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Games

March Madness on Demand

Gregory Trefry

Last-second shots only exist for two reasons: changing the score and highlight reels.


Publisher: ESPN
Multimedia: March Madness on Demand
Platforms: online tournament
US release date: 2007-07

I got there early. It was March 16, 2006 and the games didn't start until 12:15 PM, so I figured that sauntering up to my computer at 12:05 would be plenty early to get a good connection. After all, this was the middle of the workday and people really should have been, well, working. I figured the average American employee would show up at 12:10 with five minutes to spare. After all, when I surf the web at work I try to break it down into three-minute chunks. That's about enough time to read an Op-Ed piece in the Times or peruse through several music reviews. Dally longer and I can feel the eyes around the office collectively settling on the back of my head as people wonder why I am such a slacker. I click to load a David Brooks column on the nytimes.com then quickly Ctrl-Tab away to e-mail where I stare not at my e-mail, but at the little loading circle in my Firefox browser which tells me when a tab is done downloading. I turn my head quickly from side to side; I have to make sure no one is staring at me. Then I Ctrl-Tab back to Mr. Brooks' column and read. Then to throw off the scent of laziness, I do a little work for half-an-hour. Rinse, lather, repeat. Five hours later, I'm done reading the New York Times Op-Ed page. And I've probably gotten some work done in-between. Granted, I'm a tad paranoid.

But work be damned that wonderful day, March 16, 2006. That day marked the opening round of the annual NCAA Basketball Tournament. On that day each year, from noon until midnight, 16 games of basketball collectively suck the productivity out of the American workplace. It is a hallowed time; a moment of collective anxiety and cheer; two afternoons of socially acceptable web-surfing; two days when the simple ticking up of numbers and ticking down of clocks can be massively entertaining. But this last March 16 was special. This year CBS decided to take March Madness to the level of the real. No longer would those of us stuck in offices have to watch scoreboards and glance through play-by-play descriptions, now we would actually be able to watch the games live with CBS' new March Madness on Demand web console. The site, powered by CBS Sportsline, provided live video and audio coverage of all of the NCAA games. You could chose to watch any game you wanted, with the exception of the one being played on CBS in your local television market.

Apparently I wasn't the only one excited. When I clicked on the link at 12:05 I found myself standing, in the virtual of sense, behind 25,654 other people to get inside the arena. Damn faulty assumptions about the priorities of American workers! Now being the last person in a line of 25,654 people is pretty disheartening. In the corner of the pop-up screen a multicolored line scaling ever-upwards indicated my position. Next to the line was a small clock that counted down the seconds until the next admittance. I figured I was done for. That there was no way I would get into this virtual arena. After all, Madison Square Garden only holds 19,763 for basketball games. Ah, but you dear reader, are most likely much smarter than I. Despite the metaphor being employed, this was no brick-and-mortar arena, this was a virtual arena. Admitting in groups of around 1,000, I found myself nearing the beginning of the line after a titillating 25 minutes.

You would think the wait would have scared me off. But it didn't. The metaphor of the line and the arena was an excellent choice. It bred excitement. You see, I work at a small video game company where the excitement for the NCAA tournament was embodied solely in me. After arriving at work and proclaiming like a kid on Christmas Day, "Oh, who's excited for March Madness?" and then clapping giddily, I was met with quiet bemusement and blank stares. Only minutes before the games started, I began to question my own enthusiasm. After all, what's March Madness without group frenzy? How can you be excited about your brackets when you have no one to compare with? But when I looked at that line and the number designating me 25,654th in line, the excitement came rushing back. The simple abstraction of the concept of a mob was enough to restore my frothing excitement. It bound me as part of a community in much the way entering a tournament pool does (don't worry, I did that too). After all, sports are as much about the feeling of belonging as they are about the game. Quite amazingly from the simple graphic and a slowly ticking counter I was able to extrapolate that sense of belonging.

Finally I reached the front of the line and I was ushered inside. CBS' web console opened with possibility. Any game was mine for watching. With ESPN open in another window, I quickly scanned the scores to find a close game. A few seconds of buffering and the Alabama-Marquette match came flickering to life. As I settled in to watch, I quickly forgot my three-minute web-surfing rule. I found myself simply watching the game. I also found myself strangely disinterested. I was just watching a basketball game -- something I'd done just the weekend before, at home, on a TV, with beer. It turns out that once the video rolled, something was lost. The video made real something that worked better as an abstraction. Normally, during the first two days of past NCAA tournaments, I and my friends would simply watch numbers tick up on a screen. Logging into ESPN, you would watch the seconds count haltingly down while the score slowly, so frustratingly slowly, counted up. And, you know what? I think this was actually more fun. You checked in on the games occasionally to see the score and imagined the action in your head. The excitement of the NCAA tournament was background filler for your mind while you worked for two days. You'd go to a meeting; come back; check the scores. Crap Alabama's losing and I have them going to the Sweet Sixteen. Write some e-mail. Oops, still losing. Go to another meeting. It gelled perfectly with the point-in-time nature of surfing the Internet at work. You look for a moment, absorb a fact, and then go back to work. But video is too linear for web-surfing. Video demands to be watched. It is resolutely not point-in-time. I quickly found myself unable to do anything. I watched the game in one window while trying to do work in another.

Soon the whole fiction of the crowd had melted away and I was painfully aware that this wasn't an arena, but straight up television. The announcers would praise a play, and I would find myself staring frantically at the game window hoping to catch a glimpse of "a monstrous jam!" But inevitably the game had moved on. It turns out that regular sports announcing does not work with the partial attention of web-surfing. Announcers must fill airtime, so they must continuously banter and describe each play. This constant stream of video and talk disserves what is so exciting about March Madness. What's so exciting is that you don't actually have to watch the whole game. You only watch the exciting parts. It's a matter of probability really. If you put 16 games on in the space of eight hours; and if you pre-select those games so that only the best teams in the country play; and if you then seed them so a number of the games are evenly matched; well then, some of them are bound to be close. And if you show four games at a time, then it's likely that at least one of those games will be decided in the last two minutes. Then all you have to do is broadcast whichever game is the closest in the last two minutes. This means that you, as the viewer, get to watch the most exciting part of the most exciting game. So given these odds, it's a pretty good chance that there will be something interesting on at any given time. You are statistically bound to see some last-second, game-changing shots. This is why I only watch the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. After that, you have to start watching the whole game. And that's just boring. I can't remember the last time I watched the actual NCAA final.

Now this minute-to-minute excitement would seem to work wonderfully well as video on the Internet. But it doesn't. The console allowed you to pick one game. It would show you this game until you decided to watch a different one. But frankly, I don't want to do all that work. I'm not that interested in any one game. I only care about the good parts and the scores. If there is a last-second shot to win the game, I want to see that. I don't want to see the beginning of the second half. Beyond that I just want to see scores that tell me how close my picks are to making it to the next round. This is a case of classic point-in-time web-surfing attention versus continuous linear TV watching attention.

What CBS needs to do before next year is find a way to integrate video into point-in-time attention. I thought I wanted to watch every game, but it turns out what I wanted was a list of scores that occasionally open up and show me when there is an interesting play. They shouldn't bother with broadcasting every game and letting you pick them. If someone cares that much, let them go to a sports bar. What CBS should do instead is keep that concept of the crowd, constantly reminding me how many people are logged on and enjoying this experience. Then they should simply list the scores and push at me highlights of the last two minutes of every game. That way I can check the scores, but only have to watch something every forty minutes, as games are ending. That sounds like something that would fit into my workday. It would dovetail perfectly between the afternoon production meeting and the three o'clock brainstorming session.

When I accidentally closed the March Madness on Demand window, I found myself actually a bit relieved. I didn't have to watch a game anymore. A yoke was lifted and I felt liberated. I once again felt free to tune in when I desired to find out exactly the information I was interested in, which it turns out is simply the score. I realized I wasn't missing anything. After all, last-second shots only exist for two reasons: changing the score and highlight reels.

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