Tom Brady and LeBron James’s Next Great Opponent: Machines

The growth of e-sports could drastically change how we view athletes.

The world’s strongest job security belongs to great professional athletes. No machine can yet do what Tom Brady or LeBron James or Serena Williams can do, and even if that becomes possible someday, no one will pay to see it. The human element—knowing that each of these apparent super-people is one of us—makes their performance compelling. At least that’s what I used to think. Now, I’m not so sure. Events in the news force us to ask once again the larger question of who, if anyone, cannot be replaced by technology.

The NBA and Take-Two Interactive Software last week announced they will create an NBA e-sports league. Take-Two already makes a hugely popular NBA video game. This new league, set to launch next year, will feature games between teams of avatars (none based on real NBA players) controlled by e-sports players—that is, experts at playing video games—to be chosen in an NBA-style draft. NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick told ESPN the league will stage events, sell tickets for fans, create merchandise, sign sponsors, and negotiate licensing rights so fans can watch games remotely.

Ridiculous, obviously, except that it isn’t. ESPN and TBS already broadcast live competitive videogaming, and fans even go to Madison Square Garden and other arenas to watch competitions on giant screens. The players are guys who sit at computers controlling on-screen avatars. It’s fitting that many of these events are live-streamed on an Amazon site called Twitch.

Some 144 million fans worldwide watched e-sports at least once a month last year, estimates the Newzoo consulting firm. That’s far less than the number of traditional sports fans, but e-sports fans are mainly millennials. They’re the next generation of sports fans—and they don’t need Brady, James, Williams, or anyone else in any particular place. More important, e-sports players, as distinct from physical athletes, are doing precisely the type of work that pure software can and eventually will do better.

Which brings us to Elon Musk’s latest musings yesterday at the World Government Summit in the United Arab Emirates. “There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better,” he said. “The output of goods and services will be extremely high. I think we’ll end up doing universal basic income. It’s going to be necessary. The much harder challenge is, how are people going to have meaning? A lot of people derive their meaning from their employment. So if there’s no need for your labor, what’s your meaning? Do you feel useless? That’s a much harder problem to deal with.”

More ridiculousness? Who would dare to say so? When we think we’ve identified a job that can’t be taken over by technology, we might be right. But the emerging lesson is: Don’t count on it.

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