Culture, Culture / Digital Culture, Go Long Now

18,000 Years From Now, People Will Still Play Football

Professional sports are looking pretty bizarre right now. Baseball players perform before stadiums of unblinking cardboard cutouts; sound engineers manipulate fake crowd noise to make everything seem just a bit more normal for at-home NFL viewers. But none of this can match the radical vision of Jon Bois. In his new work of online fiction, 20020, the sportswriter imagines a far-future game of football much stranger than anything you’ve seen on TV.

20020 premiered on September 28 on SB Nation, the sports site where Bois is an editor, and it’s been updated three times a week since; the final chapter comes out today. The story takes place in the titular year—meaning exactly 18,000 years from now—but its characters and settings feel familiar. That’s because, in the universe of 20020, everyone mysteriously stopped aging (and therefore dying) in the year 2026. From this premise, the story explores what today’s humans might do with infinite time and no scarcity: what our environment would look like, how we would relate to one another, and where we would find our purpose. And it does so by thinking about the kinds of football games we would play.

Not many sportswriters would think to publish science fiction—or have the ability to make such works successful. Bois is bashful in explaining why he thought to embark on this project in the first place. “Frankly, as a conventional sportswriter, I am not all that good,” he says. But what comes through in 20020 is less any shortcoming of Bois’ than his capacious creativity and prodigious Google Earth skills. He tells his tales through a combination of written dialog, still images, and embedded videos. The stories are not interactive, like some past works of electronic literature, but they nevertheless make thorough use of their online medium.

Bois spearheaded his storytelling approach in 17776, 20020’s predecessor, which came out in 2017. With 15,000 years to workshop football, Bois guessed, humans would develop a plethora of different sorts of games, all far more extreme than the ones played on 100-yard fields. And he didn’t just describe these strange football games, or write rulebooks (although he did that, too)—he used Google Earth to build visual representations of his imaginary football fields. To represent one particularly large field running from Canada to Mexico, he placed a long, thin, green rectangle over Google Earth’s topography. In a dramatic GIF, the camera pans from a bird’s-eye view of the US down to the Utah mountains, where a green stripe is visible running over the landscape and off into the distance. At the other size extreme, Bois imagined what would happen if people could own pieces of a football field. He constructed buildings with Google Earth’s polygon tool and crammed them into Denver’s Mile High Stadium—the field’s residents even have a Bojangles right outside their doors.

The GIFs and videos of these fields are essential multimedia elements in his storytelling—they bring these absurd games, literally and figuratively, down to earth. And they are often more than just interesting or creative: For 20020, Bois used Google Earth’s simulation of the planet’s rotation to record a genuinely beautiful sunrise from the vantage of UConn’s Husky Stadium.

While Google Earth was an important element of 17776’s storytelling, it is 20020’s backbone. Unlike 17776, which followed a number of different ballgames (some of which weren’t football at all, even by ’76’s generous definition), 20020 zooms in on a single, enormous, millennia-long game, played among 111 college football teams on a field that looks like a game of pick-up sticks. Bois built this field by extending each of the school’s real-life football fields out from both end zones, until he hit an ocean or an international border. All in all, the field covers over 130,000 miles, and much of the game involves lengthy, cross-country hikes (motor vehicles are banned from play). With infinite time, walking for months to get to a line of scrimmage is no big deal.

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