Opinion

The Marvel NBA broadcast and the coming sports cinematic universes

The "Arena of Heroes" was goofy, awkward — and visionary

At a glance, a partnership between Marvel and ESPN makes perfect sense.

Both comic books and sports rely on the simple narrative tension of a good guy (my team) and a bad guy (their team). Both endlessly recycle the same format over and over again: Watching a game never gets boring, the same way watching chiseled actors named Chris fight aliens on a green screen never wears out. Both co-opt the language of war to tell their stories (and both sports and superhero movies are, unsurprisingly, used as recruiting tools by the U.S. military). And both cater to diehard fans, who will tattoo franchise logos on their biceps and dress their toddlers in size-appropriate swag and spend ridiculous amounts of money based on nothing more than an emotional connection to something with no real-world consequences.

And both, of course, are owned by Disney.

But even if the partnership between two of the biggest properties in the world makes sense, that didn't stop the Marvel-themed NBA broadcast from getting wickedly dunked on when it was first announced a little over a week ago. "This is one of the worst — yet utterly hilarious — sporting/broadcasting ideas I've ever heard, and we're hot on the heels of the European Super League," responded sportswriter Raj Bains. "I am the exact target audience for this and could not want to watch anything less," wrote Eagles blogger Shamus Clancy. Offered Philadelphia-based sports reporter Daniel Gallen, "we do not have to do this."

As an individual test case, the "Arena of Heroes" game (as it was called) that aired on ESPN 2 and ESPN+ on Monday night was indeed befuddling, awkward, and forced, full of distracting bells and whistles that would make "real sports fans" switch immediately to the traditional broadcast that was prominently advertised, to anyone who'd gotten lost, as being available on normal ESPN. But the Marvel/ESPN/NBA crossover also showed promise as what could very well end up being the sports broadcasting of tomorrow.

What had initially sparked my curiosity about the experiment, when I first heard of it, was how it seemed designed to lower some of the more insidious gatekeeping that's part and parcel of traditional sports fandom ("you're a Warriors fan? Okay, then tell me Steph Curry's career three-point shooting percentage"). The Arena of Heroes broadcast seemed aimed at tapping Marvel fans who might not otherwise be the usual audience for something like a basketball game (nerds and jocks having long been positioned on opposite poles of the cultural spectrum).

To do that, the broadcast imposed a fictional narrative on the game between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Golden State Warriors — a narrative that was, notably, entirely divorced from the must-win stakes for the two teams as the postseason approaches. Though even the game's commentators seemed at times a little hazy on the plot details, the premise was essentially that the made-up Avengers from the movies are real and live in our universe, and that they need someone to join their superhero team. The best way to find their new recruit, the heroes decide, is to award "hero points" to six of the star players participating in the Warriors-Pelicans game, Space Jam-style; the player who comes out on top gets to join the Avengers. (The cynic in me couldn't help but notice that for all the pats on the back Marvel has given itself as of late over its promotion of female superheroes, the Avengers nevertheless turned to men's sports for scouting their recruit).

To be sure, the flaws in the ensuing broadcast were plentiful. The "hero point" system for evaluating the players, for example, didn't correspond to real-world value; an assist and a rebound are not qualitatively the same, though they both earned one point. The commentary itself could be painfully strained, as Angélique Roché — the in-game Marvel expert — tried to find dubious connections to basketball (superheros and athletes … both need training?), just as basketball commentators Ryan Ruocco and Richard Jefferson attempted to connect the game in some convoluted way back to superheroes. Occasionally, it actually worked: Ruocco's play call of "ohhhh! Wakanda forever!" during Black Panther-endorsed Andrew Wiggins' strong fourth quarter was weirdly delightful.

But often it felt more like listening to people talk about superheroes while a game played in the background. A split-screen mid-game interview with new Captain America actor Anthony Mackie seemed to implicitly suggest the game wasn't interesting enough on its own to warrant being the focus of attention. There was virtually no analysis of the game at all during halftime; instead, the break was used to air a new Loki trailer. The commentary seemed further kneecapped by the requirement to talk about the otherwise meaningless hero points, and some of the more poorly rendered graphics (Iron Man sitting on the shot clock — why?) took you out of the game if you'd managed to get into it at all.

If the inaugural Arena of Heroes was a bust in many respects, the premise itself nevertheless showed upside. For the most part, all of the failings are pretty easy fixes. Future broadcasts should ditch the forced real world "plot," and the themed commentary shouldn't come at such an obvious expense to insightful analysis. Clean up the graphics. And the producers should better evaluate who their intended audience is: Was the broadcast meant to engage kids specifically, as its relative simplicity seemed to suggest? Could there be a way to make the commentary more advanced, so preexisting NBA fans could enjoy it more, too?

Because one thing is for sure: Themed broadcasts aren't going away. Earlier this year, the NFL teamed with CBS and Nickelodeon to produce a SpongeBob-themed broadcast for kids, which was widely considered to be an enormous success. Disney is already making its next outing on Tuesday night, with a Star Wars-themed broadcast of the MLB game between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees — this time as ESPN's main game feed. Even the NBA crossover on Monday seemed, in the end, to have gone over positively with many people watching at home; there appeared to be more pleasantly surprised reactions under the hashtag #ArenaOfHeroes than jokes. "My 7-year-old watched more hoops with me tonight than any night since Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals," one dad tweeted.

There is still plenty to be skeptical about when Disney — which has a monopoly on some of the biggest cultural properties, between ESPN, Star Wars, and Marvel — begins experimenting by blending them together. But it is actually the fragmentation of culture that makes themed broadcasting a visionary experiment at this juncture. The one-size-fits-all approach to commentary is increasingly outdated when streaming is an option: Think of a future where there are more frequent sabermetrics-heavy broadcasts for stat-heads, the option to follow commentary with a focus on female athletes, and more Marvel-themed options to make game day exciting for entire families.

Disney has every incentive to make the most ambitious crossover event in history work. They're clearly not quite there yet, and it's going to take a lot more effort to convince native basketball fans to make the jump to a nontraditional broadcast down the line. But even if the Arena of Heroes had its visible aches and pains, it also showed glimpses of massive potential. One day, we may very well look back at the Arena of Heroes not as a goofy tie-in, but as an origin story.

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