On Tuesday, ESPN announced it was launching ESPN 3D, a network devoted to 3-D broadcasts of live sporting events. The channel will debut in June with the opening game of the World Cup, between South Africa and Mexico. Also on the schedule: college basketball and football, the Summer X Games, and the 2011 BCS National Championship Game. This is certainly great news for everyone who craves more intimate acquaintance with Cuauhtémoc Blanco. And, in the words of the Consumer Electronics Association's Gary Shapiro, "This is a turning point for 3-D." But is it a turning point for televised sports?
Probably not in the way you'd think. Sports and 3-D would seem to be a perfect match. We spend lavishly on HDTVs and surround-sound systems that make the games we watch at home look and sound as real as possible. Adding an extra dimension would seemingly inch us ever closer to replicating the in-stadium experience in our living rooms, minus the body paint and the parking fees.
When I attended the first-ever live 3-D broadcast of an NFL game back in 2008, however, it wasn't at all what I'd expected. The game was an otherwise forgettable late-season contest between the Chargers and the Raiders, and the Manhattan movie theater where I went for the screening was packed with corporate execs and NFL bigwigs. (Curtis Martin was sitting behind me.) Perhaps, like me, they hoped to see the kickoff team charge off the screen like Last Action Hero's Jack Slater, chasing after a ball that had just been kicked into my lap. But there weren't any footballs flying into the balcony, and it didn't feel like L.T. was running down the theater's aisle. (Given that I was slightly drunk and filled with buffalo wings, this was probably for the best.)
Sports in 3-D, I discovered, basically meant a more-defined picture. In certain shots, the players and surroundings had added depth, far beyond what you'd see on a normal broadcast. This was certainly cool, but it was also very clearly an optical trick. Maybe it's because I wasn't used to watching sports this way, but the effect seemed artificial. I often felt like I was watching a living diorama—a bunch of humanoid action figures running around and tackling each other. The closest analogue I can think of is WonkaVision, only that you could now reach out and hold a miniature Justin Fargas in your hand. A novel experience, for sure, but not something I'd necessarily go out of my way to see.
Live-action 3-D differs from the 3-D camerawork made famous in CGI-heavy movies like Avatar. A 3-D representation of the computer-generated Na'vi looks great largely because you've never seen a Na'vi before. Since you have no idea what a blue cat person is supposed to look like (and since the blue cat people are computer-generated), you don't pick up on any visual distortions. But we all know how a real, 3-D human is supposed to look—and, while watching a 3-D football game, you're acutely aware that the guys in helmets and pads don't look exactly right. The difference between JaMarcus Russell and 3-D JaMarcus Russell is like the difference between Elvis and the world's best Elvis impersonator. (To be clear, JaMarcus Russell is terrible in all dimensions.)
It's certainly possible that ESPN's 3-D soccer, football, and basketball will be better than what I saw. The network has been testing 3-D broadcast technology for the past two years, most recently during a broadcast of the USC-Ohio State football game this September. Anthony Bailey, vice president of emerging technologies at ESPN, told me that "in the last 18 months, we kept feeling that this is getting better and better and better."