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The Art of Storytelling in Sports

A CLOSER LOOK AT NARRATIVES IN SPORTS GAMES

Apparently there are two types of video gamers, those who detest the concept of sports games (like,why do you even play it on a console when you can play it in real life?) like FIFA and Madden and have absolutely no interest in it, and those who really love sports games and the ability to control all their favorite real life players.  Its just extremes, there’s no middle ground. Interestingly, I’ve found that most of the sports games lovers are also fans of teams and players outside video games. It even works vice-versa, people who picked up sports games and liked it enough to continue the game, also started picking up a bit of the real events broadcasted on TV. That is a very interesting trend, something that I’ve pondered on for a while. Based on that (and a lot of questions that I’ve thrown around) I’ve come to an interesting hypothesis to explain this general trend.  The reason why most non-sports fans avoid sports games is because they failed to pick up a narrative thread in the sport, and just see it is a bunch of people coming together on a field, running around and following a set of rules, and at the end of the day  one team goes home as winners because a number on a scoreboard says so. If you’re reading this and can relate to that last statement, then you’re probably one of the people who couldn’t quite pick up the magic of sport.

What story can be told by a sport, you may ask? A simple play can contain a hundred tiny emotions, of the player making the play, the player from the opposing team defending the play, of all of their teammates, their managers and coaches, referees and most importantly the roaring, screaming, hissing crowd.  Every move a player makes and action the player performs is a small part in a big story, and what actually matters is how the story is told, because thats what gets your story across and makes people fall in love with the title. Some games do it better than others, and some of the visual rules used in film making hold true while some others can be thrown out of the box. I’ll go over five key points which I feel are the best storytellers in these games. These are a mix of what the current set of games are already doing and my suggestion on things I’d like seen explored or improved upon.

  1. Main camera
    The first and probably most obvious one is the main game camera that is on the field/stadium/court at all times. A good studio should be able to perfectly capture the right elements when you point the camera. Zoom out too far and you lose emphasis on the player with the ball, zoom in too much and you lose emphasis on the game. It has to be just right.  Some games allow you to customize the style of your camera based on your comfort, but I argue that it shouldn’t be allowed so easily. If we analyse the same basketball match through a dynamic camera and a long shot camera,to an inexperienced eye it will appear too fast paced in the first instance and too slow in the second one, when its the exact same game! How about changing the camera in the middle of a game, like if you zoom into an athlete diving for a touchdown? What if the camera was from a first person POV? Does it go black when you get tackled to the ground and lose consciousness? I’ve never seen that in a game but I’d surely like to experiment with such stuff.
  2. Other Cameras
    A very important part of storytelling in sports is depicting emotions, be it positive or negative. For me, a sports video game should capture some (if not all) the tiny details of people screaming, players praying, coaches whispering orders to their assistants, random unnecessary  comments on the field,booing spectators, chanting spectators and those bird’s eye view of the stadiums. Each of them tell tiny parts of a story, which only seem powerful when woven together in a big experience. In FIFA, when someone scores a goal, the camera follows the scorer for a bit (allowing the game player to choose a celebration ) and then later switches camera to other reactions. Instead of concentrating on different angles of the ball going in, there should be a mini-movie documenting, perhaps the bench players rising up together in celebration or this kid in the crowd who just started jumping all over as the goal was scored, or even this defender who was just beaten by the scorer, seen in slow motion as his eyes closes and his head looks to the sky in frustration. These are powerful indicators of emotions running through the game.
  3.   Commentary
    Such a powerful tool commentary is, not just in real sports broadcasts but also in the game. Commentary can help mould a plot, describing everything the game player cant perceive or is unable to put into words. Commentary should have the right timing and it definitely should not be repetitive, that is the worst deal breaker. I understand that AI can only do so much and you obviously cant have real commentators coming in to recording studios and record a thousand sample lines, but the game should read the mood of the match, the audience and the players and comment on that, underline facts (statistics for sports is like what background is for a story) and yes, be very expressive about it. Commentating is an art in itself, and there are some voices like Pat Summerall & Andy Gray that somehow render more weight to the feeling.

 

 4. Player Controls
Players holding an Xbox or PlayStation controller must also feel vibrations and controls that portray a mood, and not just be as uniform as the rest of the game. Just like some games use Camera Shakes when an attacker is in a promising position, we can also use vibration to signify an oncoming event to signify nervousness or hunger to score. Athletes on a hot streak  should be easier to control and run with, and can probably do more than players not in form. Tiny details like this drag the video game player into the story and maintains immersion.

5. External Narratives
This is the sort of story that is most common in games nowadays, and which is most widely addressed. By external narratives I mean stories that are outside the playing field, that are written by paid writers and have content and branching narratives and what not. A prime example of this is the RPG-ish Neighbourhood in NBA 2K,  Longshot  in Madden and Journey  in FIFA. These games do a good job actually, outlining the growth of a hopeful player from a nobody to a superstar, and they throw in a bunch of elements to give it a good mix, and make it realistic, imitating those which athletes face in real life. These go far beyond a regular career mode which all sports game have.

 

In conclusion, I would like to re-assert that all of the above is my hypothesis based on my observations and experiences. Many people would argue that the entire essay is moot, as they may feel that story should be left out of sports entirely. I could be (and most likely I am) wrong about some of them as it all boils down to personal preference at the end of the day. I would love to discuss these topics in detail and figure out more stuff that could solidify my case and help me rewrite this piece.

Vasant Menon