Field of Screens

Athletes are being replaced by robots, and games are played out entirely in the digital world. Is this the end of the sports hero?
Field of Screens

Illustration by Stephen Cheetham

Football players have always had their shoulder pads, baseball players have always had their helmets, but it wasn’t until recently that we saw athletes strapping on a pair of robotic legs before the game.

Okay, we don’t see much of that, but we soon will.

There is, worldwide, a growing appetite for high-tech sporting events: drone races, robot fights, jet-pack acrobatics. This October’s Cybathlon, in Zurich, Switzerland, featured people with disabilities who used assistive technology and bionic limbs. Next December, Dubai will host the World Future Sports Games, which is pitching events like driverless car races and robotic swimming.

Even conventional sports are enduring a barrage of what people in the tech world call “solutions.” Can’t score Super Bowl tickets? No matter, soon you’ll be able to slip on a headset and experience the big game in all of its virtual glory. As for the action replay, that’ll likely take place in holographic form, on your coffee table, somewhere between the nachos and the remote control.  

A similar experience will not be out of reach for those who find themselves in a cab, or at the office. A succession of increasingly sophisticated smart glasses will not only broadcast games in immersive 3-D, but will augment this coverage with real-time stats from sensors embedded in bats, balls and jerseys.

If that’s not enough excitement for you, these broadcasts will include the potential for countless varieties of augmentation, so it looks like a car race is taking place on Mars, say, or soccer players look like big purple rhinos. You will also be able to meet your friends at the event. Slip on a smart glove and you’ll be able to high-five them, too.

Nowhere is this shift from rah-rah to bleep-bleep more apparent than eSports, which sells video games as a spectator event. Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision — the company behind such hi-octane games as Call of Duty — says that viewing figures for eSports are challenging those for the NFL and NBA. 

This is good news for marketers: One report found that 56 percent of football fans are older than 35, while 73 percent of eSports fans fall into the coveted 35-and-under bracket.  Currently, eSports generates around $900 million in revenue, and is expected to reach a value of $1.23 billion by 2019.

“A whole new type of sport is on the upswing,” says sports analyst Matt Powell. “The money pouring into it, the big brands and athletes getting involved in what we used to call video games, is incredible.”

The sport most often talked up as a biggie for the 21st century is drone racing, which involves pilots flying remote-controlled quadcopters at up to 80 miles per hour around obstacle-strewn circuits. The operators wear goggles, steering via a live video feed from a camera on the drone’s nose. 

All this hit the sweet spot for aspiring drone racer Nicholas Horbaczewski, “a classic video game-playing fan” who discovered the sport in 2015. “For me, it was more of a sporting experience than a video game,” he says. “I was a sky diver and the rush I got from flying drones reminded me of that.”

Early this year, Horbaczewski launched the Drone Racing League — one of several operations trying to bring the sport to the mainstream — backed by investors like Stephen Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins. DRL recently signed deals with ESPN, Britain’s Sky Television and German commercial broadcaster ProSieben, who are all helping to promote the sport.

ESPN and Sky are currently showing the 2016 season — races in Miami, L.A., New York, Cincinnati and Detroit — and more are planned next summer for London and Munich.  As in F1 coverage, zippy editing means races are shown from the first-person perspective and from the sidelines as drones whizz by. “It’s Star Wars pod racing meets NASCAR,” says Horbaczewski. “We’re blurring the parameters of sport and creating a new form of entertainment that straddles the digital and real world.

While these events lack of the kind of physicality we normally associate with sports, Horbaczewski insists that his DRL will not focus entirely on the machines. “The human element is crucial,” he says. “We have just created new types of sports stars.”

That element, he adds, will only be heightened as the technology evolves. “Can we scale up one day and have bigger drones that carry people? Of course. Will there be aerial contact, or indeed combat? Almost certainly. Sometime soon, we could all be watching something like Quidditch.”

But, again, it’s in the arena of performance enhancement that new technologies will really shake things up. Exoskeletons are already increasing the strength and speed of athletes, ramping up everything from extreme skiing to space diving.

Powell believes that we will soon see a roster of new action sports, created specifically to incorporate new technologies, and pushing the limits of what people are supposed to be able to do. “Technology,” he says, “means we can have more thrills and spills with fewer human injuries.”       

One person helping to bring this about is Gui Cavalcanti, CEO of California-based MegaBots, a sports league featuring 15-foot-tall, 15,000-pound piloted humanoid robots.

“We believe there is a global appetite for entertainment that combines elements of sport, comic books, video games and sci-fi movies,” he says. “I envisage stadium battles being staged, with fans watching live or remotely via augmented reality headsets, and toy MegaBots in Toys R Us.”

Cavalcanti is also quick to stress that humans will play a big part in his plans. MegaBots is preparing a giant, human-operated bot to battle a Japanese rival in 2017. “I think having a person inside the robot is crucial,” he says. “It gives the fans a real sports hero to root for as well as their machine.”