A hypothetical: You enjoy baseball. You enjoy watching baseball. However, you are not a Yankees fan. Imagine that the Yankees make a run to the World Series, thereby vexing you. Your Yankees-free baseball viewing opportunities whittle down as the season progresses. You can change channels and watch something else. If you're mean-spirited, you can watch and pray the Yankees lose. That's not much fun, though.
But the Internet has a solution to the problem of being alone and miserable: Twitter, if you're one of the ~400 million who use it, allows you to at least provide your misery with company. Fellow anti-fans will also watch, tweet along, and occasionally hit one-liner pay dirt. As compared to a gamecast or liveblog, the decentralized nature of Twitter is its strength: anybody can tweet the funniest wisecrack, and it probably will be retweeted all the way to your timeline. Twitter, for those who use it, has turned the sporting stage into a giant episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.What does that say about sport and our regard for it? We can look at MST3K, as a generation of gentle-snark-loving indoor kids call it, for further illumination.
Most people didn’t watch Mystery Science Theater 3000; it was pretty easy to miss. The show started out in 1989 on the then-obscure cable upstart Comedy Central. Despite winning a fiercely devoted cult following, MST3K eventually moved to the Sci-Fi Channel where it died a noble death in 1999. The show's premise was simple: Two evil scientists sent a janitor into space and forced him to watch bad science fiction B movies until he went insane. The scientists would then use the film that broke him as a universe-destroying weapon. This is also, hilariously, sort of the plot of Infinite Jest, except without evil scientists.
But MST3K isn’t a high-brow novel critiquing the idea of entertainment. Rather, the loose plot provided a narrative excuse for the real point: making fun of crappy old movies. The janitor, Joel, along with the robot friends he constructed to avoid loneliness, made running wisecracks at the expense of the B-minus movies. We, the audience, chuckled along.
On the screen, we saw aspiring actors dodge cardboard-cutout aliens and ham up already-hammy lines underneath poor lighting. The amusing criticisms of Joel and his robot buddies made something out of nothing—the unbelievably crappy movies were the delivery system for riffing. Viewers were another buddy, basically sitting beside Joel and the robots. Their remarks focused on production flaws, recycled plots, and underwhelming performances. The cinema, even the low-grade fodder used by MST3K, offers ammunition for criticisms. And so does sport.
Of course, most sports programs already feature commentators. Shouldn't they be our Virgils? Washed-up professional athletes in transfixingly ugly menswear flood our screens and tell us what we are seeing as we are seeing it, in a language we can understand. For uncurious viewers, such talking heads are just about right. For folks who have seen, say, more than five games of whatever sport we’re watching, pedestrian commentators grate on the nerves. After a few years, we fantasize their demise by horrific means—there are entire blogs about this. On rare occasions, they disregard the network approved talking points and say something original. For example, Ray Hudson of GolTV shouts creative similes regularly; Cubs broadcaster Len Kasper has been using advanced stats in his on-air analysis. However, sports hosts who serve commentary up smart, or tell the truth raw (or even rare) are increasingly endangered, simply because they eventually say something controversial, or their version of the truth is just kind of stupid and offensive.
Luckily, Twitter allows us to mock the recycled plots of sports and circumvent talking meatheads. Hallelujah! But what happens when criticism becomes more entertaining than the subject at hand? Can criticism supplant the substance of sports itself? Generations raised on dial-up internet connections scoff at young folk checking smartphones during games. They don't understand just how long 200 milliseconds feels (an eternity) when waiting for your favorite Twitterer to make a joke about a missed goal. They dare to ask, in a judgmental tone: Has technology shortened our attention span? We timidly rebut: No, it has only activated fertile parts of the brain untouched since the dawn of humankind. Everybody knows that the first fish to breathe air after landing on a beach would've checked in on Foursquare if given the chance. We owe it to past generations to seek instant gratification buttons for each nanosecond that they could not. We heroically carry forward the flame of humanity, aglow from our torch app on our iPhone.
Not so subtly, we've reshaped the external universe to match our appetites for stimulation. For example, going into the last day of the English Premiership, Manchester United and Manchester City were tied on points. In the event of both teams posting the same result, City held the edge in goal differential (and head to head). United ground out a typical 1–0 win away to Sunderland. The camera crew at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light frequently cut to visiting Red Devils fans checking their phones. Even fans at one game had to know the result of another simultaneous game. The out-of-town scoreboard is as old as telegraphy, but now we carry it with us at all times, and need it to be updated in real time. One United fan smiled as she saw lowly QPR take a shocking 2–1 lead over City. However, that smile was soon erased when City staged a brilliant comeback in injury time to win the game and the league. The instant gratification button turned into a torture device.
Last week’s thrilling EPL last day was a special example of how plugged-in, overclocked modern fandom can be spectacular. The theatrical ups-and-down of seeing United players and fans go from the threshold of celebrating a title to knowing they’d lost one in the space of a minute were only possible because of TV, and were heightened by the instantaneous torrent of criticism, jokes, and pithy observations than rolled out of the Internet. That tidal wave of online chatter can paper over slow patches in less-than-riveting games. As a fan of soccer, even I can admit to large gaps in excitement during a 90-minute game. Yet a series of great one-liners about errant passes and late tackles can turn a snoozefest into a riotous roast.
Yes, sports as stand-alone entertainment often bore us. Our increased savvy and need for instant gratification have raised our expectations. Thanks to Twitter, we stand not at a crossroads but at an on-ramp. We no longer have to turn off the tube in disgust at bad announcing or boring play. Running commentary from everyone in the world supplants pundit drivel; Twitter is an essential supplement to any sports viewing experience. Soccer matches might only offer one goal every 5,400 seconds, but that's 5,399 seconds of 140-character wittiness. Just as Joel needed robot buddies and dry wit to survive an eternity of sci-fi B-movies, the satire commons offer a path to salvation for the overclocked, ADD fan. If a game is going slowly, remember the (paraphrased) words of Britt Daniel of Spoon: "Things everbody should know/the end will come slow/and [tweeting] is art."