‘The Last Game’: Nike’s simulated critique

I recall a comment made in a talk by Mark Fisher to the effect that if Capitalism doesn’t want to appropriate your cultural critique, it isn’t a critique worthy of the name. I was reminded of this line recently on seeing Nike’s World Cup-oriented promotional film ‘The Last Game’, produced by the communications company Wieden & Kennedy as part of a wider viral campaign. This 8-minute online animation, which features in the commercial breaks for World Cup broadcasts in truncated form – a trailer for an advert – contains and to some extent exorcises a prominent critique of modern football. Namely, that it is overly-reliant on an ideology of technological progression to the detriment of its fundamental accessibility and humanity, that its drive towards ever-increasing optimisation of elite performance is a betrayal of the game’s ludic spirit and critical proletarian open-endedness.

You’ll most likely have seen the clip by now, but just to recap: a Willem Defoe lookalike supervillain uses his presumably vast R&D budget to clone multiple copies of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, David Luiz and, more jarringly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Franck Ribery and Tim Howard (saying nothing of Wayne Rooney’s persistent presence in these “world’s best” spots); the supposed superiority of these clones is based on a view of football which places undue privilege on analytics, like a hyperattenuated version of Billy Beane’s sabermetrics: real elite footballers take too many risks, so the reasoning goes, and need to be subjected to ruthless standardisation. Out go eccentricity, frailty and wilfulness and in come identikit pudding-bowl haircuts and grey bodysuits and a more economical rate of return. The result is a flat, drab, dystopian version of the ‘futuristic fantasy-land of zero-error gameplanning and cerebrative-calculationist techno-mastery’ that, for Ahmer Nadeem Anwer, represents one aspirational pole of football’s current historical situation. So Willem Dafoe goes on to reinscribe football in his boring image before, in a familiar deus ex machina scenario, the real Neymar, Rooney and so on are plucked from their new day jobs by “fat” Ronaldo and brought together for “one last game”, whose result will decide the fate of their sport.

It’s worth pausing a moment on the dystopian vision that the clip presents, and taking a brief detour into two works with which it is more-or-less comparable. A 1997 Reebok ad entitled Doppelganger: the true story of Ryan Giggs, hinges similarly on the idea of football’s future being stolen by cloning technology, only the aesthetics are markedly different. In an oddly prescient fantasy, Manchester City are controlled by a ruthless old moneybags with a knack for experimental financial doping (his cigar, top hat and name, Reginald Backhander, indicate that we’re dealing with a more tradition image of monopolisers here). Using spit from various legends of the game – George Best, Geoff Hurst, Lev Yashin – Backhander has produced a number of doppelgangers and signed them up to play in sky blue. In the ad’s syuzhet, Ryan Giggs has subsequently been captured and subjected to the same fate. What distinguishes this from the Nike spot is that the clones are monstrous idiots. When introduced to his original counterpart, the cloned Giggs stares gormlessly into space and farts. This sense of debasement is reflected in the animation’s lumpen clay textures. Biotechnology threatens football, but the stakes are construed quite differently.

There’s a similar sense of biotechnology’s capacity for, or perhaps tendency towards, grotesque results in Jon Bois’s two series of articles for SBNation, Breaking Madden and NBA Y2K. Here, the “edit” sections of popular American sports simulations – the Madden NFL and NBA Y2K series – provide a means for engineering freakish automata. In the finale of NBA Y2K, Bois constructs an oddly poignant scenario in which each successive annual draft from the 2013-14 NBA season onwards is peopled entirely with players whose stats and attributes are as low as the game will allow. The narrative that Bois constructs around the league’s subsequent dwindling fortunes over a twenty year period strikes a similar chord with The Last Game‘s depiction of football’s short, sharp slide into irrelevance, although it is much, much funnier.

Unlike Bois’s rather Beckettian piece, The Last Game ultimately has a happy ending, premised on Nike’s current strapline, “Risk Everything”. David Luiz’s risky goal-line clearance, Neymar’s dribble-with-selfie, Ronaldo’s rejection of a clear shot on goal with the quip ‘no, it’s too easy’: all these moments invite us to reflect on how football’s true appeal lies in its its lack of economy. Games are fundamentally wasteful, and the less terse the style of play, the closer football is to its roots. As Fat Ronaldo emotes to his charges, “you play like it’s a game; they play like it’s a job”. One could thus be forgiven for finding within this advert a critique of the game’s professionalisation (which critique would not – I say this as a fan of Rugby League – be unproblematic), before you take into account the spot’s central personages, its lingering glances at the latest Nike footwear, and this reading becomes less tenable. A critique which could serve to support interest in football’s grass-roots is instead mobilised as a means of reinvesting privileges in its moneyed stars. But it remains the case that The Last Game has assimilated or appropriated some of that sentiment which rails against excessive abstraction of football’s elements, against tactocracy, against the handling of football clubs as business ventures. And here Mark Fisher’s lines come into focus, alongside a passage from Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s 1999 opus The New Spirit of Capitalism which beautifully explicates Fisher’s notion. Against all my academic better judgement, I quote them here at length, without comment, and by way of conclusion:

A second effect of critique is that, in opposing the capitalist process, it compels its spokesmen to justify that process in terms of the common good. And the more violent and convincing the critique for a large number of people, the more the justifications advanced in response will have to be combined with reliable mechanisms that guarantee a positive improvement in terms of justice. If those who speak for social movements make do, in response to their demands, with superficial declarations that are not followed by concrete actions (empty words, as they say); if the expression of finer feelings suffices to calm indignation, then there is no reason for improving the mechanisms that are supposed to render capitalist accumulation more in keeping with the common good. And when capitalism is obliged to respond positively to the points raised by critique, to try to placate it and maintain the support of its troops, who are in danger of listening to the denunciations, by the same gesture it incorporates some of the values in whose name it was criticized. The dynamic impact of critique on the spirit of capitalism here takes the form of a strengthening of the justifications and associated mechanisms which, while it does not challenge the principle of accumulation itself, or the need for profits, partially satisfies the critique and integrates into capitalism constraints that correspond to the points of most concern to its detractors. The price paid by critique for being listened to, at least in part, is to see some of the values it had mobilized to oppose the form taken by the accumulation process being placed at the service of accumulation, in accordance with the process of cultural assimilation referred to above.

Posted by Luke Healey

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