nature of live sporting events, wherein a game is instantly devalued the moment its outcome is clear, means that leagues can license their product for billions, and the potential for advertising revenue—which requires a captive audience—continues to be a factor in determining a league’s underlying value.
Beyond this profit-maximizing confluence, there may be something more ephemeral at play. You might know somebody who DVRs a game and avoids social media like the plague until they’ve had a chance to watch it, but even they are deprived of the collective experience that defines sports: not just seeing something significant happen, but watching its occurrence ripple with the reactions of others.
For me, that’s the allure of live sports. They can feel like you’re watching history unfold in mysterious and unpredictable ways. Social media gives everyone access to the echo of the event, which in turn makes them want to be there, next time, for the event itself. The event, and the collective, are interdependent and reciprocal.
“Are these athletes real people? Are they even remotely like us?”
Leagues have long dabbled in technologies designed to provide current and potential fans with either a broader scope of access to or a clearer picture of what’s happening in the field of play, to enhance and amplify the interdependence of event and collective. The NHL introduced the now-notorious ‘glow puck’ technology to help viewers track the movement of play. Most leagues have introduced streaming services that provide tailored statistics alongside visuals of the play. And the gradual acceptance of Moneyball-style (1993) analytics has led to various kinds of motion capture and analysis for not only managers of teams, but fans too, going so far as to display analytics on in-arena screens.
Leagues continue to search for a way to hook potential fans by expanding the diameter of the ripple. The Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Rob Manfred, recently declared VR “the next big sports tech,” his league having worked with California-based Jaunt VR to create 360-degree videos of several MLB teams. (These videos are now part of a travelling roadshow comprised, mostly, of baseball memorabilia.) In that same interview, Manfred describes how a “new generation of players will rewrite the unwritten rules of baseball” by showing emotion on the field, something older generations discouraged—the occasional bench-clearing brawl notwithstanding.
Independently, the Minnesota Twins announced that they’ve been working with another California outfit, SuperSphere VR, and are offering a promotion in which 5000 fans will receive a Google Cardboard viewer with which to see what a player sees as he arrives at the ballpark, enters the clubhouse, and walks out onto the field.
While the narrative at play implies something generational, of an emerging expectation of authentic access, using media to expound upon the daily experiences of pro athletes is not so new. In writing about former tennis star Tracy Austin’s 1992 autobiography Beyond Center Court, David Foster Wallace speculated that the appeal of the sports memoir is that it seeks to explain the essential nature of the transcendent star. Wallace wondered:
“What combination of blankness and concentration is required to sink a putt or a free-throw for thousands of dollars in front of millions of unblinking eyes? What goes through their minds? Are these athletes real people? Are they even remotely like us? Is their Agony of Defeat anything like our little agonies of daily frustration?”
The idea of simulating the life of a pro athlete is also not new. EA Sports’ line of videogames have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to provide simulations of the life of a pro athlete. Some of these went so far as to have you sitting on the bench between shifts, watching the game unfold.
But the subtext of the announcements made by the MLB and the Twins—or perhaps what they may not fully understand—is that VR has the potential to not only bring us closer to an athlete’s experience, but to render the athlete a kind of blank canvas onto which the fan can project their own personality. It removes the externality of fandom, replacing it with access—not to the athlete’s experience, per se, but to the experience of performing the sport for an audience.
Here, too, Wallace was prescient:
“Explicitly or not, the memoirs make a promise – to let us penetrate the indefinable mystery of what makes some persons geniuses, semidivine, to share with us the secret and so both to reveal the difference between us and them and to erase, a little, that difference…to give us the (we want, expect, only one the master narrative, the key) Story.”
In that quote we find contained the potential of VR to deliver on the promise of memoir: that it may provide such a degree of insight into the experience of the pro athlete as to render the distinction between them and us indistinct.
defined by our act of watching unknowable gods of men and women
The risk that these experiments run, then, is that they might reduce the already-thin mystery from which sports so often derives its allure. Yes, some sports fans want to know what Wallace refers to as “the master narrative,” but the unknowability of that narrative—the inaccessibility of it, locked behind so many years of rigorous training, luck, and money—is what keeps sports-as-narrative compelling. To humanize legends and legacies to the point where their experiences are believably replicable would remove something of their essential nature.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But for leagues and teams who derive so much profit from their ability to cultivate, and regulate access to their stars, removing the barriers to those stars may yield more than what was bargained for.
One wonders if there ever will be a group for whom going to the ballpark (or to a bar) to enjoy a game with other people is just not that appealing. Even if a new collectivity can be fostered online, with so much of sports being enjoyed through the rubric of local pride and intense regionalism, what does breaking those barriers down do to what we collectively think of as sports?
There are dozens of applications for VR, both for entertainment and for professionals, but each lies in the technology’s ability to simulate an experience with precise fidelity. Some teams have already employed VR for training purposes, just as a medical school might. VR clearly has a place in acclimatizing players to the rigors and environments of performance.
But the experience of being a sports fan remains different—vitally apart from—the experience of being an athlete. We, the collective voice of the audience, be it in the arena, in a bar, or online, are experiencing an event together, as it unfolds, independently of us. To plug into an ongoing game and to experience being the subject of observation, as opposed to the observer, might alter that dynamic in interesting and unpredictable ways. The notion of a collective who are each experiencing the event individually is uncharted territory.
Perhaps what VR will allow is a greater appreciation for amazing feats made possible through a lifetime of training, without seamlessly integrating the viewer to such a degree as to make those feats seem somehow theirs. I wrote, here, about the difficulties faced by videogames in simulating certain sports, and I think that truth remains for VR: anything fundamentally defined by its physicality will not translate to a medium requiring that you remain sedentary. It’s not hard to imagine how a potential fan one could look down at her sneakers, mid-dunk, and think, “basketball is pretty cool,” just so long as the experience reminds you, somehow, that you’re observing someone else’s dunk. Because if you could dunk like that, why would you ever watch anyone else do it?
Granted, we’re not talking about that just yet. Handing out a few thousand Google Cardboards and asking people to watch a 360-degree video of what Target Field looks like from the pitcher’s mound isn’t exactly Strange Days (1995). But if VR is truly “the next big sports tech,” as the Commissioner of baseball asserts, then it begs the question of how far baseball’s masters will allow this new access to go.
It remains hard to imagine why anyone owning content defined by our act of watching unknowable gods of men and women, in real-time and together in groups, would think the future of sports involves humanizing their stars, in episodic nature, and individually. To do so would be to tamper with a formula that is currently valuated in the billions. Which is why, for now, VR is likely to remain one small component of a travelling road show involving curiosities and memorabilia.