What led me to examine this question was being manipulated by my massive TV on Football (I mean “Thanksgiving”) Day.

Leaving Berlin for Montreal on short (read: “pandemic”) notice, I sold a great TV and acquired an equally good one here. This is a Very Big TV and when I watch an NFL game on a high quality stream, I notice something I haven’t noticed before this season:

After a touchdown, the camera takes a unique image. It’s field level and it seems to be in ultra high-definition. They often focus on the person who just scored the touchdown, then one or two of his teammates follow and they walk away together.

Not that a pic taken from the game does it justice, but it gives you at least a sense:

I’m convinced that these shots are intentionally trying to replicate a video game quality as seen in remarkably popular games, such as Madden. As someone who loves watching NFL football and has for a good number of decades, this really is something that’s a small but new and maybe meaningful fan experience.

Electronic Arts, maker of the wildly popular Madden game franchise, earns over $1 billion per year. It is absolutely not unintentional that reality (real, in-person professional sports) is trying to imitate what people like me think of as fiction but many other people know better and much more intimately that the real sport itself.

This reality led me to imagine a question that I think is due for consideration:

How far away are we from being able to play a video game of an NFL game, broadcast it on TV, and have practically no one realize that it’s a video game?

This is the question I set out to answer. And given that I’m not a gamer (honestly, the last video game I played was intellivision baseball in the early 1980s), I asked some amazing technology and gaming people to help me figure this out.

Aaron Silvers, a data guru and sports nut based in Philadelphia, argues that:

“We’re already there in terms of quality and video speed. Precisely because of Madden and the like, when it comes to sports video gaming, they actually have fantastic libraries. From a ‘can they produce it and scale it today’ perspective, yeah, they can.’”

Silvers adds that a threshold issue, an NFL game has a massive number of factors that can come into play.

“Is the artificial intelligence real enough and encompassing enough, or do they have independent AI monitoring conditions in the environment to impact real-time decisions about how to render the rain correctly when it’s raining against the virtual player? It’s one thing to make a touchdown celebration look like a video game, but we may be years away from AI being able to predict and replicate NFL game conditions nanoseconds after they happen on the field or to create a gaming situation so realistic that no one knows it’s a game.”

At this point, of course, the delineation between game and reality would lose all meaning, which would be the exact point of actually trying this.

Back in 2018, Hugo Hueber, a Swiss graduate student developed a game that sought to blur the lines between digital reality and, well, reality reality. While this is now light years behind the most bleeding-edge virtual reality today, Hueber’s goal is aligned with what it would take to make virtual sports seamless:

“My goal was to develop a video game that combines the latest technology with the 3D interactive research we’re carrying out at the lab. That will let video gamers interact physically with a virtual environment that can be transferred to any location – a living room, office or even classroom – instantly.”

This is the key. NFL fans don’t want to enter some generic virtual environment to experience their games, they want the virtual environment to exist in their living room, in a sports bar, or wherever they choose to consume content. Part of our attraction to things like Thanksgiving NFL football is the familiar – it brings us back to years of fun and comforting memories of the experience of watching the games on the holiday. The NFL could build off the platform of the familiar to create an experience that feels far more normal and comfortable than it should.

Angela Natividad, an author and experienced esports entrepreneur in Paris, points out that tech is only one piece here – another is level of interest:

“With existing tech like Unreal Engine, a case can be made that it’s possible to prove your thesis here within the next couple of years. People are the real sticky wicket but we shrink that gap all the time. 

Natividad adds something I never even considered – that while I know little nothing about video games but love NFL football, many gamers and esports people aren’t in to actual “sports”:

“What you’re suggesting would definitely be a good esports TV feature. But it certainly merits saying that less than 8% of esports fans are into actual sports esports – hence the sticky wicket of interest and ability intersecting.”

Silvers adds the final thought to show that while we aren’t at the finish line, we are at least at the first checkpoint to make this alternate reality real:

“If you wanted to do an experiment and model a huge play in matrix bullet time view, that can be almost instant now if they imagined the right scenario.”

The right scenario here would be where technology and demand intersect. As our capability to create lifelike events improves exponentially, when our desire to have alternate experiences catches up, true “fantasy” football that is indistinguishable from today’s reality will become tomorrow’s.

Whether it will be the same game is open to interpretation and opinion. But I’d point out that the NFL we experience today is markedly different than it was decades ago. Not only are the players so much bigger, faster, and stronger, but advanced equipment sometimes makes an NFL game look more like an 80s Sci-Fi movie than the old mud and blood NFL.

Maybe what we’d be left with is a more interesting game, an experience based upon professional football that allows us to transition from passive observer to participant. Imagine being a fantasy football team owner in which your entire experience was enhanced by some kind of virtual reality, then infused with a hyper-convincing version of whatever the sensation of your experience could become. This, or something very much resembling it, could become the reality of the NFL experience.

(Header image credit Erin Costa | Flickr)

%d bloggers like this: