Multiscreen Experiences are an American Sunday Tradition

Interactive games are making football the most-watched sport

While ratings for every network get lower and lower, Sunday football ratings continue to be the anomaly, gaining viewership and fans faster than Bieber. People are throwing around lot of reasons why: the game is better, it’s become America’s past time ( I wholeheartedly disagree), ESPN and other 24-hour sports networks make the stakes higher. But none of these address the fact that ratings are continuously falling for the 162-game baseball season (where fewer steroids and more Moneyball led this year to arguably the best game of baseball ever played) and the 82-game NBA season (despite the players being rockstars and reality-show fodder). Meanwhile, MLS (34 games in one season) and NASCAR (36 races in the Sprint cup) attendance and TV ratings have also never been higher.

Without any consideration for the quality of game play in any of these sports, one thing is clear: sports with shorter seasons with fewer games are doing better on television. That’s because if there’s one thing we know still works on TV, it’s huge events that take over public consciousness and drive tune-in, from the season finale of LOST to this year’s premiere of Two And A Half Men, to that age-old ratings juggernaut: the Super Bowl (in fact, those events are doing better than ever thanks to the echo chamber of social media). The NFL season is perfectly scheduled to take advantage of that event status, while also adding a dash of routine. Every Fall Sunday is football day, no doubt, and we only get 16 of those so we better take advantage while we can. The major networks play up the drama, reminding us that every single game has playoff implications, and if we miss one moment we could be lost in a sea of meaningless plays. Monday at work, if you’ve missed the highlights from yesterday, good luck with the small talk.

What makes NFL stand out from the pack of short-season sports and get even larger ratings than the others is the millions of people around the country who are currently playing a game while they’re doing it. Fantasy football, now easier to play than ever thanks to numerous websites that do all the math and the drafting and trading for you, gives audiences an excuse to be invested in every moment of every game, because every extra yard a player runs or throws and every extra tackle could be the difference between winning and losing your office/family/friend/enemy pool. We’ve game-ified the experience of watching football, creating a structure around the flow of information about NFL that lasts throughout the week and culminates with games on Sunday. And the preferred way to get that information in real-time? Watch it happen on TV.

The interactive experience gives audiences a personal investment in what’s happening in the NFL every week; it’s not just Ravens vs. Jets, it’s me vs. my boss. That means audiences have an even more intense personal relationship with what’s happening on screen, adding to the event status that the NFL has already carefully cultivated. For all the talk of how interactive experiences are eroding TV viewership, fantasy football is the shining example of how interactivity can be additive to the TV experience, both in terms of audience size and emotional impact. One tackle could mean the difference between winning or losing for the at-home player; that’s a big deal.

No longer can the NFL fan be satisfied watching one game at a time, or even a Red Zone channel that cuts between key moments. When a fantasy football player has different players from different teams playing in different games simultaneously, the only thing that will work is a multi-screen setup so as not to miss a single second of any game. At the hub of all of this is the tablet or laptop, perched within arms reach and constantly refreshing the player’s game for the week in real time. It’s like we’re all playing a day-long game of Call of Duty, with our fantasy football provider of choice as the controller. There’s even a cult of masculinity around the creation of the perfect watching experience; I’ve already planned my man-cave for that inevitable time when there is a lady living with me.

The next question of course is how we can use this model and bring it to narrative TV programs. Imagine a hypothetical project where users become invested enough in an extra-filmic game that they had to watch every episode the moment it aired, and where small pieces of narrative information were carefully released by the show’s writers so as to affect the game in perfectly calculated ways. That’s true power, and true entertainment.

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