What in the Worldbuilding: Sports in Sci-Fi and Fantasy (Where are they?)

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I’m so, so excited to unveil What in the Worldbuilding, a new blog post series where I’m going to be discussing all things worldbuilding in stories. Because I love stories and I love worldbuilding and I love rambling about them even more.

For the first couple of posts, I’ll be talking about some elements of worldbuilding that, in my opinion, don’t get enough screen/pagetime in SFF media (and see where my brain takes things from there).

And we’re starting with sports. Because this is something that’s always been a mystery to me: how is that these elaborate SFF worlds come with their own ecology and political landscape and four fictional languages with five dialects each, but so rarely feature their own sporting events?

 

Okay, First of all: Sports? Who Cares?

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*Slowly raises hand*

A quick “you didn’t ask for my life story but here it is anyway.” My parents are massive tennis fans and they introduced me into the sport very early, with my dad coaching in the early stages. Same thing with swimming (well, minus the coaching. My dad didn’t fare well in water and I actually ended up teaching him once I got my lifeguard license, which was a nice little pay-it-forward moment). There’s a meditative, cerebral quality to both that’s belied by their physical intensity and that lends to a deep attraction for me.

So I grew up tangled in this hopeless relationship with the two–fueled in part by the fact that I was good at them, but mostly by the fact that I just loved the hell out of them–and they’re as much a part of my identity as books. And crazy enough, I like seeing my real-life passions and experiences represented in media.

But passion isn’t required for one to understand the worldwide significance of sports. And to talk about what sports can bring to a SFF world, I think we need to look at their significance in our world.

 

Sports and Cultural History

Sports can tell us a lot about a culture and its history. Asian martial arts, for example, are rooted in eastern religion and philosophy. I won’t be talking about dancing in this WITW post (that’s for a later one), but it is widely considered to be a sport, and many of the modern forms we see today have their foundations in historical, traditional dances.

Everyone and their grandmother knows Canada bleeds hockey. But curling is just as strong of a national symbol here. Brought into the country by Scottish immigrants, it spread westward as the Canadian Pacific Railway extended its reach and more and more small towns began appearing on the map. So, for us, curling represents long winter months and fledgling communities coming together in solidarity and friendly competition.

The nuances are endless and the inclusion of them in a SFF world can make it so much richer.

 

Sports and Nationalism

Sports is one of the major drivers of national identity and what often unites entire countries together. The Olympics, for example, have become homegrounds for national pride and displays of physical prowess that somehow translates to the overall excellence of a nation. And if we look at the measures that some countries would take, and have taken, in order to stamp and seal their supremacy in these events, it becomes impossible to think of sports as mere forms of entertainment. Authoritarian regimes make use of sports to propagate their ideology in a more palatable way. And even with a democratic country like South Korea there’s an intense nationalistic fervor when it comes to sports, which I often found ugly (because it’s led to mass harassment of athletes) and at odds with the general image of the country .

So many politically-driven stories out there where juggernaut nations vie for power, and so few of them utilize sports as a form of diplomacy and a show of nationalistic strength. That seems strange to me. Whether we like it or not, sports will always be intertwined with politics–its reflection and extension–and I desperately want to see writers use that more.

 


Putting the political implications aside, here’s an undeniable truth:

 

Made-up Sports are Cool

And they become especially cool when they involve magic and future technologies and pieces of a fictional culture. I love brainstorming all the different sports that could exist in a world with a specific magic system (how, for example, Allomancy from Mistborn might translate to a competitive setting), and how they would evolve as the magic evolves.

Also, I’m attracted to the idea that punchy, flashy, dangerous forms of power can be used for more than mass weapons of war. That they can be transformed into something equally physical, but in a more positive and fun setting.

So let’s take a look at some examples of SFF sports in media. Starting with the most famous of them all…

 

Quidditch

My thoughts on J.K. Rowling most days is an intersection of “Oh god, what now” and “Please just stop,” but there’s no denying Harry Potter has become an indelible foundation for modern pop culture and a well of inspiration for many, many writers. Since its inception, magical schools have become a staple of fantasy.

So what surprises me is that the series hasn’t also ushered in a wave of magical sports in fantasy. I mean, Quidditch is such an important part of the HP world. As a bastardization of soccer–sorry, “football”–and other real world sports, it offers familiarity alongside high octane speed and the thrill of microviolence, with an unexpected sweetness to the idea of players protecting teammates from homicidal balls (aka bludgers). It’s brilliantly constructed.

And fans love it so much they turned it into an actual international sport.

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Credit: Scott Audette/Reuters

(Fun fact: I joined my university’s Quidditch club during undergrad and played for a couple of sessions before deciding that running around and inadvertently crashing into people with a stick between my legs was bound to send me to the hospital at some point.)

So why don’t we see more Quidditches in fictional worlds? If there’s room for intricate magic systems and made-up history that goes back thousands of years, surely there’s room for more inventive forms of sports that go beyond gladiatorial combat and racing.

Speaking of which….

 

Racing — Lots and Lots of Racing

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Left to right: Death Rally (Tales from the Borderlands); Chocobo racing (Final Fantasy); Podracing (Star Wars)

Racing is probably the most common one you’ll find in these stories. And with a simple format that allows for such a wide breadth of customization, it’s not hard to see why. Swap a horse with a giant yellow bird, or a car with a small flying vehicle, and you have yourself a made-up sport that’s unique enough to engage and entertain but doesn’t require a lot of meticulous ground-up writing.

Alex White’s A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe is a somewhat recent sci-fi book that features racing. Via race cars, specifically, which might seem pretty mundane if you don’t count the fact that they require magic to operate.

 

The Gentleman Bastards

I’m going to be talking more about The Gentleman Bastards in future WITW posts because Lynch does a lot of small yet effective things with his worldbuilding that add an incredible amount of depth to the series.

And The Lies of Lock Lamora is the one example I can think of that features sports with regional and class distinction.

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Let’s take the Teeth Show, a gladiatorial sport unique to Camorr in which female fighters, and only female fighters, go head-to-head with leaping sharks. It’s a grisly, gaudy show of acrobatics and power, and while it’s enjoyed by the poor and rich and everyone in between, there’s a distinct middle to upper class flavour to it–aristocrats and merchants watching from their boats, sipping wine and conducting business while the fight plays out in the background. The luxury of partaking in violence without actually partaking in violence.

Then there’s Handball, which is a team sport played by the lower classes of southern Therin. There’s nothing showy or magical about handball (it’s pretty similar to our world’s version), and we never actually see any of the characters playing it, but what I love about it is that it comes with its own little history of origin and an allegory that may or may not be true but still serves as a valuable lesson for the audience (i.e. when it comes to revenge, either have a long memory or don’t procrastinate). That’s what makes it unique to this world.

The teeth show and handball serve three purposes: they add layers to the worldbuilding, they entertain the readers, and, perhaps most importantly, they tie in with the story that is being told, making it richer and more dynamic.

 


So why do sports get overlooked?

Let’s put on our speculation hats, shall we?

Possibility 1: SFF writers aren’t sports fans.

I’ll scribble in a big fat “REJECTED” for this one. The idea that geeks and sports don’t mesh is an outdated one, and I know for a fact that there are writers who are also sports fans. That being said, I’ve yet to meet another SFF nerd who also plays and watches tennis. But statistically speaking they have to be out there somewhere (and I will find you).

 

Possibility 2: SFF writers enjoy sports, but not enough to be comfortable and interested in writing about them.

…Maybe? At least, I’m sure it applies to some writers.

 

Possibility 3: Sports isn’t something people consciously associate with SFF stories

When we see “sci-fi and fantasy,” we immediately think space battles and gods and dragons and political intrigue and quests to save the world. Maybe sports just don’t cross people’s minds. And maybe people feel, especially with linear stories, there just isn’t room to showcase an activity that’s meant to be for recreation and competition. Not when there are life-or-death events brewing around every corner.

 

Possibility 4: Lack of a solid foundation for sports in SFF stories

I don’t know, maybe if Tolkien and Lewis and all those other classic SFF authors had included made-up sports in their stories, we’d see more of them today.

 

Possibility 5: A combination of multiple factors (including the ones above)

Probably a lazy answer but also probably the best of the bunch.

The thing is, I’m really not sure what deters writers from including sports in their worlds. It’s not like I can snap my fingers and pin the problem on societal hangups or prejudices. Sports is…sports. Innocuous (for the most part), exciting, and popular in the real world but not so much in fictional ones, evidently.

And I don’t know about you, but I would really like to see that changed.

 

flourish

What are your thoughts on all this? Also, sneak me your sport-centric SFF recommendations!

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35 thoughts on “What in the Worldbuilding: Sports in Sci-Fi and Fantasy (Where are they?)

  1. justonemorepaige says:

    This is fascinating! What an awesome post. Obviously Quidditch has gotten huge, but it’s based on a country/world with a similar sport that inspires similar feelings (football/soccer), IMO, which is what made it make so much sense and easy to write in/understand in the context. I agree with you though, it’s an important piece of culture and I like having it included in that sense. I just finished Illuminae Files and while it’s never a main part, there are a number of references to gee-ball. I think it makes for a great addition to depth of world-building in general.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. acquadimore says:

    …magic race cars? I really need to read A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe, then

    I think that the only times I’ve seen sports mentioned in a fantasy setting was in the case of books about competitions – in YA books that have the “let’s find the best assassin of the land” trope or similar ones. But more… innocuous forms of sport, no. Not often, at least. The first reason I thought was that making up rules for a sport that are coherent and aren’t something like “basically [existing sport] but with another name” isn’t easy, but so is making up languages, and that certainly doesn’t seem to have discouraged fantasy authors.
    I’m for the “a combination of multiple factors” theory, too.

    (…but if I were a writer, I would definitely fall in the “didn’t think about it because not really a sport fan and definitely not an athlete, completely forgot they existed, oops” category.)

    Anyway, great post, can’t wait for the next ones! I love everything worldbuilding, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

      Oh you should totally try A Big Ship!! The thing I most loved about it, and what makes it stand out from other “ragtag crew go on a space quest” stories, is how it combines science with magic. It’s just really neat and refreshing to see in a sci-fi story.

      And yeah, I was wondering if I should mention those Battle Royale-esque YA books. Because *technically* they’re sports? Just…a lot more murdery than our modern ones.

      I guess the benefit of inventing languages over sports is that you can insert languages into almost any context, whereas with sports it’s more difficult. So that might be a factor!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A Storm Of Pages says:

    Interesting thoughts. Maybe another reason is trouble visualizing certain aspects of these magical sports? I know I remember having some vague areas when it came to Quidditch – trying to imagine how certain things worked, how certain moves or formations looked, etc. Maybe some writers worry about challenging their readers on this possibly-worldbuildy-but-not-inherent-to-plot aspect when they are already asking them to picture so many fantastical things?
    I wouldn’t agree with this one nowadays, but baby-me reading Potter definitely spent less energy on trying to figure out how Quidditch moves worked when I had so much else to imagine!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

      Ooh yeah, that could definitely be a reason! Unless the focus of the story is a fantasy/sci-fi sport, too many technical details might overwhelm the readers.

      Baby-Kathy didn’t spend much time trying to figure out Quidditch moves either. I was just like, “okay, one ball goes in the hoop. One ball tries to hit people. And one ball is super fast and tiny.” And that was good enough for me. πŸ˜›

      Like

  4. siavahdainthemoon says:

    First off, I am crazy excited for this Worldbuilding series and can’t wait to see where you take it! You know I’m an addict for worldbuilding. HEE.

    Secondly… I’ve noticed this before, the lack of sports, and I think it’s actually kind of hard to invent completely new sports? From what I understand (my dad’s family are Welsh and therefore rugby fanatics, my mother’s side are Irish and into hurling) most sports don’t really seem to be _created_ so much as they evolve into being. No one (as far as I know) comes up with the entire sport of tennis on the spot; someone starts hitting a ball around, and then bit by bit they come up with rules to make things more interesting. So actually sitting down and inventing a sport, all in one piece, is difficult, because that’s not how sports are typically created. Which is possibly by so many fantasy sports default to racing; it’s pretty simple, pretty easy to spice up by throwing magical creatures or something into it, and it doesn’t require a lot of work on the reader’s part to envision.

    As for examples… I remember there was some kind of magic-chess-with-human-pieces game in Lev Grossman’s Magician series, something the magic universities competed in; I can’t remember the name of it just now. Deborah Wolf’s _Dragon’s Legacy_ series has aklashi, which is kind of like polo – it’s played on horseback – but you’re hitting around a sheep’s head instead of a ball. Probably my favourite is Tairo from Andrea K Host’s Touchstone series. Here’s a quote from the first description of it;

    “Picture a big glass box, with the audience in rows all up against the outer walls. There’s a hole in each wall, painted a different colour, and a bunch of poles at different heights – a lot like canary perches. Add four teams playing a kind of extreme handball with three balls at once. Then make the players totally Spiderman Jr, able to bounce up the walls and off the poles and leap and twist and somersault – and fly.”

    (Because the players all have some degree of psychic superpowers which are allowed to be used in-play).

    I mean – I would LOVE to watch that. I don’t think I could follow half of it, but I’d love to watch!

    Like

  5. Captain's Quarters says:

    Absolutely interesting post matey! I am not a sports fan or player but I actually do enjoy sports in fantasy settings. In fact this post brought back an image of a sport from a book but I can’t remember from what – but I remember being fascinated by the cultural differences in how the sport was played and how the various communities cheered on their home teams. Now figuring out what book that was is going to itch. Can’t wait to read more of these posts.
    x The Captain

    Like

  6. Lisa says:

    Fantastic post! As a non-sports fan, I can’t say I miss it much in SFF — but for books with worlds set in places where there would be sports in our version of the same (like boarding schools), it seems like a perfect place for imagination to take over and create something unique.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. shri says:

    I LOVED THIS POST bc i am an SFF reader and an avid sports fan; and you really called out something with a great analysis. particularly with the connection to culture/setting and how sports affects that. it’s entirely possibly that a world can change due to sports, and should be explored further!!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Nicole Evans says:

    How do you always write the most epic and amazing posts, my dear?! I love this post and it’s such a great point (and I completely forgot about that aspect in Lynch’s writing and wow, yes, GREAT example). And now I feel like I need to include sports in the novels I write, because I am definitely in the, “don’t-even-think-about-it” category, despite being a pretty heavy college basketball and soccer fan.

    Like

  9. sjhigbee says:

    What an interesting post! You’re right – they don’t feature all that much… I do recall in Star Trek there was 3-D chess, which I think is regarded as a sport. I’ve actually included zippo racing, which started informally when the grav-sleds were raced around empty shuttle hangars and have now advanced to properly designed racing machines that speed around enclosed tracks. And null dancing – in null gravity. Part sport/part cultural entertainment, null-dancers perform in pairs or teams of four. So far I’ve given them a passing reference, but I do plan to make the zippo racing a major feature of a future novel.

    The other novel that features a futuristic sport is John Scalzi’s Head On, where robotic bodies attempt to knock each other’s heads off as they score goals… Great fun:))

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Margaret @ Weird Zeal says:

    Ooh I’m writing a fantasy sport in my WIP! It involves dragons πŸ˜‰ But you’re so right that sports are SO essential to many cultures and they aren’t often represented in SFF. And I think there’s potential for so much more – beyond just racing! I don’t know if you’ve watched Legend of Korra, but there’s a sport in that show based on bending and it’s really cool – I want to see more like that!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

      Oooh sports AND dragons? Colour me intrigued. πŸ˜€ And gosh, I’ve been telling myself I need to watch Legend of Korra since forever, but I just keep procrastinating on it. One day!! That sounds really, really awesome, though! I feel like animated shows (including anime) incorporate SFF sports more often than books do.

      Like

  11. Rachel Neumeier says:

    I have to admit that I’m not a sports fan and it’s never occurred to me to include a sport as an important worldbuilding component when writing, so I’m voting for reasons #1 and #4. But I do think there are a couple of reasons this is hard in practice:

    a) Describing an unknown game is going to take a lot of words and there’s no point to doing that unless the game is going to be important to the plot. Mentioning a sport in passing would be much easier, but would it satisfy the sports-loving reader just to mention “handball game in progress over there” and move on?

    b) The characters are busy saving the world. If the author pauses the action to linger on a sporting event, her editor is likely to raise an eyebrow and suggest that perhaps the pacing of the novel would improve without that scene.

    However, Kate Elliot did make an unfamiliar sport important in her Spiritwalker trilogy. She is known for the depth of her worldbuilding, which is fully on display in that trilogy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

      I definitely agree with (b) when it comes to stories that are very linear and fast-paced. But with something like, say, the Realm of the Elderlings series, where the pacing is slow and the story takes place across a large number of years, I think you can add sporting events without sacrificing any of the action.

      And I didn’t know the Spiritwalker trilogy featured sports–thank you! I’ll need to try it out sometime.

      Like

  12. @lynnsbooks says:

    What a great post – and you’re so right about Lynch – he’s superb at world building.
    A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay had a fantastic horse race – really well written and had me on the edge of my seat.
    Lynn πŸ˜€

    Liked by 1 person

  13. bitsnbooks says:

    Love this idea! This series will be so fun! I’m not a massive fan of sports myself but this is so true. I have never really thought about it but you’re so right. Sports are massive all around the world so you’d think that more writers would include them in their novels. I’m amazed that I have only just realised this haha, thank you! Great post πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Meeghan reads says:

    Not SFF, but, Nora Sakavic made up a sport in the All For The Game trilogy (starts with The Foxhole Court), and it was kind of weirdly described, but I also kind of understood it?! Its called Exy, and it seems to be a crossover between ice-hockey, lacrosse and dodgeball (not really, but also, kind of) and it took small chunks of the book to explain and I was very confused at first!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. waytoofantasy says:

    I think if people have a passion for something it will somehow show up in their books in some way. For example, I know Courtney Schafer is an avid mountain climber and she has a *ton* of mountain climbing in her books (especially the first one). Janny Wurts is a sailor, and she’s written that into her massive epic fantasy series. I know these aren’t sports, strictly, so maybe you’re onto something with the SFF writers just aren’t as into sports?

    One sports world building I loved was Kate Elliott’s YA series which was based on the concept of a Ninja Warrior style obstacle course competition (also love that series because anti-colonialism). The way she weaved the whole competition into the mythos and history of the world was fantastic.

    Like

  16. PerfectlyTolerable says:

    As an adult-ish type person I play a ton of sports (tho my poison of choice is Softball and Volleyball not Tennis, Sorry) I play 3-6 nights a week depending on the season. I also read a ton of fantasy (its my favorite genre). All that being said, HOW DID I NOT REALIZE BEFORE NOW THAT SPORTS WERE MISSING FROM FANTASY BOOKS?!?!!?! If I had to guess it is because most of my sports friends don’t read and most of my reader friends don’t play sports. I have sort of compartmentalized the two parts of my life as separate entities. But now I need more fantasy sports in my life!!!

    You mentioned that there were a lot of races in fantasy and I agree with that, but I would also like to add tournaments to that. In HP you have the tri-wizard tournament. In A Gathering of Shadows you have the Essen Tasch. In medieval fantasies you get a lot of jousting and sword type tournaments. I don’t necessarily think these fall into the sports category, but they do have the same sort of energy and they can have the history as well!

    Awesome post!!!!

    Like

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