In 2014, Twitch users made headlines and history when they came together to play Pokemon Red. Over 1,000,000 viewers controlled the game through the live streaming platform, and somehow, after weeks of trials, tragedies, and modifications, Twitch managed to beat the Elite Four and become Pokemon Champions.

Now, seven years later, a similar and equally-daring experiment is being conducted on the same platform. Except now, instead of controlling a video game, Twitch is coaching football. The experiment is called Fan Controlled Football, a new sports league, video game-ish, oddity. 

How does it work?

To get the boring stuff out of the way, the league had four teams for its first season, played from February through March. Out of the four teams, two of them had fairly standard non-NFL football names, the Zappers and the Beasts, one of them had a pretty cool name, the Wild Aces, and one had a name that sounds like a Z-tier esports team, the Glacier Boyz. Each played four regular-season games, with all teams getting involved in a playoff. 

Games were played indoors, which meant shorter fields, lots of scoring, and less to keep track of. This is important because it allows Fan Controlled Football to appeal to a market outside of traditional sports fans. By broadcasting on Twitch and advertising itself on the "fan controlled" aspect, the real market they wanted to tackle, no pun intended, was gamers

Now for the interesting part. What do fans control in Fan Controlled Football? In the lead-up to the season, the FCF had online polls to vote for team logos and uniforms. During a game of football, though, the shortest answer is, fans don't do that much. For starters, those who want to play (or coach, I guess?) create an account and pick one of the four teams. This is the only team that that account can interact with. If you pick the Glacier Boyz, and the Beasts are playing the Wild Aces, sorry, but all you can do is watch. Or you could spam poggers in the chat. Either way, if your team is playing, it's your time to shine. 

By that, I mean that you are given about six plays to choose from, and you get to vote from these plays. The play that receives the most votes from the fans of the team is the one that the real-life players will use. Oh, and you only vote for your team's plays when they're on offense. They call their own plays on defense. Offense is a lot easier to understand, so this was made the focus to ensure that all audiences would understand what was going on to a reasonable degree. Streamlining football takes the focus away from sports and shifts it to entertainment. 

Is it fun?

Before I get into this section, I guess I have to disclose that I am registered as a fan of the Wild Aces, so I genuinely, from the bottom of my heart, apologize for any bias. I know that we are all immensely loyal to our brand new football teams that barely exist and that you probably didn't know existed until two minutes ago. I watched every game during this season, which is not that impressive considering they only played for six weeks, and I tried to be as actively involved as I could to get the full "fan controlled" experience. If Fan Controlled Football is going to be successful, the backbone of their audience is going to be based around nerds like me, people who waste an equal amount of time watching sports and playing video games. 

So, is it fun? Well, I give that a solid … kind of? Sometimes? The overall interface and experience of playing/watching Fan Controlled Football feel like playing Madden. Except you're only on offense (and the other team doesn't get to rage quit after throwing a pick-six). And once you select a play from a super limited list of plays, the game controls itself. Plus, most of the time, you aren't even doing that much because the majority probably voted for a play that wasn't yours.

FCF

Though the limited plays are nice for squashing the trolls who want to punt on first and ten.

But also, there is something about it. On a few occasions, I picked a play that won a majority vote, and when the real-life Wild Aces ran it on the field and scored a touchdown, I felt something. It was a small boost of serotonin, but a boost of serotonin nonetheless. At the end of the league's inaugural season, the Wild Aces won the championship, and I guess it sort of felt cool to be semi-tangentially related to that. Again though, the "fan controlled" part of Fan Controlled Football really never felt that big. It's less "Fan Controlled Football" and more "Mildly Fan Influenced Football."

Marketing, Crossover Appeal

That was my personal experience playing/watching Fan Controlled Football, but the far more interesting aspect of the FCF is the way that they are attempting to draw in audiences that may not conventionally care about sports at all. It never takes long during a Fan Controlled Football broadcast for the commentators to mention that taking part in the games is something that everyone can do regardless of their knowledge of football. This attempted widespread appeal can also be seen in their team owners.

A major point advertised by the FCF both during their games and through their marketing is the cast of characters that own the teams. These famous owners represent interests far outside of football. Quavo of Migos fame is one of the owners of the Glacier Boyz, while Pro wrestler and Twitch streamer Miro is an owner of the Beasts, and Rachel Lindsay from The Bachelor and The Bachelorette is a Wild Aces owner. Yes, Fan Controlled Football is trying to find the overlap in the Venn diagram of football and Bachelor fans. These celebrity owners were regularly interviewed during FCF games, making broadcasts a sort of sports/talk show crossover.

JBLM PAO/flickr

Oh, and the last team, The Beasts, are owned by some NFL backbencher no one has ever heard of.  Marshaun Lunch, or something like that.

The owner that most fully represents Fan Controlled Football, though, is Greg Miller. Known for his years in video game journalism, the Kinda Funny founder sought to bring the gaming market to football through his role as owner of the Wild Aces. During the FCF season, Miller hosted streams of his own where he "coached" the Wild Aces, and there was a sort of community that built up around the team because of these. It was fun to follow Miller's tweets during the FCF season, as he was actively engaged in enjoying this experimental venture. When the FCF is at its best, it can be seen in people like Greg Miller. It can be a new wave of entertainment that brings different interests together through a unique medium to enjoy something that many viewers would not watch normally. 

Growing Pains

In practice, though, there were a lot of moments where Fan Controlled Football did not feel like a community coming together through a Greg Miller stream. Aesthetically, the FCF is heavily inspired by video games, but they don't only borrow from the good parts of gaming. The commentators would often say that the first season of Fan Controlled Football was "early access," which is a great way to cover for any parts of the broadcast that weren't ready for primetime just yet. Just as Cyberpunk 2077 confused audiences with its myriad of glitches and shenanigans at launch, so did Fan Controlled Football with its bizarre version of football and occasionally baffling presentation. 

To make the sport as accessible as possible to a non-sports audience, FCF created a lot of rule changes that both accommodated the fan play calls and streamlined the game to be easier to understand. But the results were mixed. This was especially true for timing. At the start of the season, the FCF claimed that their games would last one hour. Compared to the three-hour games that the NFL offers, this sounds great. A casual audience that may not be interested in sports would be unlikely to stay for three hours. One hour though? That's more likely. 

Games did not last an hour, though. In the earliest weeks of the season, games lasted nearly twice the intended time, and the use of this time in the FCF was a major issue. As it turns out, it takes time for Twitch audiences to vote for plays and for those plays to make it to the players on a field. Even by the end of the season, there was usually a minute between each play. I know; I timed it. And during the minute of waiting, there was basically nothing happening on the field. Players were just standing around, waiting, and the commentators were trying to fill the silence. If you're voting for plays for your team, this minute can be fairly fun. If you're not voting, it can be excruciatingly boring. If you've got some time, you can check out those first couple of games. To see players milling around aimlessly, just skip to any random point:

Some additional rule changes to make the sport feel more like a video game were just confusing too. During an FCF game, teams had a certain number of "power-ups" that they could use. Just like a video game, these power-ups gave teams limited-time advantages. For the first several weeks in the season, the commentators gave almost no description of what the power-ups were or how teams earned them. Sometimes a team would just get to violate the traditional rules of football. Non-sports fans in the chat asked what was going on, and football enthusiasts were equally as confused. They got a lot better at presenting the power-ups by the end of the season, but even then, this just felt like a gimmick. As a football fan, these changes felt like they weren't enhancing the game. As a video game fan, I felt pandered to. Also, once a game, a team could use a power-up to veto the fan vote and choose their own play, which rendered the entire idea of the league pointless. 

So, what now?

On their most popular weekend during the first season, Fan Controlled Football had over 2,000,000 total viewers. For a startup football league trying something no one has ever done before, that's not too bad. They survived the hurdle that most new sports leagues fail to clear: finishing their first season. Oh, and they managed to do all of this during a pandemic. That's impressive.

There is currently no word on when the next season will start or what changes they'll make, but right now, there is no reason to believe that there won't be a season two of Fan Controlled Football. While their first season was far from perfect, it remained a fascinating watching experience from start to finish. It felt less like watching football games and more like watching an unedited reality show, where all of the glitches and errors of a new product were on full display. And hey, maybe as they get out of "early access," fans will get more control, and we can finally see what would happen if an audience of gamers coached a real-life football team. Twitch managed to come together to beat Pokemon Red, so who knows what could happen?

Top image: Fan Controlled Football

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