Last month, the National Football League announced it would cancel the 2021 Pro Bowl game — news that went largely unnoticed, since very few football fans care about it. But today, first reported by CNBC, the NFL announced it will resurrect the Pro Bowl as a weeklong digital event with players competing in EA’s Madden NFL 21 instead.
Details are scant, outside of the promise of “celebrities, NFL Legends, current players, and streamers,” according to an EA press release. Even the exact date is still to come. (Pinning one down will depend on if the NFL season is extended into an 18th week, the rumored solution if COVID cases mess with the schedule further.)
Still, it’s a fun, inevitable solution to what has often been the NFL’s least necessary tradition. The Pro Bowl fills the gap week between the playoffs and the Super Bowl, when the two competing teams rest. Naturally, the NFL fills that empty space with their equivalent of an all-star game, though football being a sport with high injury rates, players tend to compete in the Pro Bowl at half speed and soft contact out of respect to each other. (After all, the results of the game are essentially meaningless, unless you believe that an AFC / NFC rivalry is real.) The result is often a kind of odd, low-stakes celebration that draws an audience smaller than your average Thursday night game — though hearing Ryan Tannehill fanboy out to fellow QB Deshaun Watson might make the whole thing worth it.
That said, the NFL often uses the Pro Bowl as a way to test things. Last year, the event introduced a rule that teased getting rid of kickoffs entirely, one of the most dangerous plays in the sport. In 2021, the NFL will see what it’s like taking football completely off the field.