“There’s only fifteen seconds left on the clock, what are Team Singapore going to do? C-L’s just leapt into the air, she’s flung the ball downrange… but it’s heading off-course! Wait, wait, a flyer’s intercepting, it’s bounced off… and it’s a goal! Incredible! Team Singapore have just scored the goal of their lives, and they’ve just won the Crossball World Championships!”
I’ve got the ball in front of me – it’s about the diameter of an oustretched palm, so a bit in between the size of a baseball and a football. I remember watching Chia-Ling’s winning run as a child – in fact, one of my very lucky friends was actually in the arena itself, with 50,000 other fans – and it was truly sensational. I think I almost had to take my glasses off, what with the thousands of messages scrolling past every second; of course, that was before I figured out how to set up filters…
Sports with teams competing to score the most points – whether by kicking a ball into a net or by getting around a track in the fastest time – are practically as old as recorded history itself, from the Mayan handball game Tlatchtli from 3000 years ago to Lacrosse, Football, and Basketball. Each sport has incorporated new values and rules shaped by the cultural and economic structures of their times; even now, we can still see vestiges of the advertiser-funded nature of basketball, hockey, and American football with their ‘TV timeouts’.
All of these were invented over a century ago, though, and the early 21st century was a time ripe for new sports. Many competed for the top spot, from the hardware-driven Formula 1 to strategy games like Dota 4 or augmented-reality games such as Battlefield Live. While none were likely to gain the dominance that earlier sports had, as a result of of diversifying tastes and broader access to entertainment, new sports could still hope to attract hundreds of millions of fans.
Crossball wasn’t created out of a desire for money or fame, though. Its original purpose, as described on its first wiki, was to help “demonstrate new robotic co-ordination technologies through means of an international and open competition”. The first Crossball tournament, held in a small school gym near NYU, saw teams from six different universities fielding bots that tried to score goals by throwing a ball through one of three hoops at either end of the floor.
The robots were highly varied in design – some were aerostats, others were quadcopters or jumpers – but what they had in common was their method of control. Since Crossball was about co-ordination, the rules placed a strict limit on the bandwidth that the human ‘team-runners’ could use to communicate with their bots; it was enough to send the occasional order, but not anywhere near enough for partial or full remote control, hence teams had to programme enough intelligence into their bots so they could compete semi-autonomously.
The game continued on for two years with this basic rule set until a tournament held in Berlin. After a decidedly one-sided match in which IIT demolished Team Reddit, a member from Reddit challenged IIT to a rematch, but with a twist – each team would be allowed to place one human on the court. The result was predictably chaotic, with the bots finding it difficult to co-ordinate with an extra player, but it led other teams to begin thinking about how best bots and humans could complement each other.
This was a prescient development, since bots were finally leaving the confines of kitchens and factory floors and emerging into the outside world, and while cleaning windows and sweeping streets was one thing, the real value lay in bots that could assist humans. Once again, sports seemed like the perfect opportunity to test the technology, and sponsors were attracted by the more telegenic and promotion-worthy combination of a human, backed up by highly brandable bots. Sport historian Brian Montgomery explains the impact of the changes:
“The rules had to be changed, of course – the last thing Foxconn and Toyota wanted audiences to see were humans tripping over bots, so there were hardwired restrictions on human-bot physical contact. But other than that, play remained refreshingly flexible, with humans frequently flinging bots around the court or manually reconfiguring them.”
Human players were allowed wearables and a slightly higher bandwidth connection to the bots, and as the friction of the interface between the players was reduced and refined, it seemed to many that teams with good software almost seemed to know precisely where to be and how to move. Such cohesion wasn’t an unusual thing in highly-trained human teams, but even the most staunch human-defender couldn’t help be amazed to see a player sprinting down a court surrounded by a cloud of ten flying and rolling bots passing the ball between each other every second.
Marquee matches regularly attracted millions of live viewers, demonstrating the continuing importance of mass spectacles – and the appeal was helped by the presence of human sportspeople in the court.
Chia-Ling from Team Singapore, scorer of the winning goal mentioned earlier, said this about her experience:
“It all clicked in a regional match in Hong Kong. I’d only been playing at division level for a couple of years, and I hadn’t had much time to train with the Autodesk pro-level bots. Back then we still used subvoc and gestures, and whenever I dropped behind in points, I remember getting frustrated and fumbling around. But in Hong Kong, it all fit together – I stopped having to consciously translate my intentions into controls and just, well, surrendered to the flow of the team.”
“My grandma told me stories about how she learned to speak English and one day everything worked. That match, I finally knew what she was talking about.”
Learning how to co-ordinate with bots wasn’t something you could pick up easily those days. The strategies and tricks used by Crossball players were invaluable in helping teach all kinds of professions, from astronauts to the emergency services and military, how to effectively co-ordinate. Not a bad spin-off for the world’s newest and most popular sport!