Despite the current popularity of the NFL, the future of the sport could be in jeopardy. With the preponderance of data about the dangers of concussions and CTE, will American football still be around 100 years from now, or even 50? Is there a way to protect the health and safety of players without diluting the game or diminishing the experience for the fans?
The simple short-term solution could be new helmets that better protect players’ brains. In the long-term, there are more complex solutions that may sound like science fiction but could actually happen.
eSports, or professional video gaming, is surging in popularity each year. Meanwhile, games like Madden NFL get more and more realistic each year. Sometime in the future, football video games will eventually become so realistic-looking that they’ll be indistinguishable from real life football games. Then, what will be the point in putting players’ health at risk and playing games in person? Why not just watch the best eSports gamers controlling digital players? The game on television would look exactly the same to the fan at home.
Traditionalist fans (and former players) may object to the idea of watching avatars controlled by “computer geeks” who have never stepped foot on an actual field. Athleticism and physical football skills should still matter. Which leads to the second possibility.
2. Virtual Reality
What if the best athletes in the world could physically play football with their actual bodies, without any risk to their health? This could happen in virtual reality. The technology is still a ways off, but theoretically, each team could play on their own field, then put on VR goggles that make it appear as though the opposing team is on the field with them. They could wear special VR suits with sensors to make it feel like they’re being tackled. The most athletic and skilled players would still be the best. The only drawback would be for fans watching the game in person—they’d see only one team running around with VR suits. However, fans wouldn’t watch the game in person—they’d watch it in virtual reality, where both teams would appear to be on the same field, actually hitting and tackling each other. Like with eSports, the VR football game would look and sound as realistic as NFL games today. Every fan could not only have a front-row seat to the action, they could be on the field, in the huddle. Virtual reality football may be even better for fans than physical reality football.
If the technology ever exists to make eSports and virtual reality seem 100% realistic, then that would inevitably lead to the third possibility for the future of football.
Why bother to have gamers control players, or players compete in VR, when you can just simulate the entire game without any real people at all. Again, simulated games would be indistinguishable from reality, and the outcomes would be just as surprising and unpredictable. Plus, you could simulate games that are impossible to play in reality, like the 1985 Bears versus the 1972 Dolphins. Or, in basketball, you can simulate a game between five LeBron James’ versus five Michael Jordans. Sure, you can already do that today in video games, but you’re watching stilted CGI players made of pixels. Technology is advancing, but it’s just not close enough yet. However, in the future…50 or 100 years from now…these simulated games will likely look, sound, and feel 100% real. Still then, you might say, “Who would want to watch a simulation? It’s not real. What’s the point?” Well, consider the probability that you are already living in a simulation right now. Would you say there’s no point to your life?
The idea of everything being virtual reality simulations in the future may be inevitable, but there are still possibilities to play the game with actual bodies on actual grass (or turf).
I’m not talking about machines made of metal battling each other on the gridiron—though that could be fun to watch. I’m more envisioning a post-singularity world with mind-uploading, like in Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon. NFL players could upload their consciousness into a computer then download a copy of it into another body (artificial or natural). They could then play full-out without any care for injury because they can just download their consciousness into a new body after the game. This would work for even more violent sports like boxing or MMA. People could essentially fight to the death because they’d have a backup copy of their consciousness on file, just in case.
Mind-uploading may sound like the most far-out science fictional solution, but Ray Kurzweil predicts it could be possible by 2045. In case, he’s wrong, there’s one last possibility for the future of football that may be the most feasible of all.
5. Medical Breakthroughs
In the future, there could be vast improvements in medical treatments, either through nanotech, bioelectronics, gene editing, or some other technology. Doctors could quickly and easily heal concussions or any other injuries players may suffer. In that case, regular human beings could play football the old fashioned way, without risking their livelihood, and fans can enjoy watching the games guilt-free.
I don’t know what the future will hold, but I think football will always exist in some form—unless AI overtakes humanity and deems all sports pointless.