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Replacing live sports with video games.

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Sports video games have come a long way, baby. Back in the day, you needed a Ph.D. in modern art just to identify what sport you were actually playing. This red block here blips its way to that green block, and… touchdown! Er, or is it… home run? Oh, sorry, no… uh, birdie? Not exactly lifelike. But fast-forward thirty years or so, and you get this:

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I don’t own a console from the current generation, so screenshots like this one flabbergast me. Pop in a disc, and this is what your XBOX or Playstation will pump out right now. And this from game systems that are already growing long in the tooth. In just a few decades, we’ve graduated from abstract bricks to cartoonish sprites to grotesque polygons to this.

Now, I’ll admit; we’re not at photorealism yet. The bodies lack grit. The collision detection wonks out. The player models wear their faces like death masks, devoid of expression. Sideline characters lurch and jerk like animatronic puppets. But we’re getting closer to true simulation; digital Lebron may seem unhuman–but you can tell it’s him. Virtual Tiger stares back with creepy, soulless eyes—but how’s that any different than the real thing? (Ha! J/K, Mr. Woods.)

So… Here’s my question: what happens when the final hurdles to realism are overcome? When video games can pump out enough pixels to render video indistinguishable from a TV broadcast? When programmers can compose algorithms that bestow faux personality to the players? When developers perfect the stadium details—the crowd’s chaotic swell, a jersey rippling in full sprint, spittle flying from coach’s mouths? When 3D games can project Bill Cowher’s chin straight out into your living room?

Will fans eventually forsake real-world sports for virtual versions? Watching in HD already trumps sitting in the nosebleed section… wouldn’t playing the game be better still? Why settle for mere spectating when you could command life-like athletes to and fro across the pitch? Could video games eventually pose a competitive threat to the major leagues?

It sounds ridiculous. After all, how can “fake” simulations replicate the “real” human drama that sports offer? We fans relish the human-to-human storylines that make sports so fascinating. But aren’t those storylines already manufactured by the sports industrial complex? Twenty-four/seven ESPN coverage and sound bite journalism overhype and artificially inflate the drama. If it’s not real conflict in the first place, why couldn’t it be replicated by my game console?

So… what if simulated sports trumped their live counterparts? What would we lose? “Tradition!” some immediately reply. After all, yanks_slugger_158 hardly belongs in Coopertown alongside Ruth and Mays. Others would fret about our children’s ballooning waistlines. Without toned sports heroes to adore and emulate, our kids would never go outside again. Instead, they’d park their ample posteriors before the idiot box, ’til their fingers grew too pudgy to push the buttons.

Fair enough, but virtual sports might gain us some things, too. We could assuage the national guilt about the lavish wastefulness that surrounds our professional leagues. No more disposable billion-dollar stadiums. No more ridiculous multi-million-dollar contracts for muscle-bound shlubs. We might even (what a concept!) pay our teachers and nurses a fair and proportionate wage instead!

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Top: a healthy brain, with no brown “protein tangles.” Bottom: a brain with traumatic damage caused by football. Read more here.

There’s another guilt-inducing plague that virtual sports could alleviate. For decades now, our culture has condoned–even celebrated–a perverse sort of prostitution. For entertainment, we pay athletes to destroy themselves. Contact sports cripple their bodies and rot out their brains. See, as an example, several recent studies, which suggest that playing football slurries brains to mush. The hockey rink, the soccer pitch, the football field: these are our Coliseums, the players our gladiators. Shouldn’t we demand that these brutal exhibitions stop?

And how better to stop them than to make virtual avatars suffer, rather than flesh-and-blood-and-brain humans. Let digital athletes brave the brain-shocking blows. Let simulated players pump up with poisonous performance enhancers! Problem solved.

At least until the artificial jocks become self-aware. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.


Photo credits: Atari’s Home Run Baseball, via AtariAge; EA’s Madden 2010, via GameDaily. Brain images from the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, via CNN.