Keeping Score

The World Cup In 3D: Right Idea, Wrong Sport?

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Today marked the highly anticipated debut of ESPN’s 3D network, with the South Africa-Mexico World Cup opener the first event televised by the fledgling channel. Over the past few years, every sports executive who fancies himself a futurist has been claiming that 3D TV will shake up the way we watch the games. Since I’m not quite ready to fork over $2000, at the low-end, for a 3D set, I took a ride ESPN headquarters in Bristol, CT to check out how it all works, anticipating soccer balls flying in my face.

My expectations may have been too high. No doubt, the 3D version of the game was more interesting than standard or high-definition viewing. Is it worth  the extra cost? Of course, your income bracket might determine that answer. But upon first impression, I’d say no way.

After donning the Elvis Costell0-looking 3D shades – which were quite comfortable – I looked up at the screen, where the starting lineups were displayed right up in my face. OK, this would be different. Once the game started, the players seemed to be floating above the pitch, resembling crystal clear chess pieces maneuvering for prime position. When South Africa’s Katlego Mphela pinged the ball off the post in the 90th minute, coming oh so close to giving the Bafana Bafana – “The Boys” – a 2-1 win that would have caused the whole country to combust, 3D didn’t add much to the drama. Whether it’s SD, HD, or 3D, heartbreak looks the same.

The best shots were the on-field closeups. Late in the game, just after Mexico tied it at 1-1 in the 79th minute, the camera panned to a South African player on the sideline, who had just left the game for a substitute. The 3D shot of his pained, fatigued face was powerful.

I just wish there were more of these candid moments. For the most part, the production failed to take advantage of the technology. During sporting events, people often complain about mindless crowd shots. But when 3D is involved, I want to see the crazed South African football fan scraping my forehead with a flag. I want a reason to jump out of my seat, afraid he’ll poke my eye out.

I want to be surprised. In the first half, a wayward green balloon suddenly fluttered onto the near side of the screen. It had flown up from the stands, and thanks to the 3D glasses, right into my eyes. Honestly, from a 3D experience point of view, it was probably the most memorable moment of the game. If a balloon is the high point, that’s probably not good.

Here we were, at the opener of South Africa’s World Cup, with the home team on the verge of pulling off an upset. We’ve all been hearing about how this tournament, this game, means everything to this country. Yet, with such passion in the stands, and with a powerful 3D technology, able to put viewers smack in the middle of the action, at its disposal, the production team didn’t dispatch cameramen into the crowd. That’s mind-boggling.

To be fair, you can’t totally blame ESPN for the shortcomings. The network did not have the rights to produce the 3D broadcast itself, so it had to rely on the FIFA feed, produced by a European company, for its content. If ESPN had access to the cameras, the network surely would have taken more risks. Plus, soccer is a tricky sport to produce. The field is wide, and the ball moves far, and fast; if the camera focuses too narrowly on one part of the field, it might miss an important event somewhere else. And in a game where scoring is so rare, you absolutely can’t miss a goal. Further, since there are so few natural breaks in the action – no stoppage of play between downs, pitches, or foul shots – a director can’t call for too many crowd shots.

So should ESPN have started its 3D venture with soccer? The network certainly took a risk. Given the scope, and cache of the event, a World Cup debut is awfully difficult to turn down. But first impressions are important too. Luckily, it’s still early in the draw. There’s still plenty of time to start ducking.