Inside the tech experiment that wants to change football forever

Your Call Football puts the fans in charge of the huddle. How would you like to call plays against Bill Belichick? Malcolm Jackson for ESPN

ON A MONDAY afternoon in Jacksonville, Florida, four hours before game time, quarterback Vad Lee is rocking leisurely on a foam roller on the carpet of a spacious hotel suite.

Or at least this used to be a spacious hotel suite, before the 91 football players, 19 coaches and 23 staff members who make up Your Call Football moved in for five weeks. The entire fifth floor of the hotel is now completely occupied in what looks like -- at first glance -- a hostile takeover. Behind Lee, there's a faint outline of where two full-sized beds used to be; in the hallway, hampers are piled with dirty workout clothes; a few doors down, boxes of pro football gear reach the ceiling.

Lee should be napping right now. He's been traveling practically every other day between Florida and Bloomington, Indiana, to be with his wife when she gives birth to their second child. "I've been sleeping in the airport a lot," he tells me. He flew back today on a 6 a.m. flight so he can do what he's enjoyed most since he was 5 years old: play football.

Or at least something that resembles football. While Your Call Football has all the traditional trappings of a football operation, it doesn't have a permanent home base, and depending on whom you ask, it isn't even really a league. In fact, Julie Meringer, YCF president, will tell you defiantly that it is not. "We're about the fans," she says.

So what will Lee be doing, if not playing football? He'll suit up as QB in a real game with real coaches on a real, regulation-size NFL field -- but it's a version of football that, if the Your Call founders are right, will change the way the sport as we know it is played and consumed. YCF is part football, part gaming, part fantasy and allows fans to decide how an actual in-progress game is played, as if Madden came to life.

Here's how it works: Every Monday night for four weeks in the spring, fans get a notification at 8 p.m. to open the YCF app. As the game starts, they are given a coach-selected "bundle" of three plays to choose from.

They're presented in typical play formation sketch, with all the idiosyncratic names football fans know, and each fan has 10 seconds to decide what the team's offense should do next. Is it time for a slant-and-go or a stick-hitch? Do you want a smash-thru concept, a slant drag or an inside gap strong?

The game is free to play, and there are cash prizes into the tens of thousands of dollars. Fans are awarded points when they select what the coach wanted and when their play selection is successful, and fans who don't pick with the majority are awarded points when the majority-chosen play results in a negative play, like a sack or an incompletion. At the end of the 10 seconds, the play is transmitted to offensive coordinators on the sideline and radioed into the huddle. From start to finish, the whole sequence until the huddle breaks takes 19 seconds.

Because YCF is a hybrid of fantasy, tech app, football and video game, it can be hard to define. For fans on the app, it's a low-stakes but potentially high-payoff endeavor that allows them to feel personally invested in the game. For the YCF staff, it's a patented technology that all professional sports leagues should be falling over themselves to license. For the players, primarily post-collegiate, sometimes-NFL guys, it's another shot at getting called up. Every YCF player is provided with game film that is uploaded for the NFL, CFL, AAF and XFL to watch. Before the AAF suspended operations in early April, it had recruited seven YCF players in a week.

Lee is here, four years after he was injured at the height of his hugely promising senior season at James Madison University, to see whether he can make it after a failed stint in the CFL and a job stocking Nabisco products at grocery stores. Whether the fans or coaches are calling the offensive plays makes no difference to him, as long as he performs well. Besides, he's played Madden. He knows the deal.

"You know, I'm tryna to get my spin move, circle move, get my juke move, the triangle while hopping over somebody," he says, his face lighting up as he squats on the hotel carpet. "I'm just tryna get it all."

IT'S NO SECRET that major sports leagues are losing millennials and Gen Zers, two generational cohorts that have grown up with phones practically fused to their hands. A 2015 Deloitte study found that a whopping 92 percent of consumers multitask while watching TV, millennials in particular. The rise of esports, streaming and daily fantasy suggests that younger viewers are looking not just to watch entertainment but to be a part of it.

That's where YCF comes in, according to George Colony, the millionaire founder and CEO of tech research company Forrester Research, who funds the entire enterprise, from the salaries down to the prize money. He debuted the original idea on stage at a conference in the early 2000s with Paul Tagliabue, the NFL commissioner at the time. Discussing the future of the league, Colony says he told Tagliabue, "I know how to compete with you. It's obvious that the future of football [is one] where fans are using technology to actually control the game."

They bantered about it, then Tagliabue told him offstage that it was a great idea. "[He said] the NFL will likely never do that, so you should explore it."

YCF wants to bring digital interactivity to sports, to give millennials who have stopped paying attention a reason to actually care. In the back of a hotel banquet room, where players and coaches for both teams are gathered for buffet lunch, Meringer, who worked for Colony for 20 years, walks through YCF's philosophy.

"Football, it's siloed, and it's passive. You yell at the TV," she explains. "Fantasy, it's siloed, it's one-way. Those players don't know you picked them, and they don't care. Can we offer fans more control?"

The company has four patents on its back-end technology, and its hope is to build an easily franchised product it can license to other sports leagues and teams. YCF wouldn't share its usage data with me, but Meringer claims YCF has met with the NFL to explore applying the technology to the Pro Bowl. (The NFL did not respond to a request for comment.)

Colony is a dreamer: In his mind, someday fans will be able to tell Tom Brady what to do. For instance, after the Super Bowl, the Patriots would have two weeks to rest, Colony explains of his imagined future synergy between YCF and the NFL. Then they'd play one more game against a team of all-stars. And those all-stars' plays would be called by the fans. "I'd love to see a Super Super Bowl," he muses, "where Bill Belichick has to play the fans."

UNLIKE MOST BIG game days, there is no tailgate, no merchandise, no beer, no cheerleaders, no band, no chanting or brawls at Monday night's Your Call Football game. And the competition isn't really in which team wins or loses but in how fans on the app score.

But at the Jaguars' indoor flex field, roughly six minutes from hotel headquarters, "Good Life" by Kanye West is blasting, a small crowd of friends and family gathers and two kids dance, Spider-Man toys in hand. Tight end Clayton Wilson's mom, Randy, is here early, wearing a shirt she handmade with silver appliqués. YCF doesn't sell player jerseys, after all.

Wilson was part of the 2018 rookie class with the Seahawks but was injured early and eventually cut when the team had to get down to 53 players. "He was really disappointed," Wilson's mom tells me. "But there are so many opportunities out there."

When he told her about this new league, she said, "You're going to do what?" But, she admits, "this could be the next thing. It's all about interactive technology now."

Lee, for his part, has requested not to start tonight. Since YCF plays two quarterbacks each game to give both an opportunity to showcase their skills for scouts looking at film, he wanted to be the closer. Besides, with only four games in a series, a new roster every year and only two teams (Power and Grit), fans are not particularly concerned about personnel changes, and coaches create offenses that fit both players.

"I'd love to see a Super Super Bowl, where Belichick plays the fans." George Colony, YCF founder

There's no kickoff at YCF games, so after a coin toss, Team Power starts at the 35-yard line. Fans elect a run play, followed by a pass, then an unsuccessful run. On a fourth-and-3, there's an option to punt, and fans take it. Things continue like this for the better part of the first half -- the score by halftime is only 8-3 Grit. "Get some points up there!" Meringer mutters from the sideline.

She's also frustrated that there have been a few bundles in a row with only run plays or only pass plays. "Fans want variety!"

At the top of the third quarter, Lee takes over on Team Grit, and on second-and-13, the armchair playcallers show faith in their second-half quarterback, electing for a hitch-and-go pass route. Forty-one yards later, his pass lands with K.J. Maye for a touchdown. (The next day, he tweets, "Gotta love the aggressive play call by the fans!!!")

On the sidelines, the majority of the crowd has a phone in hand, with one eye, just barely, on the game. When game-changing plays are successful, the cheers are muted. Despite the athleticism of Lee and his offensive line, it's clear that the Your Call Football experience is enjoyed best as a virtual game between fans and not as much as a literal football game. And that is exactly the point, according to the designers. "When you're standing on the sidelines, there are no fans there. That's intentional," Colony said in February. "The real game is being played in living rooms, in bars, in kitchens while [people are] looking at their screens."

To accommodate that game, though, YCF needs to pack a small team of workers in a room no bigger than a child's bedroom. Around a horseshoe-shaped table, seven members of the YCF team puppeteer the game logistics with eight laptops, four TVs, a few headsets and some Twizzlers, Eclipse gum and Red Bull. Like on the sidelines, there's an eerie stillness in the room as the plays come down from the coaches, are released to the fans, then sent back down again to the field.

On one side, a staff member signals yardage, points, penalties and losses out loud to another, who translates the plays into scored points for fans in real time. "Everything has to be checked and checked again," Sue Develin, YCF's vice president of marketing, explains to me the morning after the second game. "So they are both listening to the game caller on the 50-yard line, who very quickly says, 'Gain of 4, second-and-6, on the 34.' And that's what everyone is immediately reacting to."

Penalties, Develin says, are more complicated. If there are pre-snap penalties, for example, the bundle has to be canceled, which obviously can detract from the fan experience.

Right before halftime, with Team Power in field goal range, there are two defensive flags thrown back-to-back. B.J. McBryde, a 292-pound Team Grit defensive end who spent a few years in the NFL after playing at UConn, yells angrily from the sideline. "Do the fans pick the refs' calls too?"

Back in the tech room, the mood is the same.

"Flags, you're killing me," Develin grumbles. "Cancel play. Cancel it."

ASHLEY GUINAN, A 30-year-old software engineer from Salt Lake City, was the first YCF game winner when the series debuted last May. She won $5,000 for her playcalling skills. "I remember just trying to play what I think the coaches would have played in that game," she says.

She hasn't won anything yet this year, but that hasn't stopped her from trying again. "You kind of have to learn the teams, what they're good at," she explains. "Power's offensive line is really struggling, but you can tell by Games 2 and 3 that [coach Merril Hoge] has opened on specific plays that they'll get really good at, and fans are calling them more."

Another fan, Graig Gallo, who won $2,500 in the first series, explains that the experience of playing in the app was "so crisp, so clean and so fast."

Gallo realized that, when he took his dog out for a walk, he couldn't put his phone down or he'd miss a play. "That's why it was fun. It kept you into it. Every play mattered; there were plays where you'd jump up or down 100 points in the standings. I called every single touchdown correctly across all three games, except for one touchdown. I would have won $10,000."

Not infrequently, there's dissonance between what the coach wants, what the fans want and what the players want.

Mike Weaver, Team Grit's kicker, expected to kick a field goal when they were in range during Game 1. "It was fourth-and-10 on, like, the 30, and we probably should have kicked it," he says. But the fans voted for a different play, so he had to sprint off.

In another instance, fans left him with the opposite problem."The fans called a field goal, and here I am next to the coach, so I gotta try to sprint on the field," he explains. "But then none of our team was out there because we weren't ready to kick a field goal. We tried calling a timeout, but we didn't have one, so we just took the 5-yard penalty, backed up and kicked it.

"But," he adds, "the fans are always right."

I mention to Meringer that, in conversations with dozens of coaches and players, hardly any of them bring up the technology component at all, which I found strange. "That's great. It doesn't impact them," she responds. "It's just football."

For Lee, though, and the dozens of other players who have flown down here on a $500-a-week stipend with a $600 game bonus, these four games -- no matter who is calling the plays -- are an opportunity to prove themselves again, even if it could mean missing the birth of a child. "My mindset is that this is my one shot. I don't know what's in store in the future," Lee says. "This could be the last opportunity for me to play ball ever again."

Everyone gets something out of YCF, but no one more than the fans. As Meringer emphasizes, it isn't a league. Despite the hundreds of intricate, strategic and distinctly human moving parts, Your Call Football is about you.

Khalid Abdullah, a running back for Team Grit who played with Lee at JMU, explains how YCF has changed the way he plays. "I talk to my family after the games, and they're like, 'Oh, I won this many points,'" says Abdullah, a former undrafted free agent who had a cup of coffee with the Giants in 2017. "You finally get the sense of how the fans feel about it, and how the experience is for them outside of how it is for us. For us, it's just football. But for them, it's everything."