The First Pancake Is Always Lumpy
This is an interesting week in AFL history.
The league is launching AFLX – a modified version of the game being trialled in the pre-season.
There’s been a lot of commentary about their decisions, and I think it’s a fascinating summary of the prototyping process.
First, let’s look at the changes:
- The field is much smaller, now the size of a soccer pitch
- There are seven players on the field instead of 18
- Goals from 40 meters out are worth 10 points instead of 6
- These 10 points are called “Zooper Goals” and set off two smoke cannons
- Players can’t run as far with the ball
- The ball is silver
- The match is made up of two 10 minute halves instead of four 30 min quarters
I watched the games, not sure of what to expect.
The community response was pretty unanimous:
There’s no tension, nothing to play for, no superstars, no contested marks or tackles.
On top of that, the Zooper Dooper sponsorship is obnoxious, the gimmicks are tacky, and the whole thing feels like a circus.
Even the goalposts flash in Zooper Dooper colours.
However, I have a slightly different perspective than the rest of the crowd.
Most people have said “This sucks, let’s kill the idea now before it gets embarrassing”
My view is “This sucks, but with some changes there could be something here”
This mindset is so important for anyone wanting to build something original, and it completely changes how you perceive an experiment.
It’s good to understand the landscape of Australian sport.
AFL is popular, as is Rugby League.
Basketball, soccer and netball are popular games, but not at their professional levels – in fact most Australians couldn’t name two teams from any of those leagues.
American sports are growing quickly, especially NFL and NBA, as is the English Premier League and UEFA Champions League.
Interestingly, cricket is having a resurgence, thanks to the Twenty20 format that began in 2005.
That too was ridiculed for being a circus, and purists hated it.
Families loved it, and now it’s the most popular format in Australia and the enormous Indian market.
If the AFL wants to stay relevant, they need to make the game playable overseas.
If they want that, they need something that can be played on a smaller field and with fewer players.
It has to be faster paced, full of action, but not as long as the usual 3-hour runtime.
Quite a tough order, but if it works it will transform the reputation of our game.
That completely changes the way you see this prototype.
Sure it sucks, but some elements are working.
The game is fast paced, and the teams are scoring lots of points.
It shows off the athleticism of younger players, especially the recent draft picks.
The 10 point goals mean that a large lead can be closed in just seconds, which keeps the tension high.
What’s admirable is the attitude of the AFL.
They’ve publicly said that it’s a trial.
They expect it to have weaknesses, and are committed to fixing them.
In fact, halfway through the first matches they scrapped the silver ball, swapping to the traditional yellow as it’s easier to see.
The rules will change to make the game more exciting.
The next version will be better.
This is the attitude behind prototyping.
The AFL tried something new, with low risk and high upside.
They’re challenging the old assumptions about the game, one by one.
They’ve got Zooper Dooper to pay for their experiment.
They cut their losses quickly, and haven’t fallen in love with any one part of the idea.
The first pancake is always lumpy.
Fortunately, we make multiple pancakes.
When prototyping, we put our egos aside, manage expectations, and keep an open mind.
We don’t spend huge amount of money, just enough to see which parts of the idea are working.
A failed experiment is still hugely valuable – if you learn from it and make constructive changes.
North Melbourne coach Brad Scott has the right approach:
"There's a fair element of the unknown. We think it's a really exciting concept. That's not to say that we think it's going to be a raging success or otherwise but certainly from North Melbourne's perspective we think it's a really good idea to trial it. We're more than willing to put some of our good players out there and see how they go.
Hopefully it's a great product and if it's not we haven't lost anything."
Good ideas withstand competition.
If the AFL can’t be improved, that’s a good sign for the game.
If the AFL can be improved, why wouldn’t we make the improvement?
Nothing is being taken away – not until the new version has been proven to be a better option.
The only risk is embarrassment – a small price to pay for the chance to make something great.
For more examples, have a look at my post on The Early Versions of great ideas.