The way the game is consumed as content over the next decade is going to be fundamental in determining what ultimate looks like in 2030.
August 25, 2020 by Patrick Stegemoeller in Opinion with 0 comments
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More people watched ultimate being played in this past decade than in the 4.5ish billion years of earth’s existence that preceded it. In all likelihood, more ultimate was watched in 2019 alone than in the cumulative history of the sport before 2010.
Is it because the sport has become more popular? A little, but not really. Engagement with the sport has grown over the decade, but not stratospherically. But you know what has become more popular this past decade? Watching your 37th straight Youtube video instead of sleeping. Checking out a livestream instead of thinking about the climate crisis and the collapse of society. And now, you can do that stuff while watching ultimate.
As ultimate’s video age rocketed off along with YouTube, Twitter, and the rest of internet late capitalism, we saw more of the sport than we dreamt was possible. But as we leave the 2010s and enter a new decade, it is important to ask what this change has meant to how we process and participate in the sport. What being a fan of ultimate means now is very different from what it meant ten years ago, and understanding that difference will be important to envisioning and shaping what it will mean ten years from now.
The More We See, The Less We Know?
One of the weirdest things about being alive in an era of accelerated technology and consumption is how quickly seismic changes get folded into our sense of mundanity. We access new miracles on a regular basis and two seconds later they seem like things that were always there, that we’ve always had. Of course we should be able to livestream multiple games from Nationals simultaneously, just like we should have unlimited access to all of the music that has ever been created at a moment’s whim. We wield the previously unthinkable, industry-altering power of a god, but a few playlists later it fails to register as remarkable.
This phenomenon masks the impact of change because it makes the new normal seem, well, “normal.” Your weird 4th-grade art teacher, the assistant manager at your bank, your schmuck uncle-in-law Frank: they can all stream music. And if it’s something Frank has a handle on, it can’t be that big of a deal. But as we quickly subsume these radical changes into normalcy, it becomes difficult to contextualize how things like news, economics, and culture are distorted by a rapidly applied lens. When it comes to ultimate, it becomes harder to understand how the newly voracious way we consume the sport changes what we know about the game, the players who play it, and how it exists in the world.
Before the content era of ultimate, your opinion of a player or team was informed by the one time a year you saw them play and what some older, wiser players would tell you. Without reporting from Skyd or Ultiworld, chatter on Twitter, or viral highlights and Callahan videos flying around your various feeds, your ability to have a perspective was restricted to what you could see in person and what you heard from the most experienced elite player at fall league.
To be clear, that is not a good system for evaluating something! But sometimes by seeing more, we know less, and “knowing” something at all becomes a tricky proposition when there is too much information available at our fingertips for us to all effectively parse. As we have seen with society at large, the availability of more content and information hasn’t necessarily increased overall clarity.
How do we “know” if Russell Westbrook is good or bad at basketball? Is he good? Look at this GIF of him dunking over two guys. He is good. Is he bad? Look at him bricking a 19-footer while double covered. That’s garbage. The same phenomenon happens in ultimate too. Look at these two plays from Johnny Bansfield and tell me if he is good or bad at defense.
Essentially, with the overwhelming amount of content and primary channels of discourse we have available, every take can be both true and not true at the same time. Or, to put it another way, everything we digest on Twitter is often both true in one very specific moment and also eternally susceptible to being false. A star burning deep in space that may have died out millions of years ago can still be celestially brillant from our point of view.
Of course, simple good/bad binaries for players are reductive and often lazy substitutes for genuine analysis. But, boy, do they make for a clean narrative point of view. And when the methods of communication at the ultimate community’s disposal are reductive tools (Twitter, predominantly), then separating players and teams and opinions into good and bad is a natural result.
While we have more footage than ever available, our ability to form consensus is strained because instead of viewing each new play that flashes across our screens as another nudge one way or another on a spectrum, what we see tends to be presented to us in contradictory piles of “good” and “bad.”
Dylan Freechild is one of the most famous players alive, one of the first real stars of the content era, and a perfect example of how we struggle to form a coherent narrative around information overload. He embodies the exact kind of duality that makes him an uncomfortable fit in a culture that polarizes towards binaries. No player has such seeming incongruity built into his identity, has such a wide chasm between the takes about his performance, his personality, and his importance.
He’s a flashy, style-over-substance player… but also the best player on the best team in the country? He’s got a win-at-all-costs reputation… but also holds spirit in such high regard that he thinks observers are basically the same as refs? He’s a choker who can’t win the big game… except when he does? He’s a jerk who will spike on some poor kid from North Carolina… but also a youth ambassador who engenders intense loyalty from his teammates?
He is everything at all times to all people. He is ultimate’s first post-truth superstar. And it is no coincidence that a player like this came about in an era of content overload.
Ultimate as a sport is uniquely disadvantaged at existing in this sort of climate because its founding principles are about nuance, about holding contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. Grit & Grace, spirit and sport, a disc dancing on air, you get the idea. We need to be able to recognize and respect both sides of a coin just to play the sport, but a world of increasing incoherence is not fertile ground to grow the behaviors necessary for the existence of the sport.
Ultimate is not at the same point on the content inundation curve as the institutions we have seen creak and crumble from oversaturation. But we can still see how the discourse that is playing out elsewhere in a content-indulged society is expanding within our little bubble, and how our new norm of bountiful access facilitates that expansion. The past decade’s content free-for-all completely reshaped the way the ultimate community expressed ideas and built consensus in the 2010s, and the shape appears increasingly similar to the world outside of the ultimate bubble.
The Double-Edged Sword of Democratization
There are plenty of obvious benefits that ultimate’s content explosion has had in terms of visibility for the sport. You can be a league player in a small city and have immediate access to the highest levels of play with a couple clicks. That is a substantial change, even when compared to just a few years ago.
As a high schooler growing up outside of Albany, NY, I had this picture of Nord saved as the background on my family’s computer but not much else in the way of knowing what elite ultimate actually looked like. I had vague notions, but no more than what I could extrapolate from a few photos and the bald mythmaking of older players at summer league.
Not only has the sport become more accessible because of the way content is now available, but discourse around the sport is more accessible than ever. Actual coverage of tournaments means the community gets to process how the sport is being played with more to go on than the impressions of three dudes on RSD who claim to have been there. There is space now for people who aren’t among the tiny segment of players who go to Nationals to have an opinion, and several places to voice it. This has made the past decade a really exciting time to follow the sport, as we ride the wave of growth to a place where both access to the sport and an interesting diversity of analysis and commentary on it are increasingly available.
As more people get exposed to ultimate, the platforms through which they learn about the game become more and more important because the nature of these platforms will have an impact on how these new players conceptualize the sport. People who aren’t already ultimate insiders will be engaging with the game in increasingly distinct ways, further and further from the usual pathways of admission that ensure orthodoxy. We will see how people approach the sport without the same preconceptions of what the “best” or “right” ways to play are. Instead, those preconceptions will come from the way they are exposed to the sport and the values that they create for themselves in the absence of orthodoxy around them.
What does it look like when some kids outside of a frisbee hotbed see a clip on ESPN and convince their parents to put a team together, and the parents coach them through the lens of a traditional sports background and 15 minutes of Googling the sport? What does it look like if that team eventually gets really good? What does SOTG mean to people who access the sport this way?
Now, the idea of decentralized development is not a new thing for ultimate. When the sport first began, different hot spots built their own styles of play and interpretations of spirit. There’s a reason the history of Seattle ultimate and North Carolina ultimate look so different. But the exponential growth of content over the past decade and the ability for people to access it from anywhere creates a magnitude of difference and paves the way for dramatic reinterpretations of how the sport should be played. It also explains some of why USAU has fought so hard to maintain connection to all sanctioned competitive youth events, even sometimes at the expense of friction with local disc orgs. That connection ensures at least some exposure to the elements and norms they — and the broader ultimate community — consider essential to the sport.
Somewhat paradoxically, because of the resources that have become available over the past decade, elite players, coaches, and analysts are more informed about the game than they ever have been, but a smaller percentage of people actually playing the sport will feel the need to listen to them. The same force that is making the orthodoxy less relevant is also the one making it a more legitimate source of authority. As people engage with the sport through more and more disparate avenues, we could see further stratification of how “elite” ultimate is played and how the sport is interpreted everywhere else. The connections between Nationals-level players and league players is already becoming tenuous, and everything is pointing towards that trend continuing as elite players get further removed from the median ultimate player who can now turn elsewhere in the sport to find voices they want to hear.
Ultimate is still young enough, still communitarian enough, that we largely exist in the exciting discovery phase of the content era. Democratization of the sport has clear positives, and you don’t need to have been playing at Natties in Sarasota for five years to have an opinion about sideline trap schemes. More people getting exposed to ultimate — whether it’s through semi-pro leagues, Sportscenter highlights, Instagram clips, or MKBHD superfans trying to figure out what the story is with that weird lion jersey he’s wearing — is good for the growth of the sport and for allowing more diversity to work its way in.
But the platforms through which this information is emancipated have consequences. Reddit, Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter gave us the nightmare that is America in 2020 for a reason — they distort discourse and eat truth. While the orthodoxy of opinion of the past was based on flawed exclusionary systems, it’s important to acknowledge the incoherence generated by our present method of digesting the world. Ultimate is different from the political news industry or Hollywood, but it’s not immune to the same problems.
And this all leaves the ultimate community with an important choice.
Is This What We Want?
Really, is this what we want?
The ground underneath us shifts so quickly that we don’t often take the time to ask this question — and usually only after it is too late.
There are already the seeds of several important conversations that the ultimate community needs to be having about what we want the sport to be. Is bigger better? Is the type of exposure afforded by semi-pro leagues a good thing? What sacrifices are worth making to get into the Olympics? This is the time to have these conversations because what we do now will have a major impact on what ultimate becomes.
The ultimate community is still small enough that it has significant power to guide how the sport develops over the next decade. The capabilities of the community at this moment in time foists an existential dilemma on us, of what the sport is and what we want it to be. Do we want people to become passionate fans of club teams and buy jerseys and tweet mean shit at some 19-year-old rookie on Sockeye? Do we want to grow the sport among people who are already ideologically inclined to understand and solidify the core tenets, or use those tenets to reach and mold new sorts of people?
There are no easy answers here, particularly when the tools we use to address them are not built for nuance. The way the game is consumed as content over the next decade is going to be fundamental in determining what ultimate looks like in 2030. Everything from our assessment of player quality and tactics, to how we conceptualize fandom, to our relationship with SOTG and other pillars will be influenced by how we engage with the sport.
What do we want to do with the tools and platforms available to us? This is the most important question of the next decade, both for ultimate and society at large. We’ve seen enough over the past ten years to understand the stakes of the question. But we may have seen too much to agree on an answer.