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Friday 28 February 2020

First impressions of the new XFL

In 2001, the XFL, short for the X Football League* started as a sort of college-level alternate to the NHL, the premier gridiron football league in the United States. Establishing a new team is hard, let alone an entirely new league, and the XFL shut down after only one season and a ton of controversy.

In 2020, somehow, it came back.

I watched a recorded XFL game from a few days prior (Dallas Renegades at Seattle Dragons Feb 22, 2020), and here were my thoughts as they happened.

First, the tv production value is nearly as good, or as good, as an NFL game. They're playing in Seattle's NFL field, so all the rigging and camera equipment is still there. That TV equipment would otherwise be unused. An NFL game costs over 10 million dollars to televise and a lot of that goes to all this absurd rigging and camera stuff that they can only use 8-12 times per stadium per year. I imagine the XFL is getting comparable coverage for a small fraction of the price.

The stadium is half full. They only sold the lower deck seats. A quick check shows that typical tickets cost $20 USD for this game. That's in comparison to $200+ for the NFL Seattle Seahawks that were playing here just 3 weeks earlier.

They're playing in late winter, early spring after the NFL season and before the stadium will be used a lot for concerts. NBA isn't in playoffs yet, but most of teams are decided already. MLB is only in spring training. To a typical football fan there isn't much else to watch. This is smart business all around.

At one point, the commentators said this crowd of 29,000 was the highest yet of the 3 weeks that the league has been running. Another crowd elsewhere today was 22,000. Those numbers are smaller than most CFL (Canadian Football League) games, but not by much. That is, except for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, who regularly sell out in a stadium that can fit 10 percent of the province's population.

Let's talk the game experience itself. I'm using the skip button a lot less than normal for a football game because there's less to skip. There's less down time between plays.

They're using the same style graphical overlays and animations that they use in NFL games, but with different logos. It's like they're really trying to show themselves as an alternative, not a lesser league.

In NFL, CFL, and NCAA college bowl, the kicking team all start way over to the left and have all that space to pick up steam and crash into each other at full speed. It also takes a lot of time and the kickoff return rarely strays from the default 25-yard line. Jon Bois did a convincing video on kickoffs being stupid and dangerous.

But here, kickoffs are fast, statistically meaningful, and designed to minimize brain trauma. Refer to this terrible phone photo. The kicker is way over to the left and has to kick over the two lines of players to a receiver way over the right. There's no full-speed crashes, and the outcome of the return doesn't feel like a forgone conclusion.

XFL Kickoff and Return (Stats-et-al.com)

Speaking of forgone conclusions, there's a new extra point structure for after touchdowns. First, no more kicking for extra points. You have to run or pass it into the end zone for the extra points every time. Also, the farther out you start from, the more extra points you can get: one, two, or three points based on the line of scrimmage you choose. (This part feels a little gimmicky, but not as bad as the North Korean Basketball's three-point dunks and EIGHT POINTS for scoring in the last three seconds of the game). A scorigami is a final game score that has never happened in a league before, and looking XFL scorigami could be flexible extra point structure.

There were five touchdowns and one field goal in this game. From those five touchdowns, every attempt was from the two-point line and extra attempt failed. Late in the game, the commentators mentioned how either going for 1 or 3 would be smarter because given that nobody has gotten any extra points, 1 point is like a tiebreaker for touchdowns, and 3 points is like getting a whole extra  field goal. It's going to take some time and data before the nerds figure out the optimal strategy on this, and if this league sticks, it's going to start a lot of bar-room arguments, which is also good for business.

There's a penalty or restriction related to punting I don't understand. However, it must matter a lot because there's few punts and even some turnovers from not getting 10 yards in four downs.

XFL Extra Point (Stats-et-al.com)

The players are not terrible. They're making a few mistakes but I don't know enough about football to know or care if this is unusual. It feels like there's lot of false starts and other flags thrown for things that can mostly be attributed to disorganization.

The players they're choosing to highlight are CFL and NFL veterans. Given that NFL General Managers are letting go of players after only 2 years to save money, that probably means the XFL talent pool is probably healthy given that a lot of these players are viable, just not superstars worthy of a re-signing in the NFL.

Nobody has been carried off in a stretcher, so that's a big plus. (Injuries are the main reason I don't watch football) One guy got a concussion but he walked unaided off the field after a minute. Another guy was holding his knee and they went to commercial break before I saw the outcome, but the play wasn't something that made me want to sympathy vomit.

Also absent is Duane "The Rock" Johnson, or any other wrestling personality outside of commercial breaks. The XFL really has decided that sports are serious business. Halftime show? No halftime show. Ten minute break and back to work!

Well, not completely serious. Look at this fan.

XFL Dragonhead fan (Stats-et-al.com)

That is not an official merchandise helmet, right? There's a whole bunch of different helmets and handmade dragon wings and such in the crowd. Naming your team the dragons is just an invitation for custom cosplay, especially in the city with Wizards of the Coast HQ.

The game is over now: Dallas 24, Seattle 12. It was pretty close until the last ten minutes. It's the post-game and the broadcasters are showing the point spread and over-under betting lines right there on TV, so I guess they're not shy about gambling. That's unusual for North American sports, at least on a game's mainstream broadcast. For any bookmakers reading this: scorigami prop bets, think about it, and call me if you want to make it happen.

I'm not a football fan. I probably never will be, but this has managed to keep my curiosity enough to consider watching a second game. There are people (mascots?) in green dragon suits on the field. Are they mascots or just more furries? The dragons lost this game, yet the suited people are dancing around. I remain uncertain.

In the first iteration, the XFL was heavily advertised before launch, and was sold as a sort of World Wrestling Entertainment extension with cheerleaders and maybe some college football in between.

This time it feels a lot more like an actual sport. Instead of flashy gimmicks, the XFL website directs you to the list of rule changes and mechanics that make them different from other leagues, with explanations that sound like they come a league commissioner updating a rule book.

But the XFL has already won in my book because it doesn't have convicted dog fighter Michael Vick.

*That's right, the X in XFL doesn't stand for extreme or xtreme or x-rated, or extra or... well... anything. It just is. Source: Brett Forrest's book, "Long Bomb: How the XFL Became TV's Biggest Fiasco"

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