It’s always sports time, but as the weather cools down in the Northern Hemisphere, it feels like sports are everywhere. The beginning of football season is my cue to get a flu shot, and it should be yours as well, so go do that before you settle in to read our thoughts on sports in games, sports as games, and probably also splorts.
In-game sports: What do they do for you? Are there any you really like? Are there any you really hate?
Melissa Brinks: Nothing. I’m sorry. Aside from the time I played Quidditch in the ancient and extremely ugly Harry Potter game while my father watched the Superbowl and I pretended all the cheering was for my sick flying skills, I can’t think of a time I’ve enjoyed an in-game sport.
I’ll say it. I’ll start this fire. Fuck Blitzball. I love that Tidus is a jock but making me play Blitzball is cruel. I don’t get it! I can’t do it! I hate losing! What a recipe for disaster.
Emily Durham: Can we talk about how much the skateboarding and hockey minigames sucked in the later Spyro games?! I hate them so MUCH. Also, I never got the hang of the snowboarding mechanic in Breath of the Wild. (I did, however, enjoy the sand-seal racing and mounted archery. For the most part.)
I also hated Blitzball. Basically, there are very few exceptions to my dislike of sports minigames. And also games about sports. Except Backyard Baseball, which will forever have a special place in my heart.
Zora Gilbert: Is fishing a sport? Sonic Adventure’s fishing route ruined fishing in every game ever for me. Big the Cat is now, tragically, my enemy.
Maddi Butler: Ever since I continuously lost to Riku in Kingdom Hearts‘ Destiny Island obstacle course race in 2003, I have been somewhat bitter about sports in games. I generally do not like having to learn a sport within a game, or a card game. I will not and cannot play Gwent. I am possibly an outlier in that I love Blitzball (conceptually) but I’m also blessed with a partner who will play many hours’ worth of Blitzball to win Wakka’s celestial weapon.
What does including in-game sports accomplish on the part of narrative or mechanics?
Melissa: I think there’s a lot of potential uses (including frustration, thanks Blitzball!!!), but one of the more interesting to me is play. Games are kind of inherently about play, given that that’s what you do with them, but I don’t think the goal of most games is to make you think about what it means to play in our world (though that’s certainly an interesting topic, given the popularity of military shooters, huh?). Putting a game within a game, and an athleticism-driven game at that, can be a neat little worldbuilding package if you want to think deeply about it.
So, like, Blitzball. We’ve established I hate Blitzball. But what is it doing in Final Fantasy X, aside from causing me great anguish? Well, it makes Tidus a jock, and that’s fun. But it’s also a look at something Spirans do for fun—play and watch Blitzball. Spira’s a nation in constant turmoil; even during the Calm, you know it’s only a matter of time before another attack from Sin. So this wild, technology-influenced sport can represent a variety of things to the society—the melding of nature with (acceptable) technology and magic, a reprieve from the horrors of the world, fun rather than violent rivalries, and so on. I wish there was a bit more about what play means to Spira narratively, but I still think it works!
Mechanically it still stinks.
Emily: Okay, this is where I talk about how much I hated the gameplay of Pyre, and why I played, and loved, the whole game despite that.
So the main source of action gameplay in Pyre are the “Rites,” which are basically just sports games. In these games, you control a three-player team (that you choose from a bullpen of friendly NPC “exiles”) that faces off against other three-player teams to compete their way back into the good graces of a city and become un-exiled. The devs went out of their way to create a narrative that explored “what happens when you face defeat, and have to come back from it the next day, look your friends in the face, look yourself in the mirror, and deal with the consequences of the decisions you made.”
I loved the storyline of Pyre. I loved the text-based RPG format of the exiles getting to know each character, why they were exiled, why they want to go back, who they know on the outside, etc. I loved every moment of conversation between characters, and the interpersonal drama between each team. I loved the theming and the music and the art and everything about the game. Except for the Rites. The Rites, where you have to control three players simultaneously and throw a ball around and try to score on the other team, stressed me the fuck out. I wasn’t good at it, and I would get SO tense while I was doing it. You can lose games and still progress narratively, but I wanted my players to be able to ascend and become un-exiled. I wanted to succeed in the Rites so that my characters could see through to the end of their storylines. So I forced myself to get better at the Rites, so that I could help my characters get what they wanted. And I hated every second of the gameplay itself, even though I went out of my way to win every single game.
Here’s the thing: I loved the narrative so much, and the Rites themselves had everything to do with the narrative progression. They deliberately created a game about failure and defeat, but I refused to let my characters down. So I forced myself through the hated gameplay and was rewarded with a wonderful narrative. Do I regret forcing myself through the hated gameplay? Maybe a little. Do I regret sending my beloved companions where they wanted to end up? Not at all.
So I guess the answer to the actual question that was posed is: yes, in-game sports CAN be used to very effectively further the narrative of a game, when done deliberately, for good reason, and not as last-minute, thrown-in minigames. But I don’t have to like it!!!
Maddi: I feel like maybe there is a lot of untapped sport potential in non-sport-specific games, where if you practice enough you could level up and it could actually impact the game. That said: I have not played that game, if indeed it does exist.
I know Zora mentioned fishing above, and I’m counting it, because I’ve really warmed up to fishing. I despised Nier‘s fishing at first, but something about its predictability and the glowy, slightly hazy PS3 environments ended up being really charming and peaceful to me. The idea of touching a real-life fish kind of freaks me out, but I think it’s nice to give video game characters a break from killing god or whatever and let them fish and relax a little.
Do you have a favorite unreal sport?
Melissa: Like many of us, I am currently participating in the cultural event of Blaseball. If you asked me another time, I might say something different, but right now I’m captivated by how so much narrative can be spun out of a bunch of (presumably, mostly) randomly generated names and stats. Just for the sake of example, I’m a Houston Spies supporter, and the election at the end of season four resulted in our zero-star pitcher, Math Velazquez, being swapped for an alternate-universe Math Velazquez, a one-star pitcher. This has resulted in just oodles of lore, including the idea that New Math (or Common Core) is perhaps related to Math ap Mathonwy of the Mabinogion, a replacement for the old Math, who became a star, or perhaps a perfectly normal AU Math who is absolutely baffled by Blaseball. All of this because we have a player named Math and Math’s stats got changed via an event called Alternate Reality. That randomness (mostly) can produce such wonderful creativity is part of what makes Blaseball so special!
Emily: I love Blaseball so much. I’m part of the Canada Moist Talkers fandom, and in my opinion we are the shitpostiest team, with such canon as Ortiz Morse (our worst but my favorite pitcher who has walked the most batters in the entire Blaseball league) who has a Smash Mouth cover band and sings entirely in Morse code. Check out their Soundcloud.
We also (until recently) had a player named Richmond Harrison who is canonically an axolotl, and there was a Talkers-wide push to get him the item “Mushroom” in season 5, which would have made them BIG RICHMOND. The Talkers fandom was really pushing the BIG RICHMOND lore, even though they didn’t end up getting the mushroom. It resulted in some amazing fan art, though.
It was a tragic day when Richmond was caught in the feedback and thus ejected from our team. But we carry on moistly nonetheless, and I have heard from some of my heathen friends who root for his new team that he has become appropriately beloved to them as well.
Also we brought an incinerated player back to life necromancy-style and it is chaos and I am living.
for my friends who do not blaseball it is important to me that you know that the fans revived a dead pitcher who immediately started beaning people with balls that mark them for death in order to pay off a necromancy debt to [death/the void/the blaseball gods]
— 🦀 marn s(cary) 🦀 (@corpserevivers) September 17, 2020
(PS: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention What the Golf. What a glorious imagination of what the sport of golf could be, if whacking a golf ball resulted in trees going flying, cars being jettisoned forward, and hot dogs erupting out of hot dog stands. If you haven’t played this game yet, it is extremely worth your time.)
Maddi: Even though it’s painful to play and not that fun to watch, Blitzball in real life would probably be extremely cool. At the very least, I would like a Besaid Aurochs or a Zanarkand Abes jersey.
Emily Durham is a freelance writer by day and a Sidequest copyeditor by… also day. When they’re not editing or playing with cats, you can find them playing Celeste or Hollow Knight, sewing korok cosplays, or… playing with cats. You can find their tweets at @sedimentalvalue.