Hyperrealism in Sports: Physical Reality vs. Virtual Reality

Every athlete is familiar with the exhilaration that comes with playing “the game”. You step out onto the field, the court, or the track and a rush of euphoria courses through your veins. The lack of a pre-determined outcome drives you to strive for the win, the opportunity to showcase physical prowess pushes you to your limits, and the roar of the crowd inspires you to be that much better. Now, in the twenty-first century, a new era of sport has changed the definition of “the game”. E-sports,  multiplayer video games played competitively for spectators, require the input of players and teams as well as the output of the e-sports system mediated by human-computer interfaces. In particular, I would like to focus on virtual sports games that emulate the playing of traditional physical sports such as football, soccer, baseball, boxing, basketball, ice hockey, etc. To compare physical sports and virtual sports, it is important to understand Jean Baudrillard’s hyperreality, simulation, and simulacra concepts.

Jean Baudrillard, a renowned French theorist, is often remembered for his work that combined philosophy, social theory, and idiosyncratic cultural metaphysics. He defined “hyperreality” as simulations in which images, spectacles, and the play of signs replace the concepts of production and class conflict as key constituents of contemporary societies. According to Baudrillard, when it comes to postmodern simulation and simulacra, “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real”. We have lost all ability to make sense of the distinction between nature and artifice.

Play By Play: Breakdown of Baudrillard

  • Hyperreality is the inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality; reality and fiction are seamlessly blended together.
  • Simulation is the imitation of the operation of a real-world process over time.
  • Simulacrum/Simulacra are copies that depict real-life artifacts or events;

He believed that there are three orders of simulacra:

  1. The image is a clear counterfeit of the real; the image is recognized as just an illusion, a place marker for the real.
  2. The distinctions between the image and the representation begin to break down because of mass production and the proliferation of copies. Production masks an underlying reality by imitating it, thus threatening to replace it.
    • Pro-athletes are playing video games to help their game.
      • Some pro-athletes are saying that video games improve their physical and mental skills while others say that athletes should be “preparing for the real thing” by “ watching film, working out or working with the trainer”.
  3. The representation precedes and determines the real. There is no longer any distinction between reality and its representation; there is only the simulacrum.
    • Studies are showing that there is a positive correlation between gaming and physical activity – a result unique to sports games.
      • Virtual sports gaming has some of the same psychological effects as its real world counterpart. Victory promotes confidence, while defeat inspires gamers to learn new skills and improve.

The Blur Between Physical Sports and E-Sports

EA SPORTS leads in the number of video game series that feature the names and characteristics of real teams and players, and are updated annually to reflect real-world changes. Like live-action sports, sports video games involve physical and tactical challenges, and test a player’s precision and accuracy. Most sports games attempt to model the athletic characteristics required by that sport, including: speed, strength, acceleration, accuracy, agility, etc. As with their respective sports, these games take place in a stadium or arena with clear boundaries and include play-by-play and color commentary through the use of recorded audio.

For example, in FIFA 17’s new advertisement, Make Your Mark, the gamer is a nameless player taking on the spotlight, entering the stadium as part of a Manchester United team ready to take on Real Madrid. Highlights of the young player’s career flash through his mind, and the camera switches between clips of the real-life player and the virtual simulation of the player in the video game. The interweaving of clips between the real player and virtual player are meant to emphasize the extremely life-like features of the game in a fictional world. The realistic sounds, vivid colors, attention to detail, and emotionally stimulating  aura of the game effortlessly blur reality and virtual simulation together.

Virtual Reality’s Rising Popularity 

According to data analytics firm, Newzoo, so-called e-sports is schedules to generate more than $400 million in worldwide revenues in 2016, a 43% increase from last year. By 2019, that figure is expected to exceed $1 billion, Newzoo says. The firm estimates that 93 million Americans are active in sports, but more than twice as many—194 million—regularly play video games, that’s 61% of the population.

It’s easy to see why some are calling e-sports the next big thing in tech – possibly surpassing the next version of the iPhone, driverless cars, and virtual reality. Video games have been successful in the U.S. since novelties like ‘Pac Man,’ ‘Space Invaders’ and ‘Asteroids’ became an ingrained part of popular culture. Now, video games are becoming more realistic, intricate, and immersive each day. Some doubt e-sports ability to overshadow the physical sports world, claiming that video games do not require the skill of traditional sports. However, these skeptics are missing the point – that’s the beauty of e-sports, because unlike the NBA, NFL, or MLS, there are very few physical barriers to entry. Professional athletes are a combination of the “ideal” size, strength, hard work, and raw talent; gamers, on the other hand, focuses less on physical dominance and more on mental prowess, strategic planning, and repetition.Considering Baudrillard’s three orders of simulacra, sports video games mimic the characteristics of multiple sports through the use of various sensory activations, mass production, and their continual renewal and expansion in the technology industry.



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