Technology Just Adds to Madness
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Not long ago that there was just one way to watch March Madness; now we can watch whatever games we want, however we want, in whatever fashion we want.
By Will Leitch, Sports on Earth, 3-16-17
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- I don't know whether you're planning on calling in sick for work to sit at a bar all day to watch the first day of NCAA Tournament -- at the risk of advocating a work slowdown that could potentially cause some short-term damage to our national economy, you should absolutely do this -- or just planning on sitting at your desk and flipping around all day, but the important thing is that you have a choice.
It's staggering, when you take a step back from it, at how lightning-quick technology has integrated and ultimately dominated our lives. Twenty years ago, most people didn't have an email address or a home computer. Fifteen years ago, most people had cell phones, but you could only use them for talking to people, ugh. When I started Deadspin in 2005, I had to actually buy my first laptop to take the job. (Before then, I would just go home and, you know, watch TV, or read, or sleep undisturbed. Insane, right?) Ten years ago, we were just figuring out how to navigate YouTube, and only tech nerds were using Twitter. Five years ago, our current president was yelling about Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart on social media. It can be difficult to keep up. It can be overwhelming. It can be, it arguably has been, deeply destructive.
But let me tell you, youngster, there is no way that technology has altered our lives in a more profoundly positive way -- particularly now that we all know about how they can put cameras in microwaves -- than what it has done for the experience of watching the NCAA Tournament.
Here is what it was like to watch the NCAA Tournament 15 years ago.
You could not stream games on your computer. The word "stream," as it related to your online life, would make no sense to you. A year later, something called Yahoo! Platinum "allowed" you to subscribe to its service at $16.95 a month so you could pick and choose early-round games to watch, on choppy feeds that rarely worked and were nearly impossible to decipher when they did. A year after that, CBS offered non-TV games for "AOL subscribers," which is just a funny sentence to write. This "March Madness Live," which allows you to sit at your desk and just flip back and forth all day between all the games (beginning at 12:15 p.m. ET on Thursday)? That didn't start until 2008, as "March Madness on Demand."
If you were, say, unemployed in 2001 (hypothetically speaking) or just able to sit at home (or even at a bar without a DirecTV package) and watch the games there, your options were … limited. Until 2010, your local television station had three possible feeds to choose from. There was the constant feed, which was mostly for stations that had a local team playing; if you were in Champaign, they wouldn't turn off the Illini game even if they were up by 20. There was the swing feed, which had one primary game, but if it was a blowout, or if there was just a particularly close game happening at the same time -- and the game times were not staggered like they are now, either; they all went down at once -- they would switch over without warning. Then was there was the flex feed, which just spun you around like Scott Hanson on NFL RedZone.
This was a problem, though, because CBS was not nearly as good at this as Scott Hanson is, and thus you spent most of your NCAA Tournament-watching day screaming at your television to return to the game you were trying to watch.
It will also not come as a surprise to you that CBS was never in much of a hurry to return from commercial while you were waiting for them to return to the game you wanted to watch.
Also, if you, say, happened to live outside of the area where you wanted to watch your team's game -- if, for example, you lived in New York City but wanted to watch Illinois basketball -- you had to sit there in agony for two hours, watching some other game but starting at the score at the top of your screen, waiting for it to change. One of the loudest noises I've ever made in my life involved watching "ILL"'s score go up three points over "SDS" right before halftime. I was rooting for a chyron.
And that speaks to the deepest frustration of watching the tournament back in the day: You had no control over anything. I grew to despise Greg Gumbel's voice -- and how do you despise Greg Gumbel? He's so affable! -- because he would always pop in right when I was starting to get into the flow of a game with a cheery "now we take you around the horn," and you'd give 40 unsatisfying seconds of every other game that you didn't care about. (Or, in my case, I'd finally get 40 seconds of the Illini before weeping as they were torn away from me again.) It was infuriating.
And this was how we watched the greatest sporting event in America. The NCAA Tournament is such a draw, such a relentless source of entertainment, that we could be nearly deprived of it entirely, or to have it meted out to us in such frustrating, sporadic dollops, and we'd still lose our minds over it.
I know things are rough out there sometimes. I know the world is a scary place. I know it can feel like it's all getting worse, that it's all careening out of control. But I can say that the world is improving in at least one way: The NCAA Tournament is ours now.
We can watch whatever games we want, however we want, in whatever fashion we want. You can watch a game at home, you can watch a game at a bar, you can watch a game at your desk, you can watch a game at a car wash, you can watch a game in church. It wasn't always like this. This is progress. I spent years screaming to the heavens to let me just engulf myself in the greatest four days of sports, to leap head-first into the lunacy: Just let us watch all the games. Now that we can, at last, I am not going to let it slide by without comment. When it comes to the NCAA Tournament, this is the best of times. We can experience this tournament how it was meant to be experiences: In total, complete immersion. And we get to do it today. We get to do it right now. I just want to say that I appreciate it. I'm glad we finally got here.
And I'm sorry for all those times I cursed you out, Greg Gumbel. I didn't mean it.
This article has been reprinted on Clips with the author's permission.