Who Needs Players? Simulated Games Are the Future of Sports

Imagine cutting the athletes out of games altogether, and instead watching computer-simulated sports. Photo: David Jones / Flickr

From the array of Thanksgiving Classic football games to family-style Turkey Bowls and other sports played this holiday, the sports menu hasn’t changed much at all over the years. Yet technology could change everything here … and soon. In fact, it could change the way we play and watch sports altogether.

Imagine spending Thanksgiving on the couch, but instead of watching a live game we’re all watching a televised videogame. Sounds incredible. But in South Korea, videogames are already viewed as a spectator sport: They’re televised nationally.

Imagine doing this in a real-life arena as well.

Imagine cutting the athletes out of the game altogether, and instead watching computer-simulated sports. I’m not just talking about virtual games like Madden NFL 18 (e.g., what it could be five years from now). Computer graphics – and the requisite algorithms – have progressed to the point where we could have a lifelike video of the simulation, never worry about replays, and see the action from angles unimaginable in today’s real-life games.

But … why would we do this, you ask (as you reach for your remote control, perhaps)?

For one thing, the possibilities are endless when we go beyond our all-too-fragile wetware towards more hardy software. Software is limitless. The human body is not.

Samuel Arbesman is an applied mathematician and network scientist. He is currently a senior scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and a fellow at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. He blogs for Wired Science on Social Dimension.

Simulated sports would not only be cheaper but safer, preventing bodily harms such as torn ACLs and ruptured tendons to knee blowouts and traumatic brain injuries.

Meanwhile, sprawling imaginative games allow exotic locales (under the ocean, on the moon), as well as players with fantastical properties (superheroes, the guys from Mortal Kombat) not otherwise possible. Frankly, it’s about time I get to watch a showdown between LeBron and a teen wolf.

Still … we care about sports because they’re microcosms of what’s most human: pushing ourselves to our limits, moping over our defeats, and celebrating – often mob style – our victories. If sports were simulated, we would surely miss this human panoply of emotions. Because there is no substitute for the real thing, right?

Well, think for a moment about what actually gets people excited about sports. Is it the game itself … or the outcomes of the game? If the latter is true, do we really need the game to be “real” to enjoy the post-game analysis? This is where computer modeling has us covered, whether a gambler, a stats-monger, or simply someone who loves rattling off key player stats. Sports betting systems like AccuScore and other statistically oriented organizations invest great effort simulating the outcomes of games. They do this to provide a predictive edge with methods not unlike those used by Nate Silver in the recent election (and which have been used for sports, too).

Now what if these tools and methods, instead of trying to predict the outputs of games, provided fictional inputs for them? Run a simulation once, or run it 10,000 times if you want to find a robust result (or better yet, the most interesting outcome), and boom: game over! In other words: what if those simulations became the actual game itself?

We’re Already Halfway There

This isn’t some geeky dream from a network scientist. I believe it could work because we already have the ingredients; we just need to make them more systematic.

As mentioned, many people who follow sports get more out of the analysis than the game itself. For many baseball lovers, I’m not sure whether the game itself matters beyond the stats. We’re actually not too far away from a numbers-loving virtual reality here: We already participate in fantasy sports leagues, we play complete seasons in video games, and we use Strat-O-Matic for tabletop simulations of the games we love. And if we want to see an actual game being simulated in all its rich detail, we already have the computer graphics and other tech powerful enough to make this happen.

And while fictional teams aren’t “real”, they do tug at our heartstrings and bring on a similar level of fandom. Just check out some of the “Best Of” lists (here, here, and here, for example) dedicated to everything from teams in TV dramas to entire sports created in other worlds – such as blernsball of Futurama or Quidditch in Harry Potter. Wikipedia of course has a crowdsourced and therefore more exhaustive list of fictional teams you can check out.

Yet … can fiction substitute for reality?

The Madden NFL video game franchise has sold nearly 100 million copies as of earlier this year. The most recent version alone sold almost a million copies in just the first 24 hours, and racked up over 81 million online games played in less than a month after its release. But besides the rabid fan-like growth and phenomenal entertainment value, such games can be quite accurate, too: Madden football has been found to be reasonably predictive (as run via simulations) of real-life Super Bowls.

So there is a relationship between fiction and reality. Same game, just different players.

One could even argue that this kind of fictional play provides a satisfying – even cathartic – experience during lockouts. When it looked like the NBA might not play last year, sportswriters Bill Simmons and Jay Caspian Kang conducted a sprawling thought experiment over at Grantland of an alternate-universe basketball league run by Larry Ellison of Oracle. Simmons and Kang determined what cities would host teams, who would be drafted to each team, and even began speculating on how the season would play itself out.

In one of the more developed alternate histories I’ve seen, Simmons predicted that the finals would have Hartford Lux Bond Green beating the Kansas City Klondike Bars, with Hartford emerging victorious. Their article was shared roughly 20,000 times through one social media source alone – and that’s just a single proxy demonstrating the scope and reach of a deep-seated need.

Oh, in case you were wondering what those fictional team jerseys might look like: one fan’s already got it covered.

Now, with the National Hockey League lockout, we’re faced with a similar scenario. Not only are NHL fans missing their games, it’s killing business. Everything boils down to economics, and that’s probably most true of the modern sports franchise. Again, computer simulations can help here. They give us an almost god-like control over the variables. But we still need a way to monetize it.

Turns out, we’re already partly here. It goes beyond online advertising and virtual goods. Just look at the plethora of physical merchandise for fictional sports teams. Examples include bumper stickers for the Lovecraftian Arkham Fighting Cephalopods to business cards for the Rowlingian Chudley Cannons.

So here’s the gameplan I propose: Let’s cut the middlemen and start drafting fictional, computer-simulated leagues. Let’s begin with the cities that don’t have much in the way of sports to get a foothold. Let’s create fake players with richly detailed statistics, let’s simulate complete seasons, and let’s sell some schwag.

Let’s make this alternate reality real. This is no crazier than, say, paying grown men to play outside in a freezing field. Go Klondike Bars!

Article source: http://www.wired.com/opinion/2012/11/beyond-the-thanksgiving-classic-how-techs-gonna-change-your-game/

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