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.

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."

Bailey, though, says that the 3-D technology the network is going with now is pretty much what the NFL used for its 2008 demo. That means the new network's success or failure is going to come down to camerawork. For 3-D sports to work, the broadcaster needs a dedicated camera crew that's providing 3-D-friendly angles on the action. At the event I attended, we were seeing the same shots that the regular TV audience was getting. That meant there were lots of wide shots of players standing at the line of scrimmage, a point of view that didn't look all that amazing in 3-D. When shot from that far away, the players appear so tiny that the extra depth 3-D broadcasts can provide is entirely absent.

In my experience, close-ups are where the technology really shines. You're close enough to the action that the added depth starts to matter. Bailey says also that in its broadcast of the USC-Ohio State game, ESPN experimented with low-angle shots that did provide something of a ball-in-the-face effect. Three hours' worth of pigskin flying at your head would make you nauseous, but an occasional through-the-screen shot would do much to convince doubters that 3-D adds something extra to conventional broadcasts.

ESPN's challenge, then, is to deliver enough 3-D coverage to make the technology worthwhile while still creating a compelling, coherent broadcast. While long-range shots don't work the best for 3-D, there is a good reason why most sporting events are shot from that angle. In team sports, any individual player's actions are disorienting without the context of the entire field. And that's why a football game doesn't just consist of close-ups of Jay Cutler.

Bailey says ESPN's camera placement strategies will evolve as the network gets more experience with filming in 3-D. "We're going to keep finding the most optimum spot, which typically isn't in your traditional broadcast spot in arenas," he says.

I'm also guessing that the worldwide leader will learn that some sports just don't work well in 3-D. Rather than football or soccer, I'm guessing the technology might look the best in service of something like tennis or boxing. With limited participants in an enclosed space, you wouldn't have to worry about long shots and could emphasize the close-range angles that would allow the action to jump off the screen. I don't know whether it would be entirely enjoyable to have a fuzzy ball or a fist fly at your face, but it would be interesting.

ESPN has committed to testing out its 3-D programming for at least a year. But will that be long enough for sports fans to embrace a technology that is still finding its way? Much as it took early 20th-century moviegoers some time to acclimate to watching 2-D cinema, modern viewers don't yet know what to expect from 3-D entertainment. They'll have to learn—and the learning process will be an expensive one. Unless you plan to watch these games at a bar, you'll need a 3-D-capable television, 3-D glasses, and possibly a 3-D box, plus you might have to buy each broadcast on a pay-per-view basis. That's a significant capital outlay for the chance to feel like you're right there at midfield with Cuauhtémoc Blanco.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.