Changing the Game

By John Webster

(Back to article)

Sports fans here in the greater Boston area go through a cycle that has occurred almost every year within recent memory: In September, we mourn the decline of the Red Sox who started the baseball season with such promise.

And then, to numb the pain, we look forward to another great football year from the New England Patriots. 2006 is, as Yogi would say, deja vu all over again for Boston sports fans.

However, we can also look forward to the fact that pro football will be more connected to technology than baseball. Perhaps that’s because football gets a fraction of the air-time that baseball gets. Both franchise owners and TV produces figure they have to maximize the fan experience.

It started with instant replays that were so precise that even the refs decided to use it. Why not umpires? Go figure.

The Green Monster

Coming soon will be another way Red Sox fans can try to relive the halcyon days of 2004—thanks to Curt Schilling, the heroic pitcher who helped defeat the hated Yankees in 2004 while playing with a painful ankle injury.

Curt recently founded Green Monster Games (borrowing the name from the famous left-field wall in Fenway Park). Green Monster will produce Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games where fans and players are one and the same. For sure, baseball will be included.

Curt won’t be the first MMO game producer. Far from it. The NBA already has one. The NFL has one too. In fact there are probably hundreds of MMO games. There’s even OGaming Radio. Fans of MMO play in a fantasy world where the season never ends, and success is not determined by physical prowess and agility, but by wile and wit.

Back to Reality

The problem, at least for some of us however, is that MMO is a fantasy world. What about the real world? Here, the increased use of technology both on and off the playing field to enhance performance is gradually changing the nature of many sporting events in ways that may or may not be apparent in real time as the event unfolds.

Here are three examples:

Auto Racing - Pit crews can monitor between ten and fifty channels of wireless sensor data that are continuously streaming metrics such as engine temperature, RPM, brake pressure, ride-height, steering, and tire-pressures to name just a few.

The data vehicle is remotely monitored, in real-time, by the pit-crew (with the exception of NASCAR events which preclude this technology during an event). The instant the car rolls into the pit, the crew knows what to do.

Basketball - Players can now wear shoes (Adidas 1) that adjust themselves in real time to the right level of cushioning based on parameters measured by sensors in each shoe.

Football - Coaches can now communicate wirelessly with quarterbacks such that a play can be called in from the sidelines as the team huddles.

Creeping TechnoSport

These examples may seem a bit innocuous at first, but consider the football example. Before wireless-enabled helmets, a coach called in plays using hand signals or yelled voice signals.

Wireless just simplified the process. So, will it then be okay for other players to communicate with the coaching staff and each other while on the field since they already do that now by other means?

Add digital video. A coaching staff can now replay and analyze plays while the game progresses. Using image recognition software and multiple camera angles, an imaging system could generate the view of a play from the standpoint of a single player.

This could give the coaching staff an even more accurate understanding of how the opposing team is lining up and responding to movement on the field and relay that to players on the field. And, why stop with audio in the helmet. Why not a helmet visor that projects the view behind a player?

Performance is enhanced incrementally over time such that the way the game is played changes. Rule changes often follow, but now the use of digital technology is leading the way.

It’s inevitable that fantasy and reality sports will one day converge. Coaches will call plays that fans think will work based on their collective view of the game as experienced “virtually.” New sports will emerge from the shambles of traditional sports that insist on resisting the impact of technology. And maybe, just maybe, baseball umpires will be given the opportunity to reverse a bad call using instant replay.

John Webster is senior analyst and founder of Data Mobility Group . He has held the positions of director of Computing Research with Yankee Group’s Management Strategies Planning Service, and senior analyst with International Data Corp. He is also the co-author of “Inescapable Data – Harnessing the Power of Convergence” (Prentice Hall, 2005).