"There's only 15 seconds left on the clock, Singapore are five down, surely there’s nothing left. What will they do? What can they do? And... oh my god, C-L's just leapt into the air, she's flung the ball downrange... but it's just off, it's not going to make it! 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 2026 Crossball World Championships!"
One of my very lucky friends was in the arena itself for that game — no, I’m not jealous — and he told me that it was absolute pandemonium after the game ended. Even watching at home on VR, I almost had to take my glasses off, what with the thousands of frenzied glyphs scrolling past every second.
I've persuaded Team Singapore to lend me that championship-winning crossball. It's about the diameter of an outstretched palm, slightly bigger than a baseball, but not quite as dense. Easy enough to throw, whether by a human — or a robot.
Teams competing to score the most points in a sport, 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 tlatchtli, the 3,000-year-old Mayan handball game, to the more modern football and badminton. Each sport has incorporated new values and rules shaped by the cultural and economic structures of their times; basketball and American football matches today still betray the influence of advertisers through their frequent 'TV timeouts' even though the medium has long ceased to matter.
The early 21st century was a time ripe for new sports. Many vied for the top spot, from the hardware-driven Formula 1 to strategy games such as Dota 4 and augmented-reality games such as Battlefield Live. While few if any were likely to gain the dominance that earlier sports had due to 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 the very first version of its wiki homepage, was to "demonstrate new robotic co-ordination technologies through means of an open international competition". The first crossball tournament was held on Roosevelt Island in New York in 2015, with six universities fielding teams; Crossball 0.1 was a rather crude affair, with teams fielding bots that competed to score goals by throwing a ball through one of three hoops at either end of the pitch.
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 strictly limited the bandwidth of the data connection that human 'captains' used to communicate with their bots. It was enough to send the occasional order, but not quite sufficient for full remote control, so teams had to program enough intelligence into their bots that they could compete semi-autonomously.
The game used this basic rule set until a pivotal 2017 tournament held in Berlin. After a decidedly one-sided match in which IIT demolished Team Reddit, the losers challenged IIT to a rematch with a twist — each team would be allowed to place one human on the court. The result was predictably chaotic, with both bots and humans completely unprepared for the task. However, it did attract the largest-ever audience for a crossball game and led other teams to begin thinking about how bots and humans could complement one another.
This was a timely development, as bots were finally leaving the confines of kitchens and factory floors and emerging into the outside world. While window-cleaner and street-sweeper bots were one thing, the real value lay in bots that could assist humans in difficult, complex tasks. Sports such as crossball were the perfect opportunity for manufacturers to test and advertise new technologies, especially now that humans were in the picture. Sport historian Brian Montgomery explains the impact of the new game:
"First off, the rules had to be changed. The last thing Foxconn and Toyota and Roproduction wanted was for audiences to see humans tripping over bots — it would have looked ridiculous, not to mention dangerous — so there were rules made that restricted human-bot physical contact.. But other than that, play remained refreshingly flexible, with humans flinging bots around the court in set plays, or communicating with them by speaking out loud or with sign language. Bots on their own were boring; humans on their own were old-fashioned. But bots and humans together? That was something new."
Recordings of early Crossball 0.5 games show impressive amplified-team levels of co-ordination, with players seeming to know precisely where to be and how to move. Such cohesion wasn't an unusual thing in highly trained human teams, and audiences couldn't help but be amazed to see players sprinting down the court surrounded by ten flying and rolling bots, passing the ball between each other every second. By 2022, marquee matches regularly attracted millions of live viewers.
Chia-Ling from Team Singapore, scorer of the winning goal I mentioned earlier, said this about her experience:
"It all clicked in an SEA regional match. I'd only started playing at the top division that year 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 we dropped behind in points, I remember getting frustrated and fumbling around, which just made things worse.
"But in Hong Kong, I deliberately stopped thinking about translating my intentions into controls. Just like that, I had this beautiful feeling of 'connection' where I 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 in those days. The strategies and tricks used by crossball players to 'connect' were invaluable in helping teach everyone from astronauts to paramedics how to effectively co-ordinate. Crossball pros including Chia-Ling also became pioneers among the amplified team community. Not a bad spin-off for the world's newest and most popular sport!