Jhe camera slowly zooms in on Lionel Messi’s face. And keep zooming. And keep zooming. The lens is steady, the focus deep and dramatic, blurring all but the sole object of his attention. The camera continues to zoom.
Soon, Messi’s shoulders are no longer visible. Then his neck disappears, then his chin. The camera continues to zoom. It’s moments before Argentina and Mexico are set to go out in Lusail and the world’s greatest player will be subjected to the photographic equivalent of a nasal swab.
Something weird happened at this World Cup. Sure, a lot of weird things happened at this World Cup, but that seems like a more subtle development, a change in tone and understated aesthetics. You can see it in TV coverage, with its deep focus and bird’s-eye aerial shots, a product that is increasingly cinematic in scope and style. This process, to some extent, has been going on for some time. But perhaps the most surprising development is how the digital world is starting to bleed into the live experience as well.
For most of the last century, football essentially existed as two parallel games. There was the game of tickets and stadiums and grass and physical seats, a world you could see, hear, smell and touch.
Then there was the game which came filtered through a screen, a world of buttons and pixels, mediated by TV commentators and producers, theme music and editing. Qatar 2022 is perhaps the first World Cup where the division between these two worlds is no longer clear.
You can feel it the moment you climb the steps and emerge into the arena itself, which in this tournament feels less like entering a sporting venue than radiating through a portal. . Loud, upbeat music fills every conceivable space and hole. The tunes stop seconds before the match starts and begin one second after the whistle. On the big screens, advertisements for crypto-trading vie for attention with the resounding din of the official pitchside announcer, gabbling like a circus ringleader.
In the stands, you’re dimly aware that there are thousands of fans singing and rocking around you, and yet their unlicensed noise is almost invariably drowned out by the officially licensed noise blaring from the speakers. From time to time, the announcer will stop and invite fans to “make some noise”. Which, in all honesty, is what they’ve been doing the whole time. But in Qatar 2022, it doesn’t matter how many you are or how loud you make. You will only speak when you are spoken to.
Even when the real game begins, the virtual world still manages to seep in. You’re no doubt familiar with the ghostly, disembodied digital dummies of semi-automated offside technology. But for spectators at the stadium, it’s just part of a never-ending computer-generated cyclorama that unfolds on the giant screens. Animated graphics intersperse every few seconds carrying live stats (line breaks, possession contested, direction of attack). Later in the game, the screens show replays of earlier incidents rendered – for some unfathomable reason – in CGI, so you can see a digital avatar of Raheem Sterling cross over for a digital avatar of Harry Kane, even if you have saw the real thing about five minutes earlier.
All of this, of course, if you only choose to watch the game through the age-old medium of your eyes. Open the Fifa+ app, however, and a whole new vista presents itself. Using its augmented reality mask, you can point your phone at the pitch and watch it transform into a heatmap, overlay live stats on the turf, watch the same slow-motion replays broadcast to viewers at home . Which is, from a technological point of view, extremely impressive. But it does raise a fundamental question: if the future of football is to watch a match live on your phone screen, then what exactly is the point of being there? There is, of course, an “old man shouts cloud” element to all of this.
Undoubtedly, this direct/digital hybrid is likely aimed at the youngest in the market: the generation who grew up consuming much of their football not in stadiums or on television, but via video game consoles, and lately via online games such as Fifa Ultimate Team. And really, what we’re seeing is not so much the merging of the stadium experience into the TV experience, but the merging of the two into the gaming experience, with its rejuvenating soundtrack, intuitive haptics, and visuals. cinematic images, its perpetual scrolling of data and graphics. Wherever you are, however you watch, football feels like an increasingly curated commodity while providing the illusion of perpetual user control.
This is the first Web3 World Cup and Qatar is in many ways the perfect test tube for this daring experiment: the metaverse as a country, a disturbing world of layers upon layers, where you are never quite sure what is real and what is virtual, or if it even makes sense to distinguish between the two. Sometimes you’re walking down the street and you feel a sudden rush of cold air, with no grille or fan to give you any idea where it’s coming from. At the Villaggio Mall in Doha, a gondolier will show you around his replica of the Venetian canal system. Official attendance at many World Cup matches exceeded the stadium’s official capacity.
Everything is real. Nothing is real. If what we watch is increasingly organized, how much can we trust what we watch? When we push the button, are we actually choosing to push the button, or are we just channeled like shoppers in an infinite digital superstore? Is it still a sport, or just an entertainment product cleverly presented as a sport? These are questions without definitive answers. After all, it’s your game and you can play it however you want.
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