Ever wonder what an NBA game would look like, Spiderman style?

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The NBA kicked off its All-Star weekend with a celebrity game where influencers, NFL players, and WNBA stars got to attempt the sport’s first-ever eight-point shot. But the real “innovation” for basketball came hours before Stephen A. and Shannon Sharpe’s teams took the LED court.

Hey Shannon Sharpe, the Memphis Grizzlies are the NBA’s Kings of the Ring

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Victor Wembanyama hosted the 24th annual NBA All-Star Technology Summit. The invite-only event drew headlines for the organization’s launch of NB-AI. What is it? Well, according to Wembanyama, you can watch Hoosiers!

Being able to queue up the Gene Hackman classic is revolutionary, sure, but the “Movie Mode” feature is what grabbed the real attention. Silver asked NB-AI to pull up the Pacers game done in the style of the Spiderman: Spiderverse animated films. The camera shows us a split-screen of the hypothetical game alongside the NB-AI real-time animatic before focusing solely on the animation-style, onomatopoeia-laden highlight reel.

Objectively, the look is pretty cool. The pop-art style looks alright, and the little comic-book accents are a nice touch. The 3D models of players look cut out of the PS2, but it gets the job done. The occasional stylized panels or touches of dynamic art look nice. If the goal is to produce accurate one-for-one translations of games into crazy sizzle reels like this in real-time, that would be legitimately impressive technology.

Beyond the pretty colors, though, the Tech Summit teaser left way more questions than answers. The biggest – and arguably most important – question: Who is this for?

Is this like the Nickelodeon Super Bowl simulcast, or the Toy Story reproduction from ESPN? At least you can technically follow the game action in those formats. Imagine a full game in this style. The 23-second reel got a little tiresome by the time Tyrese Haliburton started walking into that portal(?). A full three-hour-plus game sounds exhausting.

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Where does broadcast commentary come in? What happens during time-outs, foul shots, or commercial breaks? How does it handle injuries, or loose balls, or just those few dumb minutes where neither team can score? This only showed an electric highlight sequence, or at least that’s how it felt from the animation. We didn’t get to see the source material that NB-AI translated. Is every moment of this action-packed? Sports aren’t high-octane the whole way through. Even NB-AI’s Spiderman source material has a ton of downtime between action scenes.

How deep does “movie mode” go, anyway? Is there any ethical implication or copyright liability from jacking an animation-style whole cloth? Or are they basically just big filters for pre-rendered NBA players? Is it limited to just animation? Are there constraints from licensing? Screw Disney properties, what about Wallace & Gromit claymation?

Can I expand this to actual directors? Will “Michael Bay Mode” give me explosions at every point of contact? How will a broadcast handle a “Quentin Tarantino Mode” or, god forbid, “Ari Aster Mode?” What kind of shot composition am I getting in “Akira Kurasawa Mode?” Will “Christopher Nolan Mode” reinvent concepts of gravity and trajectory in ways I could only ever conceive of in some liminal space between dreaming and reality?

I ask all these questions to make this point: Every stylistic question I just asked has a shelf life of five, maybe 10 minutes tops. Going through every permutation probably kills two or three hours. Then what?

This is a fun parlor trick, not a new way to experience the NBA game. The end goal of NB-AI is already achieved through the promotional tweet that introduced it. We’ll see everyone’s favorite iteration of NB-AI – earnest or ironic – get posted online. Anime LeBron (Wait, Bleacher Report already makes that). Rick & Morty Steph Curry. Victor Wembanyama from Gumby & Pokey. Steven Adams as Shrek. The Detroit Pistons recreated as Ahh! Real Monsters. That probably lasts a month before the novelty wears off and the likes dry up.

It’s unfortunate that the NBA coincidentally debuted this on the same day Open AI launched its video generation program, Sora. The impact of generative AI imagery is likely a little overstated, but at least that product is a legitimate utility. Sure, the perspective is still wonky in videos, or people end up with an extra hand. But the technology has a use case. People can mock up stock footage to their exact specifications or bring written ideas into some visual space.

NB-AI, as it’s currently shown off, is a gimmick. It’s a content farm the NBA gets to serve out to the masses. Either that, or it exists for a more nefarious data collecting/experimentation purpose. It’s the same way Apple probably used those dumb Animoji FaceTime filters as face-tracking data for the Vision Pro years before we knew it was a thing. There’s just something missing from this equation to make this a worthwhile, long-term investment for the NBA.

The NFL’s middle class

In an article breaking down the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ current cap situation, CBS Sports’ Jonathan Jones reported that league sources estimate the Buccaneers’ negotiations with Baker Mayfield could start just above the three-year, $75 million mark. That was the benchmark Seattle established with 2022 Comeback Player of the Year Geno Smith.

If the rumor ends up becoming reality, the Smith contract would help establish a much-needed precedent across the NFL. The league currently needs a middle-class tier for quarterbacks. NFL teams established a model of building teams around affordable rookie quarterback contracts. The 49ers can pay Brock Purdy just over a million per year and still afford to pay Christian McCaffery, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, and Trent Williams at top-of-the-market rates.

If teams don’t have the luxury of a competent quarterback on a rookie deal, they have to pay out the nose to retain veteran talent. The New York Giants wish they had a middle-of-the-road deal for Daniel Jones. Instead, they had to shell out a $40 million APY deal that makes it difficult for New York to build a competitive team.

Quarterbacks should get what they are owed, obviously. Don’t let good team building get in the way of a bag. There just needs to be a feasible path for teams to compete with non-elite quarterback talent. The Buccaneers and Seahawks both made the playoffs when Mayfield and Smith were respectively on cheap deals. Both teams are at different points of flux now. Seattle needed to rebuild their defense heading into 2023 and now they have a new coaching staff to handle that transition. The Buccaneers might lose Mike Evans and Antoine Winfield Jr. to free agency and have already lost offensive coordinator and quarterback guru Dave Canales to a head coaching opportunity. There should just be a way to still build competitive teams while equitably maintaining quarterback stability.

These are the kinds of deals Daniel Jones and Derek Carr should have signed to give their teams the best chance at building a competitive roster. This is the money Kirk Cousins could get coming off of an Achilles injury while still giving his team a fighting chance, or what Tua Tagovailoa could get to give Miami stability while they find their guy. This is just north of the ballpark of the kind of money Jacoby Brissett should be getting to actually lead a team with some stability (he was 6th in passing DVOA and 11th in EPA/Play the last time he consistently started in Cleveland).

None of this matters because Patrick Mahomes makes half a billion dollars and is going to win all the Super Bowls anyway, but the rest of the league needs to feign a way to stay competitive. Football players are on 53-man rosters. 52 other men shouldn’t have to punt on years of their professional careers because one starting quarterback is not up to par. Creating an economic pathway for mid-tier quarterbacks to get paid reasonable money allows teams to still build a competitive, well-balanced roster that can make a run if the chips fall right. NFL seasons are too short and too violent to not try and be competitive.

Sports should be dumber

Yes, the whole first segment of this article is all about how kitschy gimmicks take away from a serious professional sport like basketball. But come on. Adam Silver has already talked about adding more colored courts, and he probably views the All-Star game as a fun way to show off the potential. The four-point line, and the Crunch Time button — they’re all safe options when Micah Parsons and Kai Cenat are running the pick-and-roll.

What if we really leaned into it? Let’s give the coaches something else to manage. Imagine giving Doc Rivers timeouts and a big, red, Ruffles-sponsored button to slam that automatically doubles points for an arbitrary amount of time? Coaches draw up ATOs and clap a whole bunch on the sideline. Really test your mettle by weighing the pros and cons of entering Crunch Time to make up a deficit against Playoff Jimmy Butler.

Sports video games got too realistic. Gone are the days of NFL Blitz, The Bigs, and Bill Lambeer’s Combat Basketball. The only way to force the EA monopoly’s hand is to make the real product as goofy as possible.

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