Video Games and Sports: Not Just for Nerds

You probably can’t do any of the above. In fact, I know you can’t — in real life, anyway. But if you sit down in front of the television and happen to own a gaming system, you can. You, sitting there reading this, can kick flip a nine-step and hit a winning homerun in the World Series, all from the comfort of your couch.

Video games are becoming more and more a part of everyday life, especially in terms of sports. If you don’t happen to make your high school football team, you can play “Madden NFL 11” to ease the pain. If you’re five-feet-nothing, you can still dunk on Shaq in “NBA 2K11.”

Other than being a great distraction from your homework, these games are actually shaping the sports world as we know it, and helping to lead the way into the future.

Learning in sports is more visually based than you might think. From experience, just a few minutes of watching video of yourself can be as effective as hours of repetitive training. Watching the best teams play each other not only adds to your tactical knowledge as a player — such as when to blitz the quarterback or when to substitute a player — but also can improve physical responses to the perceived environment. In other words, by watching, you learn what it’s supposed to look like out on the field.

Personally, I watch Jan Zelezny, the world record holder in the javelin, and Andreas Thorkildsen, the current world leader, in order to improve my javelin form. At Arizona, the basketball players watch film clips of Steve Nash just shooting to enhance their own shooting abilities.

Video games allow you to control your own visual learning. They might still be a tad too primitive to truly help a technically dense sport or specific movement, as they have occasional glitches that allow the computer to do things not even Shaq can manage. The games have become realistic, but there are always moments when virtual sports accidentally give a player momentary superhuman powers.

But even with their faults, playing these games enhances tactical skill by helping players gain knowledge without actually being on the field or court. Where before teams have watched film — and will continue to do so in the future to learn their opponents’ traits — video games will probably be employed to allow players to be more prepared.

When a player wants to do something, he does it controlling his character, just as he would in real life, thus improving in the process. And since he doesn’t have to set up the drill again or even so much as get off the couch, he can practice, tirelessly, over and over again, making transaction costs go way down.

Playing video games offers the opportunity to get better without tiring, or when practice is impossible. They have become  an excellent choice that is gaining popularity and will probably be mandatory in practice schedules of the future.

Game designers have the money and skill needed to scout an opposing team at an increasingly high level of competency. The designers work closely with athletes to perfect a game’s physics and capture signature moves. Future coaches will probably even be able to use the video games to determine another team’s strengths, or what offenses and defenses will work best against them. With the weekly updates seen in FIFA, this would be a very easy method that could save clubs thousands to millions of dollars.

The best example is EA Sports and XOS Technologies’ creation of the Thunder PlayAction Simulator, which allows a team to load its plays, or that of an opponent, into the “Madden NFL” or “NCAA Football” games. It has been used by LSU, Oregon, Arizona, Cincinnati, Colorado and Tennessee, and it seems it won’t be long before the technology spreads to the NFL. Already, the Madden series features incredibly accurate playbooks for every NFL team, thanks to extensive film study from EA Sports designers.

But not everyone’s going to like this new direction. Gaming brings us towards a more personalized, self-absorbed activity that may actually take away from the team aspect of competition. Competing against a machine is naturally not as exhilarating, gratifying, or entertaining as actually being on the field, so sports will never go totally virtual. But the hybridization of sport and video games is the next step in the quickly changing sports world.

Nick’s Super Bowl pick is the PHILADELPHIA EAGLES. Look for an explanation in Monday’s issue of the Guardian.