What to expect from ESPN 3D.

The stadium scene.
Jan. 6 2010 1:00 PM

Going Deep

What to expect from ESPN 3D.

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.

Advertisement

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."

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.