My Evolving Take on the Debate on a College Football Playoff Part I: The Effect of a Playoff on the Importance of the Regular Season

As I said last Monday, I bring a different perspective on the world of sports because I like to think about my sports (I’m that rarest of rarities, a nerd with a sports interest), and there’s no sport that invites more thinking than college football. This is an update and expansion of The Case for a Playoff, probably one of the posts I’ve looked the most at on the old version of Da Blog.

No sport has a more contentious championship structure, in all the world, than American college football. We give control over the championship to a complicated structure called the “BCS” which combines the result of two subjective polls with a bunch of complicated computer ratings which no one knows how they work and wouldn’t be able to understand them anyway. This system eventually spits out two teams who are supposed to be “the best” and play each other, and we call the winner the champion.

It’s a lot better than the old system, where we just took a poll to determine the champion. USC-Texas in 2005-06 would never have happened under that system; USC would have played in the Rose Bowl and Texas in the Cotton or Fiesta bowl. Unfortunately, years like that are the exception and not the rule. When there are exactly two undefeated teams, the BCS’ job is easy. When there isn’t, controversy is basically unavoidable. Everyone thinks we should have a real playoff, but no one can get it done.

Part of the problem is the hidden genius in the old system. There wasn’t a national championship. Oh sure, the polls announced a national championship at the end of the season, but who really cared what they had to say? College football was a regional sport that just so happened to be popular in all the regions. Each region crowned its own champion, and some of these regional champions faced other regional champions in bowl games at the end of the season for regional bragging rights. (College football is probably the only sport in the world that ends its season with exhibition games.) The “national championship”, such as it was, wasn’t much different than the Heisman – it was awarded by a panel to the team they felt was most deserving of it. College football isn’t about championships; it’s about history, tradition, and GO WOLVERINES BEAT THE BUCKEYES! Each team didn’t care what most of the other teams in their own conference did, let alone the other teams in the entire country.

The fixation on championships is mostly a result of the ESPN and Internet era, coupled with the rise of money in sports, in particular the proliferation of college football TV contracts in the aftermath of the NCAA’s monopoly power over college football on TV being busted. For a long time, the three most popular sports in America were baseball, horse racing, and boxing. Only baseball had a championship structure similar to that which proliferates in the major sports today – and it only started in 1903 despite prior attempts to compete with the National League and despite the NL itself starting in 1876. Even baseball only selected one-eighth of its teams to the postseason (one team from each eight-team league until 1961, and one from each ten-team league until divisions were finally introduced in 1969), meaning for the majority of teams the postseason was irrelevant (and until the addition of the LCS – and certainly before the 1920 formation of the unified Major League Baseball – the World Series was almost an exhibition). Even baseball today, which has sought to keep its postseason miniscule compared to the select-half-the-teams postseasons of the NBA and NHL (and to a lesser extent, the NFL), still selects eight out of 30 teams – a little over a quarter of all the teams in baseball. (Because of unbalanced league sizes the NL selects exactly a quarter.)

Horse racing and boxing were downright different. Horse racing had no championship whatsoever, or even any unified sanctioning bodies; going to the racetrack was mostly a pastime (and a chance to gamble). That’s why the Triple Crown is more important than it really should be, because they were, for a long time, the biggest races in the sport by default. (The horses that run the Triple Crown are really teenagers, and the races were originally a showcase for the hottest young talent in the sport. That horses are now being bred solely to run in three races in their teens and then retire to stud is just one of the many MANY things horribly wrong about horse racing today.) The closest any of the sports come to this system (or non-system) outside college football are NASCAR and golf – both of which have established pseudo-“playoff” systems in the hope of evoking their team-sport counterparts.

Boxing used and still uses the system of (as wrestler Ric Flair famously put it) “to be the man, you gotta beat the man”, and the corruption of this system with more “championships” than you can shake a stick at (and no one caring about any of them, only caring about individual fighters) is probably irrelevant to most of the other factors. MMA suggests the system can still work wonders when there is a single sanctioning body (even though there have been and continue to be several attempts to compete with the UFC), and the idea of college football using this system has been
floated
before, but the regional nature of the sport makes it difficult, especially since college football does not have a real central sanctioning body. (Not to mention it pretty much necessitates abandoning the idea of only holding the sport for three months; in fact, the need for some sort of “training camp” in team sports is probably the main reason the championship-belt idea has never gotten any play in a team sport.)

Certainly it didn’t have a real sanctioning body before the 90s. The NCAA only handled the TV (and eventually, not even that); college football was really controlled by the individual conferences (and even then by the top schools within each conference), the top independents (of which there were more, including Penn State and the better, more tradition-filled ACC and Big East teams, than today), and the bowls (which were really controlled by the conferences and top schools). When the NCAA handled the TV it showed one game each week; after losing its monopoly power TV contracts began being handled by the conferences. That, coupled with ESPN beginning to showcase games from all around the country, started to dissolve the regional nature of the sport. College football now had a national audience, and it was possible for someone to see games from Ohio State, Alabama, and USC in one weekend.

This started to focus more attention on college football’s nonexistent national championship, and the conferences and bowls, seeing how popular a “national championship game” between the best two teams in the country could be, decided to get together and create one, agreeing to send the top two teams to the same bowl. The Bowl Coalition and Bowl Alliance both suffered from not including the Big Ten, Pac-10, or Rose Bowl, and the split poll-determined titles of the past remained common. Finally, after a series of concessions to those groups, the Bowl Championship Series, involving four bowls and six conferences plus Notre Dame, was instituted in time for the 1998 college football season. But far from ending the era of split titles and instituting a true college football national championship, the BCS created controversy almost every year, with farcical results and teams outside the previously-nonexistent “Big Six” having no shot at a national championship. The BCS and its faults have had an odd effect, however: it’s touched off a national debate about what sort of system to replace it with, if any (the minority that supports the BCS is very vocal), and that has resulted in an examination, carried out by a surprisingly large number of people, of the very premise and meaning of a playoff in all of sports.

The problem – and, if not the main reason, a big part of the reason we don’t have a playoff already – is the tension between our desire for a playoff and college football clarity, and the history and various traditions of college football that made it so popular in its own right for decades but which were borne out of not having a playoff and thus can’t easily accommodate one. For all its faults, the BCS was designed mostly so as not to overly disrupt these traditions, namely, the fact that you play 11 (later 12) games during the regular season, and if you have a winning season you get to have a vacation in a bowl after school lets out for Christmas, a showcase for college football attended by people visiting the city for the holidays, and a chance to close out your season on a fantastic note by winning your own “championship”, and if you’re really, really good, you just might play in one of the marquee bowls on New Year’s Day. The only thing the BCS changed about this calculus directly was playing after New Year’s. To extend the BCS into a playoff would cause some sort of problem, and it’s an open question whether it’s worth it. It would devalue the regular season by providing spots for 4, 8, or 16 teams rather than two, thus robbing college football of what makes it special; it would force teams to play during finals week, or otherwise hinder academics; it would be the end of the bowls; it would make college football a two-semester sport (never mind that today’s January 8th BCS Championship Game is already being played after school starts). The debate over the merits of a playoff is a debate over striking the right balance between clarity and maintaining these traditions.

What’s my opinion of this debate? It’s too late to preserve the traditions. They were borne of a sport that barely even cared about the games, let alone who was “national champion”, instead preferring to care about the pageantry surrounding it, with the exception of the major rivalry games. The gatekeepers of college football opened Pandora’s Box when they decided they were going to start caring about who was national champion by creating the BCS. You want to preserve the traditions, go back to the old system, but if you want a national champion, you’ve already sacrificed the traditions. You’ve attracted a new clientele to college football, but they won’t miss the traditions if it means they get a playoff. Want proof? Just look at the farce the bowls have become, with more bowls than one-quarter the teams in the Bowl Subdivision, meaning it’s a minor miracle there have been enough 6-6 teams to fill all the spots – and all but five of them are completely meaningless, and even four of those five no longer have even a shot of influencing who gets at least one of the national championships. College football is now a sport that has a “national championship” (of sorts) and it needs to stop acting like it isn’t, and it needs to stop being a hybrid of a sport that cares and a sport that doesn’t, and ends up doing a bad job of either.

Earlier this year I discovered the college football blog of Ed Gunther, and his incredibly well thought-out and comprehensive analysis of the debate surrounding a playoff. As Gunther sees it, the debate surrounding a playoff is rooted in different conceptions of what a champion is. Proponents of a playoff want a champion to be objective, with no ambiguity, settled “on the field”, regardless of whether that team was really the best team there was that season (as opposed to just getting lucky at the right time); opponents want a champion to at least have a claim to being the best in the sport, even if that means picking it subjectively with multiple possible answers, plucked out of a hat by a poll. Opponents of a playoff, in other words, would say the 2007 New England Patriots should have been crowned champions because the Giants weren’t actually any better, they just got lucky at the right time; the Patriots could literally beat them two out of three times. In my opinion, although Gunther accurately captures the root beliefs of the pro-playoff side, he’s off the mark with the anti-playoff side, and this is more of an individual side argument than the actual core of the debate, namely the “upsets mean you won’t really get any real clarity as to who the best team is” argument. As I just mentioned, opponents of a playoff are more concerned about holding on to the image of college football they have from their youth, and in the case of university presidents, whether their student-athletes are doing well in class. The debate surrounding a playoff is more about differences in priorities than differences in philosophies.

(But if Gunther wants me to approach the debate as a difference in philosophies, then let me say to playoff opponents: What’s your response to the fact that a team outside a BCS conference has virtually no shot of claiming to be the “best”? Isn’t it possible that there could be a season with only one team with a legit claim to be the “best” but that loses in an upset in the BCS championship game – in other words, isn’t even a two-team playoff bad enough? Before you call that far-fetched, let me point you to 2006 Ohio State and Florida. Actually, I’m not sure if even Gunther really believes in this dichotomy as more than a device to help focus the debate. You can judge for yourself by reading his expanded explanation.)

I’m going to follow along with Gunther’s analysis of the issues, responding to both the various arguments against the playoff as well as Gunther’s analysis of both sides. This process should serve to demonstrate my personal playoff biases and what I feel is the best form of playoff for FBS, why other systems (including the current one) don’t work, and why mine does, taking a fairly comprehensive tour of the arguments along the way. It’s probably not the Holy Grail and the great panacea that solves every question, and it certainly has no shortage of its own issues, but over the course of this debate I hope to show why it manages to keep many of the things that make college football great, against the grain of what you might think. By his own admission, Gunther’s analysis skips around a bit because the debate kinda goes around in circles in some ways, with many different potential paths through the various arguments, and I’m going to follow Gunther’s path as a framework for presenting my own thoughts.

We already have a playoff – the regular season!
The regular season, which is part of what makes college football special, will become meaningless. Big upsets will mean less if the losers are going to get into a playoff anyway.
Late in the season, if a team has no or 1 loss, and has already locked up their conference or at least a spot in the playoff, they will rest starters and begin to coast, like in the NFL.
A playoff won’t give us the best team at the end of the season, only the hottest or the one best able to avoid – or pull off – upsets.


These arguments are tightly related, especially in Gunther’s analysis. They all have to do with the role of the regular season, the role of a playoff, and their relationship to each other, as well as the definitions of a champion held by the two sides in Gunther’s view. For this post and the next two, I’m going to jump around addressing different parts of each argument and different parts of Gunther’s “fair competition” sections.

College football is like a playoff because if you lose one game, you might be out, but if you win every game, you should win the championship; it’s not like a playoff because you can lose one game and still be in the running, and go undefeated and still not be in the running. (And not just in non-BCS conferences either. Remember Auburn 2004?) In fact, in 2007, you could lose two games and still be in the running, while there was an undefeated Hawaii team out there that couldn’t muscle its way into the title game. (I’m convinced that if the 2007 Mountain West Conference had played out like the 2008 MWC did, Utah would have been in the title game. You can exclude 2007 Hawaii for having an atrocious schedule, and you can exclude 2008 Utah on the grounds that despite having a conference and schedule on par with a BCS conference and team, it wasn’t quite good enough top-to-bottom to justify leapfrogging a one-loss BCS conference team, but you cannot say a team with a near-BCS quality schedule that goes undefeated should be kept out of the championship game in favor of a two-loss team whose schedule might not be that much better.) If it sounds a little confusing, it’s because both sides are true in different years and to different teams. One loss might eliminate you from championship contention, just like in a playoff, or it might not.

Let’s get one thing clear right off the bat: every regular season in all of sports has meaning. It is idiotic to claim that a playoff would render the regular season completely meaningless. Regular season games in other sports influence who gets into the playoffs and how the playoffs are seeded. That’s even the case in college basketball’s famously undervalued regular season. Under a playoff, college football would be no different, which is part of the problem: playoff opponents don’t want to see college football lose its special quality. But they don’t really believe the regular season would be rendered completely meaningless, just that it would have less meaning than now, when it has “the most meaningful regular season in all of sports”, a regular season so meaningful “the whole regular season is a playoff”. A playoff would automatically devalue that, and the regular season wouldn’t “be a playoff” anymore.

So people who want college football to adopt a playoff want the regular season to have a different meaning than it does now: rather than serving as a “regular season playoff” to select two teams to play for the championship, the regular season is meaningful for selecting however many teams the playoff will have, 4, 8, or 16, and the meaning of the playoff is to determine the champion. When you only need to get into the top 4, 8, or 16, instead of the top two, it takes less effort to move on to the next stage of the season, you don’t need to win as many games, losses are less costly, and it’s easier to brush off regular season games. College football’s regular season would not be as meaningful.

So the harder it is to get into the postseason, the more meaningful the regular season becomes. When there are more teams competing for fewer spots, the regular season becomes more meaningful. So to establish a rough index of how meaningful the regular season is, we can take the proportion of each league that gets selected to the postseason – the ratio of number of teams in the league to number of teams in the postseason. The larger the number, the more meaningful the regular season is. Then to establish an index of the meaning of each game, we take the number we get, and divide it by the number of games each team plays. Do a little algebra, and the Regular Season Meaning Index is T / (P x G), where T is the number of teams in the league, P is the number of teams in the postseason, and G is the number of games each team plays. (Note that this index is not adjusted for auto bids and seeding – it is purely the meaning of the regular season for getting into the postseason all else being equal.) Here are the numbers for various leagues:

 

Teams in
Postseason

Total
teams

% of teams
in Postseason

# of Games
Per Team

Meaning of
Each Game

College Football

2

120

1.67%

12

5

CFB (All BCS Bowls)

10

120

8.33%

12

1

College Basketball

65

347

18.73%

31

.1722

NFL

12

32

37.5%

16

.1667

CFB (All Bowls)

68

120

56.67%

12

.1471

Baseball

8

30

26.67%

162

.0231

NBA/NHL

16

30

53.33%

82

.0228

There it is, plain for all to see: college football by far has the most meaningful regular season in sports. But there are some odd things about this chart. What is college basketball doing with the most meaningful regular season, per game, than any sport except college football? I thought opponents of a playoff wanted to avoid a situation like college basketball where the regular season doesn’t matter and only March Madness is even worth paying attention to? If college basketball’s regular season is so meaningful, why do I always hear about how meaningless it is? (Even if we included all three minor tournaments – the NIT, CBI, and CIT – college basketball’s meaning index would be .0868, more than baseball, the NBA, and the NHL, and it would be selecting a smaller percentage of its teams to the postseason than the NFL at 37.18%. Note that the number of games per team is a guesstimate and the total number of teams may be out of date.) Well, part of it is that college basketball selects the largest raw number of teams to the postseason, so the perception is that teams at the top get locked in quicker. There’s also the fact that most of college basketball’s at-larges go to BCS conference schools; for those schools, the meaning of each game is significantly less than .1722, for the other schools, it’s significantly more. (We’ll see how much less for BCS schools later.) But in my opinion, another factor in college basketball not getting credit for its meaningful regular season is the fact there isn’t a straightforward standings you can check. Though “bracketology” has become a well-practiced science in recent years it’s still guesswork, and people often have trouble grasping what’s at stake in each game. The selection committee’s picks can seem like voodoo, and so people think the regular season has little to do with it.

There are some other interesting things about this chart. For one, the meaningfulness of each game in baseball is pathetic, but at least in its case it’s justifiable because of how pitching affects things – but the NBA and NHL chased the money in expanding their postseasons to include more than half their respective leagues’ teams and each game is only about as meaningful, maybe a little less, than baseball. The NFL, on the other hand, kept their postseason at a streamlined 12 teams, and with their 16-game regular season, that results in a regular season almost as meaningful as college basketball, and more meaningful than college football if the goal is to get into any bowl. I suspect the relatively large meaning the NFL imbues each game with is a key factor in the NFL being the most popular and powerful sports league. There’s drama and impact in each game you don’t get with the other three traditional major professional sports, not even in baseball which selects fewer teams and a smaller percentage of them.

But back to college football. As we said, college football has by far a more meaningful regular season than any other sport – but I bet you didn’t know how meaningful. Even college basketball and the NFL give each game a meaningfulness index number less than .2 (that’s point two). College football’s meaningfulness index number is 5 (that’s the integer 5). College football’s regular season is so much more meaningful than the others it’s hard to grasp just how meaningful it is. There are so few teams competing for the championship at the end of the season, and so few games, that it produces a meaningfulness index number over 1 (well over), which should beg the question: is college football’s regular season too meaningful? (The BCS bowls, taken as a whole as the goal, give the regular season a more reasonable level of meaningfulness at exactly 1.)

Here’s how imposing a playoff on college football would affect the meaning of each game:

Teams in
Playoff

% of teams
in Playoff

Meaning of
Each Game

4

3.33%

2.5

8

6.67%

1.25

16

13.33%

.625

An 8-team playoff would still have a meaningfulness index number over 1, and a 16-team playoff would have an index number still over three times bigger than any other sport, and would select a smaller percentage of teams than any other sport. The regular season would be significantly more meaningful than other sports even for the spotlight BCS teams with an easier path. This chart assumes every at-large is awarded to a BCS team:

 

Expected BCS Teams
in Postseason

Total BCS
teams

% of BCS in
Postseason

# of Games
Per Team

Meaning of Each
Game for BCS Teams

CFB (16-Team Playoff)

11

65

16.92%

12

.4924

College Basketball

40

73

54.79%

31

.0588

With a 16-team playoff, the regular season is not that much less meaningful for BCS teams than it is for college football as a whole, and still way more meaningful than in any other sport. (And even for BCS teams in college basketball, the regular season is twice as meaningful as in baseball, the NBA, and the NFL, before factoring in that every year, at least a few at-larges go to mid-majors.)

See, college football’s meaningful regular season has a dirty little secret: a pitifully small sample size. In fact, the sample size in college football is so pitifully small, especially compared to the number of teams, that no playoff is really any good at selecting the teams. When multiple teams can go undefeated in the regular season on a regular basis, you know you have a small sample size and a horribly skewed schedule – too skewed, in fact, to even come close to coming up with a half-decent playoff system. The NFL uses a system where every team in the division plays each other home-and-away, plus a balance of teams in the rest of the conference, plus all the teams in one in-conference division and one other-conference division. Each team plays six games that do a reasonably good job on a round-robin basis of establishing a pecking order within the division, plus a robust “out-of-conference schedule”, within a theoretically competitively-balanced league, establishing comparisons between divisions and between teams in different divisions. As long as the NFL includes every division champion it has a robust playoff system that includes every team with a claim to being “the best”. College basketball teams play 30 games within what amounts to a league with over 300 teams – about the same ratio as college football. But there are enough non-conference games, and enough of them against quality opponents, to establish connections between teams in different conferences.

College football teams only play three (four, now) non-conference games, and they are often against cupcakes. Comparing teams in different conferences is, almost literally, pure guesswork. Consider the following hypothetical scenario: Two teams go 11-1. One team lost to the #1 team but their best win is against the #50 team. The other team lost to the #30 team but their best win is against the #10 team – but their respective second-best wins are both against teams in the 60s. I could easily argue that a team that takes two losses to top-ten teams is better than an undefeated team that didn’t beat a single team in the top 50, but college football doesn’t really work that way (unless the former team is in a BCS conference and the latter team isn’t); it has to rank teams by record by default because the sample size is so small. It’s nearly impossible to separate the teams and seed them. College basketball teams suffer more losses (thus creating more of a pecking order) and create more separation of records between teams.

In Part II, I’ll explore how the way we compare teams with similar (not even necessarily identical) records in college football exposes the truth of this point, and I’ll start to explore my preferred playoff and why I prefer it.

Your chance to influence the look of MorganWick.com

Some of you may have noticed that the Sports section of the site has no background graphics. I would change that, but I’m a bit undecided about something. I intend to have distinct banner images for each section of the site, to let you know instantly where on the site you are. But while I think I had something in mind with the old site, where the Sports section had the banner “Morgan Wick Sports”, I’m not sure what it was now, two years later, and I’m not certain of how, exactly, I want to differentiate the top banner.

Here are the options I’m trying to decide between. You can pick between them in a new Da Blog Poll, and leave comments to tweak any of the suggestions or suggest your own, though I’ll have the final say.

title1
title2
title3
title4
title5
title6

What logo image should I use for sports.morganwick.com?

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  • Sports.MorganWick.com, Sports at left, big MorganWick (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Sports.MorganWick.com, Sports above MorganWick (0%, 0 Votes)
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College Football Schedule – Week 1

This is a feature I started on my old blog last year – the complete FBS college football schedule for the coming week, complete with TV info from MattSarzSports.com. I originally intended to post this after at least the first part of my kickoff to the college football season, but that’s taking a while to write. College football is the second-most highly watched level of every-year sport in America, and quite possibly the majority of games, at least involving BCS teams, are available to a reasonably national audience, if not on TV then online. I maintain my own college football rankings, which (this year) I’ll start putting out after Week 3. That means that starting Week 4, the rankings will start being ordered by the top teams in those rankings for teams in the Top 25 (and those slightly below), followed by the games available in HD, followed by non-HD games listed by conference. Until then I’ll list games by day and HD games for Saturday.

At the top of the list will be games for holders of the college football lineal titles. This is a fairly simple concept (and one not just proposed by me, either): each game the titleholder plays, the title goes to the winner. The Princeton-Yale title, which traces its history to the first football game between Rutgers and Princeton, is in the hands of Florida after what happened last season. A split title is created whenever a team goes undefeated (or wins the BCS title game) without holding any lineal title – but only one such title has not been merged with Princeton-Yale, the 2007 Boise State title, in the hands of last year’s mid-major darlings, Utah. This section will list the Princeton-Yale holder first, followed by the 2007 Boise State holder. Titleholders will be marked by asterisks.

Also, I was going to list DirecTV channel numbers for all games this year, until I learned that ESPN GamePlan doesn’t release channel numbers for games until just 1 to 2 days before game time, which defeats most of the purpose I originally had for it. Instead I’ll list announcing teams from Awful Announcing.

All times Eastern.

LINEAL TITLES 

Charleston Southern

@

*Florida

7 PM SA

FSS/SW/SUN

Bob Rathbun, Dave Archer, Jenn Hildreth

Utah State

@

*Utah

9 PM TH

mtn.

James Bates, Todd Christensen, Sammy Linebaugh

THURSDAY 

Troy

@

Bowling Green

7 PM

CSD.com

Greg Franke, Tom Cole (BGSU)

South Carolina

@

NC State

7 PM

ESPN

Sean McDonough, Jesse Palmer,

Craig James, Erin Andrews

Villanova

@

Temple

7 PM

CSD.com

 

Coastal Carolina

@

Kent State

7 PM

CSD.com

 

North Texas 

@ 

Ball State 

7:30 

ESPNU

Charlie Neal, Jay Walker

North Dakota State

@ 

Iowa State 

8 PM 

CSD.com

 

Eastern Kentucky 

@ 

Indiana 

8 PM 

BTN

Ari Wolfe, Charles Davis, Larra Overton

Oregon 

@ 

Boise State 

7 PT 

ESPN

Mark Jones, Bob Davie

FRIDAY 

Tulsa 

@ 

Tulane 

8 PM 

ESPN

Joe Tessitore, Rod Gilmore

SATURDAY’S HD GAMES 

Central Arkansas

@

Hawaii

1 AM

PPV

Jim Leahey, Russell Yamahoa

Navy

@ 

Ohio State

Noon

ESPN

Dave Pasch, Bob Griese, Chris Spielman

Minnesota 

@ 

Syracuse 

Noon 

ESPN2

Pam Ward, Ray Bentley

Kentucky

v.

Miami (OH)

Noon

ESPNU

Clay Matvick, David Diaz-Infante

Akron

@

Penn State

Noon

BTN

Matt Devlin, Glen Mason, Kenny Jackson

Toledo

@

Purdue

Noon

BTN

Craig Coshun, Rod Woodson, Larra Overton

Montana State

@

Michigan State

Noon

BTN

Dan Gutowsky, Ron Johnson, Lisa Byington

Towson

@

Northwestern

Noon

BTN

Matt Rosen, Mark Campbell, Tony McGee

Northern Iowa 

@ 

Iowa 

Noon 

BTN

Tom Werme, Anthony Herron, Elizabeth Moreau

Western Kentucky 

@ 

Tennessee 

Noon 

SEC Network

Dave Neal, Andre Ware, Cara Capuano

Georgia 

@ 

Oklahoma State 

3:30 

ABC/ESPN2

Sean McDonough, Matt Millen, Holly Rowe

Western Michigan 

@ 

Michigan 

3:30 

ABC/ESPN2

Mike Patrick, Craig James, Quint Kessenich

Baylor 

@ 

Wake Forest 

3:30 

ABC

Dave Lamont, Shaun King

Nevada 

@ 

Notre Dame 

3:30 

NBC

Tom Hammond, Pat Haden, Alex Flanagan

San Jose State 

@ 

USC 

3:30 

FSN

Barry Tompkins, Petros Papadakis, Michael Eaves

Jackson State 

@ 

Mississippi State 

3:30 

ESPNU

Todd Harris, Charles Arbuckle

Missouri 

v. 

Illinois 

3:30 

ESPN

Ron Franklin, Ed Cunningham

Stanford 

@ 

Washington State 

6 PM

FSN NW/FCS

 

BYU 

v. 

Oklahoma 

7 PM 

ESPN

Brad Nessler, Todd Blackledge, Heather Cox

Louisiana Tech 

@ 

Auburn 

7 PM 

ESPNU

Eric Collins, Brock Huard

Northern Illinois 

@ 

Wisconsin 

7 PM 

BTN

Wayne Larrivee, Chris Martin, Charissa Thompson

San Diego State 

@ 

UCLA 

7:30 

FS W/FCS

Bill MacDonald, James Washington, Brooke Olzendam

Alabama 

v. 

Virginia Tech 

8 PM 

ABC

Brent Musburger, Kirk Herbstreit, Lisa Salters

Buffalo 

@ 

UTEP 

9 PM 

CBS CS

Dave Ryan, Akbar Gbaja-Biamila

Maryland 

@ 

California 

7 PT 

ESPN2

Terry Gannon, David Norrie

Idaho State 

@ 

Arizona State 

7 PT 

FS AZ/FCS

Tom Leander, Juan Roque

LSU 

@ 

Washington 

10:30 

ESPN

Mark Jones, Bob Davie

SATURDAY’S OTHER GAMES

Appalachian State 

@ 

East Carolina 

Noon 

MASN/WITN

Patrick Kinas, Billy Weaver, Brian Meador (MASN)

Liberty 

@ 

West Virginia 

Noon 

B.E. Network

John Sanders, Rene Nadeau

Jacksonville State 

@ 

Georgia Tech 

1 PM 

ESPN360

 

Youngstown State 

@ 

Pittsburgh 

1 PM 

   

Northeastern State

@ 

Boston College 

2 PM 

ESPN360

 

Nicholls State 

@ 

Air Force 

2 PM 

   

Portland State 

@ 

Oregon State 

2:30 

FSN NW/FCS

Rich Burk, Steve Preece, Jen Mueller

Weber State 

@ 

Wyoming 

3 PM 

   

Rice 

@ 

UAB 

4 PM 

CSS

Matt Stewart, Chuck Oliver, Melissa Lee

Southern Illinois

@ 

Marshall

4:30 

   

Middle Tenn. St.

@ 

Clemson

6 PM

ESPN360

 

The Citadel

@ 

North Carolina

6 PM

ESPN360

 

William and Mary

@ 

Virginia

6 PM

ESPN360

 

Northwestern State

@ 

Houston

7 PM

CBSCS XXL

 

Florida Atlantic

@ 

Nebraska

7 PM

PPV

Ron Thulin, Kelly Stouffer, Kent Pavelka

Louisiana-Monroe

@ 

Texas

7 PM

PPV

Bill Land, Gary Reasons, Emily Jones

Connecticut

@ 

Ohio

7 PM

ESPN360

 

New Mexico

@ 

Texas A&M

7 PM

   

Army

@ 

Eastern Michigan

7 PM

CSD.com

 

Northern Colorado

@ 

Kansas

7 PM

FCS

Dan McLaughlin, Yogi Roth, Samantha Steele

Wofford 

@ 

South Florida 

7 PM 

Gameplan

 

Southern 

@ 

Louisiana-Lafayette 

7 PM 

CSD.com

 

Missouri State 

@ 

Arkansas

7 PM 

Gameplan

Scott Inman, Jimmy Dykes, Clint Stoerner

Richmond 

@ 

Duke 

7 PM 

theACC.com

 

Alcorn State 

@ 

Southern Miss 

7 PM 

   

North Dakota 

@ 

Texas Tech 

7 PM 

   

Mississippi Valley St. 

@ 

Arkansas State 

7 PM 

   

Massachusetts 

@ 

Kansas State 

7 PM 

   

Indiana State

@ 

Louisville 

7:30 

Gameplan

Drew Deener, Doug James

Samford 

@ 

UCF 

7:30 

   

Western Carolina 

@ 

Vanderbilt 

7:30 

CSN/CSS

Doug Bell, Chris Doering

Idaho 

@ 

New Mexico State 

8 PM 

Gameplan

 

Stephen F. Austin 

@ 

SMU 

8 PM 

   

Central Michigan

@ 

Arizona

7 PT

 

Dave Sitton, John Fina, Glenn Howell (Wildcats SN)

UC Davis

@ 

Fresno State

7 PT

CBSCS XXL

 

Sacramento State

@ 

UNLV

7 PT

   

SUNDAY

Mississippi

@ 

Memphis

3:30

ESPN

Joe Tessitore, Rod Gilmore

Colorado State

@ 

Colorado

7 PT

FSN

Joel Meyers, Dave Lapham, Jim Knox

LABOR DAY

Cincinnati

@ 

Rutgers

4 PM

ESPN

Bob Wischusen, Bob Griese

Miami (FL)

@ 

Florida State

8 PM

ESPN

Brad Nessler, Todd Blackledge

College Football Kickoff Prelude: My thoughts on Rodriguez-gate

If Ohio State is defending Michigan, as Jim Tressel did with regards to the allegations that Rich Rodriguez was violating NCAA limits on practice time, you know something’s gone bananas. That’s like cats and dogs deciding to work in harmony.

Tressel’s point seems to be that the NCAA limits are too low, and the players themselves want to get in more workout time because they need more workout time and they want to be the best they can be. Strictly from the perspective of the teams, at least the big-name teams like Ohio State and Michigan, a lifting of the limits would seem to be a no-brainer.

From the NCAA’s perspective, the limits, like all their regulations, serve two purposes. First, they protect academics. Time spent on the practice field or in the weight room is time not spent on schoolwork. If players want more time on the practice field than they’re allowed, their priorities are mixed up, because they’re supposed to be a student first and an athlete second, not a pro athlete in all but name and salary. Of course, we don’t need to get into how college football and basketball barely even pays lip service to that whole “student-athlete” thing anymore, and even from that perspective you could still make a case for lifting limits on practice time. Maybe they’ve already done all their schoolwork, or even if they haven’t it’s quaint and old-fashioned to insist they do. (The argument that these are “just kids” reaches this  same conclusion.)

The second purpose of practice time limits is to protect, and level the playing field for, the small schools that do care about academics and maybe can’t/don’t want to work out as long and hard as the big football schools. But this is tied in with the need to defend academics and results in a similar defense: “don’t punish us because those other schools don’t care about football”.

I don’t know whether the NCAA should or shouldn’t raise its practice time limits, but now you know where the NCAA is coming from, to at least a limited extent.

The impending death of YouTube and the future of “you”

I’m not sure to what extent I still believe a single word of what I wrote in yesterday’s State of Webcomics Address. As it was coming down to the wire I started realizing I was basically being a lapdog for Bengo and wasn’t really thinking about the situation clearly, right as my brain was burning out as well. I may take a more sober revisiting of the situation in a month or two.

But if there’s one part of it I do still believe in, it’s the opening section about the idealism of the youth, and that may be my starting point for a rewrite of the Address. And I can stand by that because it appears everywhere else I look at the Internet. A constant theme in all the developments to take place on the Internet is that people started a revolution first and asked questions on how to pay for it, or the impact on the money flowing to the institutions the revolutions were replacing, later, even for the most prominent and popular of those revolutions.

I was interested in Farhad Manjoo’s book True Enough last year, and now I may be adding his technology column for Slate to my RSS reader. And today, we’re going to go from Stuff From July week to Stuff From April week! Because it was in April that Manjoo wrote a column on the double-edged sword of user-generated content. It seems even YouTube, one of the most popular sites on the Internet, has been bleeding money and mostly been propped up by the parts of Google that have been actually making money.

Turns out that “user-generated content” can end up meaning “crap”. A lot of the stuff most people leer at on YouTube – copyright violations, groin shots and other dumb, vaguely voyeuristic things like that – are the stuff that advertisers don’t want to be associated with. The content that makes the most money is still content made by the pros. YouTube has attempted to make up for it by signing content deals with the pros, but that only gets advertisers to pay for the pro content, and still leaves YouTube holding the bag for the costs of storing the crap. YouTube may eventually have to impose restrictions or a limited paywall. User-generated content may have changed the world, but no one’s quite willing to sponsor it yet.

The result: I strongly suspect YouTube as we know it will die within a year.

And that’s the best thing that could possibly happen to it – and to the Web.

I say that because of Manjoo’s June column on the release of Firefox 3.5, which emphasizes its integration of the HTML 5 standard, especially the way it allows for video to be called up using an HTML <video> tag without calling up Flash. Manjoo emphasizes the way this could result in interactive video; I look at the way it could obviate the need for centralized video repositories like YouTube. User-generated video can now conceivably be hosted on the web site of the person that produced it rather easily, without needing a third party like YouTube.

I could see YouTube imposing a survival of the fittest system, where videos that fail to meet a certain support threshold, failing to earn its keep, will receive a warning and eventually be automatically removed. This would keep YouTube high-quality and fairly self-sustaining. This one-two punch – encouraging people to take on the costs of hosting their stuff themselves and making it easier to do so – would theoretically maintain the user-generated content revolution while dispersing its costs and making it more manageable.

What about other services facing the same problem? What about Flickr and Facebook? There’s not going to be some HTML white knight to save them, is there? Maybe not, but it’s telling that so many WordPress users have clamored for an image gallery in core, despite its gimmicky-ness, that one appears to be coming. Facebook may be harder to deal with, as it effectively is the place where a lot of this “decentralized” stuff would go, as is. Twitter may be starting to take some load off Facebook, but its core is its interconnectedness; is it even possible to decentralize social networking?

This brings me to the CWI’s Steven Pemberton’s vision of what Web 3.0 might be like. Web 2.0 was based in specific Web sites like Flickr, Facebook and Wikipedia (which seems to be doing well as the public television of the Web, running primarily on donations with zero ads), but Web 3.0, in Pemberton’s eyes, would be based on millions of personal Web sites. Pemberton’s concerned about the effect that potentially getting “locked-in” to a specific site might have if you decide to change sites, or if the site (or your account) gets shut down, or the redundancy of being on both MySpace and Facebook, and suggests instead that semantic standards be instituted for such things. For example, you could put your contacts on a page on your site, and an aggregator (of sorts) would compare that with other people’s contacts. Such an “aggregator” might actually be part of the browser itself. Imagine if Twitter were to shut down, without a replacement, but left a standard for people to send “tweets” from their own web sites that could then be read from within the browser. (Microsoft, of all people, may be getting a head start on this with the “accelerators” in IE8.)

Pemberton might seem to be a lone dreamer with his own wild vision, and at first glance, this may seem to be incompatible with corporate America’s demands to centralize everything in one place under one company that can rake in the dough. But because the Internet is free, they haven’t been raking in the dough – and because of that, money may actually encourage the creation of this new decentralized vision of the Internet, just to spread the costs out so they aren’t borne by a few companies.

Probably the last word on Roethlisberger-gate, as in, I’m chiming in so late I doubt anyone else will chime in after me. Or even listen.

If ESPN wanted to cover up the Roethlisberger scandal, their initial decision not to report on it may have inadvertently helped that goal more than they intended, by moving the focus of the story off the suit itself and onto ESPN… (I swear I won’t spend every one of my posts talking about stories everyone has already left behind!)

Ultimately, the outrage directed at ESPN seems to have two sources. First, ESPN wouldn’t report on it, at all, not even on its web site, when other organizations – including the same company in the ABC News division – did. In his interview with ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer, Vince Loria declares that “[i]t was never our intent to be out front on this story.” Newsflash, Vince: ESPN is expected to be out front on every story. At the very least, ESPN is expected to acknowledge the existence of every story, since so many people turn to it for their sports news. As more people turn to the Internet for their sports news, that may start to change, but ESPN is still the definer of the news cycle, and for the moment the Internet only increases ESPN’s responsibilities, by not restricting it to filling only an hour and thus not giving it any excuse for ignoring a story. (Ohlmeyer seemingly acknowledges as much towards the end, though he also seems to recommend that ESPN itself should make the story about its refusal to report, and no one goes to ESPN for that sort of meta-discussion… this was an issue with Ohlmeyer’s predecessors as well…)

Second is the question of whether ESPN’s decision was fair, balanced, or consistent, given the fact that ESPN has not shied away from reporting on unconfirmed civil suits in the past… then other times it has. ESPN’s inconsistent stance on this issue has seemed wildly inconsistent and left people in the dark as to what criteria ESPN is using to determine whether to report and when. (And how; some have accused ESPN of slanting the story when they did report it.) With people left to come to their own conclusions, some have determined it has less to do with ESPN’s claimed criteria and more with irrelevant aspects of the athletes themselves, such as popularity, race, and relationship to the network. Ohlmeyer arguably did a disservice by asking Loria only about Marvin Harrison. ESPN has a lot more than that to answer for. Ohlmeyer also did a disservice by asking only about ESPN’s perceived protection of the NFL, and not Roethlisberger or the Steelers (especially given some writers’ dredging up ESPN’s Spygate coverage for evidence that the Patriots are/were not one of ESPN’s “protected” teams and the Steelers are).

(In fact, Doria himself notes that “prior history” goes into coverage decisions – a commendable position on its face, but Mike Tyson getting in trouble with the ladies is kind of old news, and a pillar of the community doing so is big news.)

I think most of us would prefer that the media not get so wrapped up in accusations against athletes that damage reputations and then not restore those reputations if the accusations turned out to be false – a natural result of the fact that once the case is settled, there’s no reason to report on it anymore, so the “no accusation” doesn’t get as much coverage as the “accusation”. But that’s not the way the media (or this country) works, and ESPN shouldn’t pretend it is.

On another note, I’m debating whether to include Ohlmeyer’s line – “I think the Internet is the most transformative technological advancement since the printing press” – in my book on the impact of the Internet… then again, Ohlmeyer’s hardly the first to say it.

The 2009 State of Webcomics Address

It’s been said that kids say the darndest things. It’s been said in many different ways by many different people. In fact, that’s essentially the lesson of the fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. All the adults who praise the emperor’s threads without actually seeing them fear the consequences of calling him out on them – but the kid who points out that the emperor is, in fact, buck naked doesn’t know any better, can’t grasp the consequences that the adults fear might befall him for saying such a thing.

What often isn’t said is that this tendency doesn’t go away all at once, but in fact, tends to slowly dissipate over time, with the accompanying cynicism increasing separately. At no time in history has this been made more clear than in the past 50 years. Time and again, it has been people in their 20s that have changed the world – people with enough learned cynicism to know the world as it is but enough residual idealism to feel that isn’t the way it has to be.

It is this group – the generation of people in their 20s – my generation, the Digital Generation – that has sought to explore every aspect of what the Internet could be, often without regard to the potential concerns and problems raised by the older, more cynical generation. Whether it’s blogs, YouTube, or really any number of things, my generation has colonized the Internet and made it our own, revolutionizing the way we live in the twenty-first century, without worrying too much about that little “money” thing, or the effect their experiments will have on the institutions they’re replacing.

Such is the case with webcomics. The unprecedented creative freedom of webcomics have led them to attract many would-be comic strip creators away from the newspaper, right when comic strips were most needed to fill the role they filled so capably back in the days of true competition within a market, and as I explained in the “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis” series they are on the cusp of doing the same for comic book creators. But it has still been difficult for webcomic creators to find a revenue stream. I don’t think webcomickers should be glorified T-shirt salesmen, but that and the sale of compilation books (seemingly unnecessary when all the strips are available online anyway) have so far been the main sources of income for webcomic creators. That helps explain why so many popular webcomics are gag-a-day comics: ongoing, dramatic storylines don’t lend themselves well to pithy T-shirts. (Order of the Stick is the exception that proves the rule, because while it has a dramatic storyline, it’s still ultimately a humor comic, and its books mix “deleted scenes” and behind-the-scenes info with the old strips and have all-new storylines in two cases.)

The Floating Lightbulb, in my opinion, was always a must-read for aspiring webcomickers, regardless of whether you agreed with Bengo’s advice or his seeming obsession with Scott Kurtz and his ilk. But if there’s one thing about TFL that disillusioned me more than any other except maybe said obsession, it was the fact that a lot of Bengo’s advice, especially of late, basically concerned increasing ROI on T-shirt sales. The message I got from such posts was that even the best webcomic in the world wouldn’t be financially successful if it wasn’t a vehicle for presenting T-shirt ideas. Bengo has said he wants quality, but the way he’s willing to compromise quality for money suggests that, if anything, webcomics may actually have less room for creative freedom than their print counterparts, at least as far as making money off them is concerned. At least in print, you’re paying for the story itself.

The story of webcomics is the story of Web 2.0 in general, only arguably further along. Webcomics and the webcomics community, at the core, have always been less about the works produced in the medium than the promise and potential of an idea. That simple idea was the idea of putting images side by side to tell a story, and putting the resulting story on a Web page. Dreamers like Scott McCloud evangelized about the tremendous potential of this idea, speaking of infinite canvases and micropayments and all sorts of cool stuff. Once the finances were worked out, people said, webcomics would be a revolution.

The reality has so far fallen far short of the promise. Some strips, like Girl Genius, The Order of the Stick, and Gunnerkrigg Court have been critically acclaimed and produced works worthy of the best (or at least critically acclaimed) of any medium, but even they have been bound by the comic book format; the infinite canvas, in the lack of a reliable payment scheme (as I chronicled in “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis”) has proven to be a gimmick at best. With people everywhere shunning paywalls of any kind and preventing the creation of real demand for compilations as anything other than a charitable excersize without “DVD extras”, and the ad market slumping while webcomics aren’t popular enough to make a lot of money out of a slumping ad market even for the most popular of webcomics, the most successful comics, as Bengo has pointed out, have been those gag-a-day strips that serve as meme factories so they can get people to buy more T-shirts.

I decided to institute a star rating system for my new webcomic review index, and it reveals that with the exception of OOTS, Sluggy Freelance, and (depending on your definition) the David Morgan-Mar comics, the most popular and successful comics (that I’ve reviewed so far, but I’ve reviewed most of the really big ones) are decidedly mediocre. There are a lot of two-star and two-and-a-half-star comics on there, including Penny Arcade, xkcd, PVP, Dinosaur Comics, and even Ctrl+Alt+Del, which I actually like and read. (That’s before we get into the 8-Bit Theaters and Dresden Codaks of the world.)

The idea of a new Golden Age of artistic experimentation and accomplishment has driven many webcomic promoters. But a disturbing number of webcomic creators, especially those first exposed to webcomics by PA or CAD, have been driven by a different dream: slapping together comics and earning fame and fortune with minimal work instead of getting a real job with real skills. Webcomics are the geek’s version of the black community’s dream of basketball or rap superstardom: many will enter, few will win. Thus far too many webcomics are crappy video game comics that basically copy-and-paste the CAD formula (already heavily hated) onto personages from the creator’s own life.

It may actually be worse when those people actually achieve webcomics stardom, because the reason they got into webcomics into the first place was that they desired the attention that comes from fame and not necessarily because they had genuine artistic concerns, so the fame often goes to their head. If you don’t believe that I have two names for you: Scott Kurtz and Tim Buckley. Say what you will about Bengo’s obsession with Kurtz or the Internet’s hatred of CAD, but the fact is that neither creator has really endeared himself to very many people. (Well, Kurtz endears himself to people who praise or agree with him or who he’s trying to impress, but still.)

Buckley’s control-freak tendencies and desire to live in his own little fantasy world where he’s the greatest webcomicker evar and everyone loves him is well known. Kurtz’s problem is different: he’s not living in a fantasy world necessarily (and he’s even self-depreciating about his own foibles), he just talks out of his ass a lot. Kurtz has been known to pick fights with various other webcomickers and webcomic bloggers for seemingly no reason, sees himself as the new Voice of All Webcomics even if others would rather he wasn’t, and has occasionally revealed a protectiveness against pretty much any other new webcomic that might conceivably steal one penny – or even one hit – from his own comic. (That didn’t stop him from co-writing a how-to book for aspiring webcomickers, so perhaps it’s no surprise that part of Bengo’s beef has been accusing the Halfpixel foursome of cooking unrealistic and unsupported numbers to inflate expectations in Aspiring Webcomickers Everywhere so they won’t challenge the established webcomickers like themselves.)

The proliferation of crappy video game comics is probably to be expected as a result of Sturgeon’s Law, but for some reason some of them have actually attracted a decent-sized following, and that, combined with the face people like Kurtz tend to present, has led the creation of a sizable group that seemingly hates webcomics in general, most prominent among them probably being John Solomon during his 15 minutes of fame. That the webcomic community rushed to the defense of many of the comics Solomon reviewed only allowed him to paint the community as an insular group that praises everything all the time uncritically, and when Solomon revealed an appreciation for such strips as the Court, OOTS, and to a limited extent PA (by contrast to other, inferior tag-team comics) it led some people to hate on them for the sole reason Solomon liked them. Thanks in part to Solomon, some even within the community have joined in the hating of bad video-game comics, and some have turned on the Kurtzes and Buckleys of the world, but they still exist, new Voices of All Webcomics have yet to appear, and sweep out the crap and the egos and you don’t have much left. You’re left with just the idea. And that idea has become shrouded by all the excess baggage.

Bengo doesn’t share my enthusiasm, expressed during “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis”, that an increasingly hostile comic book market to small publishers has put comic books on the cusp of a new flowering of greatness. In his eyes, the people that would flock to webcomics are instead turned off by all the crap and egos. Personally, I wouldn’t normally expect comic creators to hold the crap and egos produced by the medium now against the medium as a whole… but consider the following potential obstacles for an aspiring webcomicker:

  • Having Scott Kurtz or some other prima donna creator pick a fight with you for no reason.
  • Webcomic blogs can’t find your comic and won’t review it in the morass of other crap, so it doesn’t get discovered by the webcomic community. This is especially a problem for comics that release all in one installment, because of certain webcomic blogs’ policies not to review comics that have “ended”.
  • The general public (outside the webcomic community) sees webcomics (if they’ve heard of them) as a bunch of crappy video game comics made by arrogant college students and doesn’t find your comic, even if they wouldn’t otherwise need the help of webcomic blogs. This makes it especially difficult if your comic doesn’t appeal to nerds.

This last point seems especially salient considering the potential Scott McCloud saw in webcomics in Reinventing Comics. McCloud thought webcomics could appeal to more audiences than comic books heretofore had, appealing to women, minorities, and lovers of genres outside superheroes. He also thought webcomics could become much more mainstream than comic books were at the time. And the viral nature of the Internet meant that someway, somehow, even if the old gatekeepers didn’t like your work, if it was quality, it could find an audience.

But once again, here – as elsewhere – webcomics have fallen far short of the potential evangelized by their supporters. The Web is a marketplace of ideas, but it doesn’t change human nature, and that means stereotyping. If comic books have suffered from the notion that “comics are for kids” and “comics = superheroes”, webcomics may be starting to suffer from their own stereotypes, at least in some corners – stereotypes that have already irredeemably sickened web prose fiction, which became almost wholly identified with fanfic, which itself became almost wholly identified with bad fanfic. Because there are no barriers to entry, someone looking at a random webcomic is not likely to be impressed, and even the faces of webcomics, comics that have managed to shake the stench of Sturgeon’s Law to some extent, are Penny Arcade and xkcd, not Girl Genius or The Order of the Stick.

There is a silver lining for webcomics: slowly but surely, all media are starting to migrate to the Web in some form. That means they will all be subject to Sturgeon’s Law to some extent. (I’ll discuss some of the implications of that fact later in the week, but it won’t be a webcomic post.) Every medium will run a risk of becoming identified with crap. The barriers to entry are greater for art forms that require more and more expensive stuff, so more good stuff and less bad stuff will make it through in those media that combine moving images with sound – the descendants of movies and TV – and webcomics could remain very low on the totem pole as a medium, ahead of only prose, podcasts, and music. (And as it gets easier to create a simple webcomic like I did with Sandsday, webcomics could even fall behind podcasts and music!) Still, eventually we’ll get used to the fact, as the ever-popular blogosphere already is, that there’s a bunch of junk out there, and we’ll just have to follow what we’re familiar with and hope word of mouth will lead us to the other good stuff. When that happens, maybe – maybe – webcomics will be able to play on a level playing field. But to do so, it may need to completely jettison any memory of its video game legacy.

Sturgeon’s Law may explain all the crap in webcomics, but how to explain all the egos that (at least to Bengo) are seemingly attracted to webcomics like moths to a flame? It turns out that, at least in our dog-eat-dog society, most people are predisposed to jerkdom. I myself may admit that I might come across as a jerk in real life. Under the old ways, the jerks were weeded out or reformed by the need to network and negotiate to get anywhere in their desired careers. But that’s no longer necessary to put your wares on the web with no barriers to entry, where you can talk to anyone you still need to network with in a purely utilitarian mode and hide behind the abstraction of text with no face-to-face contact, with ready-made audiences on many sites where you don’t have to talk to anyone, and with some people willing to promote your work without even knowing what you’re like as a person.

But none of that really gets to the heart of the matter as far as Bengo is concerned: To him, the webcomics community itself is the problem.

Jonathan Rosenberg started Fleen to have a webcomic blog unencumbered by a creator who runs his own webcomic on the side. In Bengo’s eyes, he didn’t succeed, since Dumbrella was almost as much a dirty word at TFL as Halfpixel. As far as Bengo is concerned, a lot of the webcomics community is either consisting of people who ultimately want to promote their own wares, or driven by those people and blinded to those people trying something new, instead led around in circles to keep propping up the same old Penny Arcade and PVP and Ctrl+Alt+Del. Moreover, because of the small size of the medium it can throw the moniker of success onto people who really don’t deserve the term, people who in actuality are wallowing in mediocrity whether aesthetically or financially.

But in Bengo’s eyes, the root of this isn’t far from that of webcomics’ density of prima donnas. Any new idea is going to come with a good dose of idealism, since idealism is the only way new ideas are born, but also some of the lower aspects of human nature, simply because rules for professionalism haven’t been established. What’s more, an idealism about the potential of a new idea and a blindness to the faults go hand in hand. Idealism is a double-edged sword; it allows you to try something that’s never been done before, but that can be because it blinds you to the problems that are the reasons why the skeptics are skeptical in the first place, both potential and practical. What’s more, the latter problem is often compounded with youth, who owe their idealism to not having experience with the problems. Especially since youth often comes with a seeming immaturity, or at least inexperience, that compounds the problems of human nature. Sometimes this is itself defended as idealism, sometimes it’s just subconscious, but always it can hold the idea back from acceptance by the old gatekeepers.

When Bengo rather condescendingly claims that what sets webcomics further back than other fields with some of the same problems is that “many people are young and lack the critical skills to recognize these realities”, it’s tempting to dismiss it as an old fogie yelling at the kids to get off his lawn. After all, he’s effectively claiming that he is the only one capable of properly sizing up the webcomic landscape – an outsider who’s barely spent a year immersed in the webcomic community. Anyone else is just too blinded by their youthful idealism. (After all, it’s not like Scott McCloud has a career in comics dating back to the 80s.) They’re too wrapped up in an insider mentality, can’t see the forest for the trees, they’re blind to what everyone else thinks of them. They think everything’s coming up roses for webcomics but only because they’re shielded – whether subconsciously or by demagogues – from the Truth(tm).

I think Bengo may be misreading the motives of some observers – many webcomic promoters don’t care that the fact of webcomics is in rough shape, because they only care about the idea. They’re not blind to webcomics’ problems because they “lack the critical skills” to ferret them out, they’re blind to them because that’s not where they’re looking. And that’s a good thing – better to look at the webcomics doing good things for the medium than the demagogues. But Bengo’s concern is for an aspiring webcomicker who’s either young and set to ruin their lives following an avalanche of bad advice, bad role models, and their own inexperience, or more experienced and trying to avoid getting wrapped up in a scene that produces a bunch of jerks – and where the financials might not have been figured out to the extent people think.

Bengo thinks webcomics are even smaller than those within the community give it credit for – and shrinking, with even the top webcomics enjoying less success and less self-sufficiency than they sometimes get credit for. Many webcomics creators, in his experience, are not just egotistical but private and unwilling to give hard data. The number of truly artistic, great webcomics – especially those noticed by the successors of Websnark, the mainstream webcomic blogs – can probably be counted on one hand. The number of webcomics that have had even fleeting breakout success outside the webcomic niche are even fewer. The webcomic community is still more committed to the potential of an idea than the actual realization of that idea. Much of the webcomic blogosphere consists of not so much coverage of actual webcomics but coverage of technological developments that might, one day, if we’re lucky, have an influence on the future of comics. (Comixtalk seems to prefer to see itself as a site for coverage of “comics in the digital age” than a webcomics blog.) Even webcomic reviews have, since Websnark near-fell off the face of the earth, concentrated less on the comics themselves and more on how lessons from them might apply to Aspiring Webcomickers Everywhere.

Say what you will about his conclusions, or even dismiss them entirely as someone too jaded to realize how times are changing and bitter about not succeeding the way “better” cartoonists did, you should still be sobered by Bengo’s announcement that he would be leaving “webcomics” entirely, feeling the term too poisoned, and urging others to isolate their sites as much as possible from the “scene”. And cheerleaders for the idea may want to listen to what Bengo had to say before that, directly to them:

I’d be alarmed that an open-minded, truth-seeking sort like myself would enter webcomics, study it round the clock for several years, and find it mostly over-blown, in love with itself and falling out of fashion. I’d be even more alarmed that there are quality comics with quality accounting who far out-perform the alleged self-supporting titles, providing a valuable reality check to the people peddling your bright webcomic career along with your lottery ticket and Brooklyn Bridge. The ignorance deficit — the difference between what most webcomic people know and what they need to know — is so gaping, the typical aspirant’s chances of success are rotten.

During Bengo’s farewell series, Scott Kurtz left a series of comments so mean-spirited and trolly it may have been hard to believe he was actually responsible for them. But that can’t be said for his tweeted response to Bengo’s announcement he would be leaving the “webcomics scene”, which regardless of what you may think of Bengo and his conclusions, has to be a wake-up call to anyone:

I think @krisstraub and I forced a man to quit webcomics. I’m proud. Proud of what we’ve acomplished [sic].

Really, Scott? You’re proud that a man who wanted to enter webcomics, who saw the potential of the core idea of webcomics and wanted webcomics to be the best that they could be, someone who could have – for all we know – been one of the great forces and driving figures to help webcomics achieve their potential, instead saw a cesspool of jerks and crap and decided it wasn’t worth the trouble? You’re proud that you forced a man to quit “webcomics”?!? How could you, self-proclaimed Voice of All Webcomics, possibly be proud of driving someone from it? Is it just because he didn’t bother kowtowing to you and dared to challenge you and your infallible statements? Is it because you think he’s bitter about not being good enough and you see him picking a fight with you for no good reason, oblivious to the fact you’re making yourself as bad if not worse, and taking webcomics down with it? Or perhaps we should take your nonspecific phrasing at face value, and decide this is one instance of you letting slip your real goal, that you don’t really want webcomics reaching their potential, that you don’t want anyone escaping the cave to discover the true mediocrity of your work, that you’re willing to bring down an entire art form so you can remain self-proclaimed king of it?

This one statement, more than any other – even any from Bengo – is telling about the state of webcomics today, held back by those who would wish that Sturgeon’s Law continued to hold as much as possible, that it would remain a niche small enough for their own delusions of grandeur to seem realistic, that its reputation could be sullied enough that it could remain their own little club. It’s possible that one day, when the history of comics on the web are told, we will say that once upon a time, there was a community of people, led by those who created the early successes and tried to ensure there would be no others, who produced a body of work and built their own insular community around it known as “webcomics”, and their actions nearly set the cause of comics on the web back years, and their community initially attracted those who would defend the idea, but decided that to avert the fate of the idea being slaughtered in the crib, they would have to distance themselves from it and start over, ditching the roots that “webcomics”, an outgrowth of the dumb Internet culture of the Web’s childhood and adolescence, laid down.

I would love to come back in a year, at next year’s State of Webcomics Address, and say that this period of webcomics history is not quite as bleak as I just described, that we have found a new Voice of All Webcomics that can rescue it from the damage Kurtz and his ilk are doing, that Bengo’s description of the potential missed opportunity facing us did not turn out to be as tragic as he feared. I’d even like to be able to say the state of webcomics wasn’t as bad as I made it seem even now, that Bengo was wrong all along, that webcomics’ own quirks – even its propensity for egos – were good enough to grow and thrive in the context of the Internet. But not only am I not holding my breath, I’m not sure if I’ll even know the answer from the webcomic blogosphere.