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Playing Sports

Over on his blog, Rob Donoghue posted about what he calls the RPG Sports Paradox:

The only way to make an RPG about a sport is to make an RPG that’s not about that sport.

What does this mean? To understand it, take a minute to imagine a sports RPG. It doesn’t matter much what the sport is, but the expectation would be that you would need rules for playing that sport. Seems obvious, but that’s the trick - sports stories are not really about playing any particular game, they’re about a destination. There are a couple of possible types of destinations, but they’re mostly some variant of needing to win “The Big Game”. The exact form of the Big Game is less important than the fact that it provides meaning to all the games along the way - they’re the road to the destination.

And that’s where the problem arises. Such a game will fall apart if the players lose a game. Oh, sure, there are some tricks you can pull to smooth over things (“The Maplewood team got food poisoning! We’re in the finals!”) but they have the clear stink of Deus Ex Machina about them. So you’re left with two choices: You can either allow the players to lose their games (and hope they won’t) or you can guarantee that they won’t.

I asked, of course, “What about Bull Durham?” To which Rob replied, “Are baseball movies ever about baseball?”

I started to reply over there, but I realized I had too much to say in a comment. So here it is:

Baseball movies are always about baseball. To say that Bull Durham isn’t about baseball is to not understand what baseball is.

To make a larger point, if you look at sports films in general, they aren’t as attached to the concept of “Winning The Big Game” as it might first appear. Look at Raging Bull, Rocky, Eight Men Out, The Wrestler, Brian’s Song, Hoop Dreams, Tin Cup, or Rudy. Sure there’s films like Hoosiers, A League of Their Own, Breaking Away, Chariots of Fire, Remember the Titans, or Major League where winning it all is what the story is about, but that’s not anywhere near the entirety of sports movies, or sports storytelling in other media.1 Even When Our Heroes win it all, the story is never about the mechanics of the sport. Sports stories aren’t always about the destination. Like most stories, they’re more often about the journey.

Which is mostly to say that if I wanted to play a sports RPG, I’d play Primetime Adventures.

1 Intriguing, most of the examples I cited in the “winning it all” category are either (a) retelling historical events or (b) comedies. How many of these kinds of movies have you seen where you didn’t know going in that they were going to win in the end?

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