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Tuesday, May 14, 2024

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.

The story grew out from there. After Covid-19 made traveling unsafe, the map became Bois’ way of seeing the world outside his home. He spent months following every one of those 111 fields on Google Earth, searching for stories. Whenever a field ran into a town, road, or natural feature, Bois searched for that location in newspaper archives to discover if anything interesting had taken place there. As one of the characters in 17776 puts it, “Every little square of it, every place you stomp your foot, that's where something happened.” Bois tells each of those stories—from Jesse James’ buried treasure to a crackpot theory about Cleopatra being buried in Illinois—by embedding clippings from decades- or even centuries-old newspapers into his text.

These multimedia innovations do certainly distinguish 20020 from the larger pack of contemporary science fiction. “I think the inventiveness is really what got people sharing it,” says Graham MacAree, who edited 20020. And these electronic tools are closely tied to the story—just as the outlines of the football field guided Bois toward finding points of historical interest, so too do those events inform the football game that he is depicting. One particularly dramatic moment involves two characters using a runaway train to move a football from one team’s field to another, along a piece of track that saw another runaway train in 1910. Yet 20020 is more than the sum of these digital parts.

The grand question 20020 seeks to answer is this: What would people do with infinite time? Bois has managed to capture the full spectrum of emotion induced by his premise, from the profound terror of limitless time and space to the simple pleasure of trying to achieve something just because. Despite the byzantine absurdity of the football games he describes, Bois has painted a plausible version of what might happen if death suddenly vanished from the equation.

Though his focus is on football, characters in Bois’ universe do enjoy all sorts of pursuits. They make podcasts (about the dumbest football games in the sport’s millennia-long history), speed-run video games, play local variations of chess, and watch Law & Order. But, given how popular football is in the US, it’s unsurprising that many of them choose to play, and watch, the game. In Bois’ hands, infinite time and complete safety become the perfect setting for re-envisioning what the sport could be. “It’s an ideal sport for a world where nobody can get hurt anymore,” he says. Immortal players don’t have to worry about the dangers associated with jumping up into a tornado to avoid incoming defenders, much less the long-term consequences of CTE.

Nor do they have to worry about earning a paycheck. Bois calls the project “a celebration of unproductivity and time-wasting.” But the ways characters spend their time in 20020 only count as unproductive by a contemporary, economic definition of productivity. From another perspective, most of the characters are extremely productive: They devote all of their time to the well-defined goal of winning a football game. And they are free to stop playing at any time, or continue to do so forever, because they will have food in their mouths and roofs over their heads either way.

Bois traces his interest in this theme way back. “If I had any inspiration,” he says, “it might have been what me and some of my friends refer to as the ‘old internet,’ the internet before all the money came, of the early aughts.” This was the era of GeoCities, when everyone seemed to have their own garish, glitter text–filled, totally individual webpage. This was when the world met Homestar Runner and Salad Fingers. “It was a very primitive but also incredibly compelling approach to making stuff online, where whatever serves the story goes front and center, whatever that means, and whatever that looks like.”

Today, of course, the internet looks somewhat different. “Since the internet has started to make money, things that get put on the internet are dominated by corporate interests,” MacAree says. “The problem isn’t the internet, it’s just, how do artists get paid to do to create a cool thing that people don’t know is going to be successful?”

In the world that Bois has created, such a question is moot. 20020 has no gig economy, no bullshit jobs. Hate, exclusion, and dysfunction are nonexistent. No one is forced to suffer on account of poverty or ill health or discrimination—each individual is in the situation they are in because they chose to be there. It’s a powerful antidote to the lack of control many people feel here and now, in the real world.

Still, Bois’ stories don’t ignore the tragedies of our present. Bois hasn’t just used Google Earth’s tools to build strange, cross-country football fields; he’s also put New York and parts of the Gulf Coast entirely underwater. Monday’s chapter of 20020 began with an image of Florida’s meager remains, outlined by a ghostly representation of the state’s 2020 boundaries. Below sits his design for the 201st-century Florida state flag, which reads, in Latin, “We are still here.”

“This is not heaven,” Bois says. “This is not some alternate reality. This is still the world that we made.” It’s impossible to read 20020 and forget what we are currently doing to our planet. And by imagining that people much like us will be alive in 18,000 years, Bois makes the stakes feel far closer to home.

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