As a gamer and strategy junkie, I have a high-octane love for the sport of American Football.
That probably surprises some people that are used to hearing me talk about Dungeons and Dragons and the Fallout franchise. But the truth is, football is a real-time strategy board game using the most dynamic pawns imaginable: humans.
There’s a stereotype that football is only for meatheads, jocks, and Average Joe’s, and no self-respecting Geek would associate with such a brutish display of <gasp> physical competition.
But listen, haters: Football is cerebral first and physical second. The field is a chess board. Player positions mirror class systems in an RPG. And if you’ve ever planted a bomb in your enemy’s base in an MMO, you’ve scored a Touchdown.
You might not see it if you only read the headlines about off-field behavior, or catch highlight reels on accident when the news comes on after The Orville. But there is a depth to this game that only true brilliance can comprehend (Go). There is beauty in its play-calling, personnel groupings, and situational theory (Final Fantasy). It’s a game of math and statistics (D&D), and physics and wit (Portal). It’s outsmarting your opponents (Chess), supplanting their expectations (Werewolf), and matching up skill sets in order to eliminate threats (Magic: The Gathering).
But it’s human. There is heart, and RNG, and chaos. It’s the ultimate 4X/Roguelike mash-up.
Okay. Now that we have that bit of business out of the way, let’s get to the topic at hand.
Let’s talk about the NFL’s greatest failure as an organization: The Pro Bowl.
There are very few things that the Pro Bowl does well, so we’ll start there. The highlight (sadly) is Scheduling. Fitting the game in on the otherwise vacant weekend between the Conference Championship and the Super Bowl is the right move. Before 2009 the Probowl was played AFTER the Super Bowl, which encouraged its irrelevance. The Super Bowl is a natural bookend to the season, and fans can mentally and emotionally decompress when it’s over. Playing one more “just for fun” game afterwards doesn’t make sense, and besides, there’s an empty week just sitting there between the conference finals and the Big Game. Kudos on their recent scheduling placement, it should remain.
Likewise, moving the game out of Hawaii has been the right move. Football should be played in its relevant market, and although the fine denizens of Hawaii probably enjoyed getting a taste, it felt too removed from the action for most NFL fans. (Take note International Series schedulers!)
This leads directly into our first area that needs to change:
1. Location. Orlando is not a traditional NFL market. Let an NFL stadium have the honor of hosting the game. Let it be played in a city that has an established and excited fanbase. Make it Super Bowl Junior.
2. Skill Challenges. The Skills Showdown is the most exciting and interesting part of the event. So it’s completely baffling that they show it on Thursday evening when nobody is around to watch it. This is fun, relaxing, entertaining tv; It’s Saturday afternoon programming. Move the skills section to a reasonable time slot on the weekend and watch the ratings climb.
3. MORE Skills Challenges. While we’re on the topic, let’s just say it: The actual Pro Bowl game is boring. So let’s spruce it up by adding more of the fun and excitement! Add more interesting events, trick catch competitions, showcases and rivalries. Hell, throw some Combine events in there, let us see what these All-Stars can really do. This should be the focus of the event; a fan-friendly entertaining circus of hijinks and next-level competition. Think Slam Dunk Contest with footballs.
4. Rules. We all know why the rules are the way they are in the Pro Bowl. Nobody wants to see their favorite player get injured in a meaningless game. But remember that this is an exhibition match, it only exists to entertain fans. So if the players aren’t going to be going full speed, let’s give them something fun to do. Add 4-point Field Goal zones near the sidelines. Allow Holding and Pass Interference. Let each team forward lateral once per down. And as far as making the players themselves more in to it, I propose…
5. The Swap. The highlight of this year’s game was seeing offensive players on defence and defensive players getting carries. Instead of just peppering this in for a couple of plays, let’s bake it right into the game: In the second half, offense and defense switch. It would turn the game on its head, fill the arena with cheers and laughs, and give fans something special to look forward to. And plus, what defensive back hasn’t dreamed of being placed out wide on offense and burning the competition for a receiving touchdown?! Maybe the Tight End has a sack-dance all queued up for a wild occasion. This is the type of thing that can create memories.
6. The Fans. It’s no secret that most great hobbies (and cultures!) are ruined by the very people that Stan them. There is no greater enemy to the NFL than the fans themselves. By giving them a third of the votes you can be guaranteed to see the likes of Jason Garrett on the sidelines even if his team goes 4-12. Why? Because the fans, especially in big markets, just vote in their guys instead of the actual best and most deserving players in the league. It devolves into a popularity contest, or a war of populations. Neither of these things are conducive to accurately producing a best-of-the-season lineup in the so-called All-Star game. Give them, say, a fifth of the vote. Or let a qualified committee whittle it down to two choices at each position and let the fans be the tie-breaker. This isn’t Prom, it’s a reward for outstanding play.
Do I think any of these changes will someday be implemented? Probably not. But there is nothing outlandish or unreasonable here (except maybe that forward lateral thing.) But one thing is certain: Something’s gotta change, or this game will end up being just a footnote in NFL history for the next generation.
*Matty usually writes about board games, video games, and scifi/fantasy media. He only devolves into a football troglodyte for 5 months out of the year.