“He is a literal god,” exclaimed the eSports announcer with abandon about a particularly good Rocket League player. I cringed at the announcer’s overly dramatic overstatement. After all, gods are all-powerful, not merely good at rocket-car soccer. They tend to command respect from everyone, not just those who have the context and knowledge to understand one’s niche achievements.
Is it hard to convey the achievement of becoming extremely good at rocket-car soccer to those who may not be familiar with a game like Rocket League? Of course, but all sports have a long history of being undervalued and oversimplified. Baseball has been routinely described by eggheads as “hitting a ball with a stick,” and football written off as “a bunch of men running into each other.” For decades, defensive nerds and bookish types have underscored their lack of appreciation for formal competition.
It’s easy to see why. Sports fanaticism has a tendency to get a little out of hand. The fans of rival football teams can to get in literal physical fights. I grew up in Alabama, where I was raised with a general sense that Auburn fans (War Eagle!) were generally more respectable than fans of the Alabama Crimson Tide. My childhood ingrained these assumptions in me and they still reside in my heart. When I meet a fan of the wrong team, it’s an issue I have to get past, in spite of myself.
Then there are the millions of dollars we pay to coaches and professional players, money that, many point out, could go to much more valuable pursuits, but this is what the people want. When you’re in it, it’s easy to understand why. The feeling of cheering for a team along with a host of other people is hard to replicate with pursuits that are more valuable. Which is why I welcome the rise of eSports, even as it remains a young, often cringe-inducing endeavor. Its ability to demonstrate, for a whole new swath of people, the value of rooting for someone else and the satisfaction of being even a small part of a victory.
We’re often competing, but formal competition (what we call sports) formalizes that competition by making crystal clear the mutual rules and stakes involved. A businessperson may have completely different objectives than another businessperson. A casual gamer may be more interested in having fun or trying something new than winning. Formal competition establishes up front: we’re all trying our hardest to win here. If you don’t win, you lose.
Simple as that.
That’s valuable, because it’s just not satisfying to beat someone who’s not trying to win. A game of casual Settlers of Catan or poker makes this obvious. To play seriously with a casual player is to have your presumptions about what matters shot down.
There’s nothing more infuriating to hear after a win than “Heh heh, I didn’t really care anyway,” because it conveys that you have wasted your time and energy. It steals satisfaction away from the player in a way that is almost criminal.
It’s criminal, not because winning is everything, but because the losing is a part of life. Sometimes we fail to get what we want and that failure forces us to confront a reality that’s crucial to understand: actually, we are not gods. We don’t have the ability to bend natural laws according to our wills. There is always someone out there who is better than we are at the thing we love most.
Turning our passions into formal sports makes that essential truth unavoidable. We become accustomed to being losers. We become accustomed to being human.