The Pigskin Experiment: 3-D Football

The Grouse unveils his take on all three dimensions

In case you didn’t hear, the first-ever 3-D broadcast of an NFL game recently went down. Don’t worry if you missed it, because your old buddy The Grouse was present to bring you this report from the front lines. Or, the line of scrimmage, as it were.

The NFL hopes to someday bring 3-D football to the pigskin loving public at large. This preview was a demo of what we might someday see play out in movie theaters across the country. That’s right—the game was shown in the same type of movie theaters you’d watch one of those Disney 3-D movies in, which should be your first clue that this was definitely a different way of watching football.

As I entered the theater, I was handed a pair of 3-D specs, which looked more like a pair of Risky Business Ray Bans than the classic cardboard blue-and-reds. After a couple of laps around the room in search of a decent seat, I finally settled in just before kickoff.

I’m going to skip the drum roll and just tell you that what I saw up on that big screen was definitely … OK. Let’s start with the good:

Pardon the cheeseball PR word, but the broadcast was undeniably ‘immersive.’ The 3-D cameras gave the field a sense of depth that I’ve never experienced at a sporting event before, either on TV or in person. It was kind of like watching the game through a ViewMaster—you had things like the refs, security guards and first-down markers in front of you in the foreground, while the on-field action happened on a different plane just behind everything else. On-screen graphics and instant replays were particularly nice on the eyes, and no fewer than twenty times did I turn to the friend next to me to say, “That was cool!” or “Did you see that?” I also really enjoyed sitting in a movie theater, drinking a beer and talking to the people around me at normal conversational volume—this was definitely a new experience.

At the same time, however, there were some fairly fundamental problems with the 3-D broadcast, which make me question whether it’ll ever be suitable for public consumption.

The depth of field I describe was certainly cool, but that’s really all there was to it. You didn’t have linebackers blitzing towards the camera, and the ball never looked like it was going to torpedo right out of the screen. Every single camera angle was a set up for the same visual trick: Dazzle the viewer with a few things in the foreground. Unfortunately, more often than not that was done with a shameless shot of a cheerleader shaking her pom poms in your face. Otherwise, it was a shot of the same few painted-up super fans who had been told to point tauntingly at the camera. Both wore on me pretty quickly.

I also found the scarcity of on-screen graphics slightly off-putting. Yeah, they looked cool and futuristic when they popped off of the screen at you, but then they’d go away. There was nothing attached to the screen to tell you the score, the down or how much time was left in a quarter. I’m sure that’s a technical issue having to do with too many things happening on-screen at once, but it’s definitely something that needs to be fixed.

My biggest beef with the 3-D game, though, is that it was actually hard to follow the ball. Instant replays looked amazing because the action was slowed down. But, at regular speed everything went blurry and was difficult to make out. Whenever the ball was passed or kicked, it was anybody’s guess as to where it would end up.

In other words, this broadcast wasn’t really about the football at all. It was about the gimmick of 3-D. In fact, the only time I ever heard “oohs” and “aahs” out of the crowd was during TV timeouts. That’s when the 3-D audience was subjected to some random eye candy of a snowboarder spraying snow at the camera and a surfer barreling right towards us. Nice, but I came to see football and there was none of that same gee-whiz kind of excitement during game play. Wanna wow me? Strap a 3-D unit to the overhead cablecam and swoop in and out of the action like an IMAX nature doc nose-diving into the Grand Canyon.

Technical issues aside, I think the bigger problem has to do with the way people watch football. When the NFL eventually rolls this thing out across America, will we be allowed to tailgate in the cineplex parking lot? Will Buffalo wings and pulled-pork sandwiches be available at the concession stand? More importantly, will beer be served? The game I attended was a press event with a full bar, but when I asked if alcohol would be served at public events, the answer was, “We don’t know.” I don’t expect most movie theaters to go through the rigmarole of obtaining a liquor license, and what theater operator in his right mind would allow alcohol, anyway?

See, when we leave the home to watch football, it becomes less about the game and more about socializing. We want to eat, drink and be loud. We want to yell at the screen and yell at each other. Some of us want to paint parts of our bodies. But, while watching this game in 3-D, it was hard to escape the feeling of being “at the movies.” The room was dark and everyone was sitting eyes-forward like in a lecture hall. Yes, talking was certainly allowed, but doing your team’s chant or orchestrating a wave would have seemed out of place.

For NFL in 3-D work, it needs to deliver a killer football viewing experience or it needs to deliver the social aspect. Unfortunately, in its current form it does neither—or it does both kind of halfway.

That said, I still really enjoyed myself, if only for the novelty of it all And, this was only the first try, remember. Who knows how the experience might be improved and the technology better implemented? If your neighborhood theater starts showing NFL games in 3-D next season, I recommend you go and check one out. You probably won’t make a regular habit of it, but you’re sure to see something you’ve never seen before. Sadly, mall parking lot keg stands aren’t likely to be one of them.