In Which I Discover I Am Totally Wrong About Sports

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

As someone who is quite thoroughly Not A Sports Guy, I always figured it would take me about two years’ worth of effort to properly appreciate any given sport.
The reason I say this is because one day, I was watching the Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour on streaming TV with my daughter Erin.  The Pro Tour is where professional Magic players – yes, such creatures exist – get together to shuffle up decks of collectible fantasy cards and play a strategy game against each other for a prize pool of $250,000.  And it’s a big enough thing now that there’s professional coverage, with commentary.
And the Pro Tour is an especially fun time for Magic players, because they have just released a new set of about 300 cards, all of which do different things, and so there are new strategies that nobody but the pros have foreseen.
I was watching with Erin, who was perplexed – she’s played games of Magic with her Dad, but never been to a tournament – and so I went, “Oooh!  This is exciting because this guy’s trying to make a Maze’s End deck work.”
“…what’s that?”
“If you get all ten lands of a certain type into play, you win.  It’s a pretty dubious strategy, honestly.  Getting ten lands is a big hurdle.  So his whole strategy is going to revolve around trying to gum up the ground, drawing out the game for as long as possible.”
“But you’ve never seen this deck.”
“But I know that’s how it has to work.  And the other guy, well, he has to apply more pressure, because the longer the game goes, the worse it gets for him.  So he has to commit lots to the board in order to try to kill the other guy before he ‘goes off’ and wins.”
“Okay.  That makes sense.  So he just goes all-in and tries to kill the guy?”
“No.  That’s first-level thinking.  If he commits too much to the board, and this guy plays with board-sweepers that destroys all of his guys, then he loses on the spot!  And this Maze’s End guy almost certainly plays with board-sweepers because of that – well, he might not, his mana base is stretched thin as it is.  But so this other guy has to attack as quickly as possible, without putting down so much that he can’t recover if this Maze’s End deck – which we don’t know what cards are in it for sure – wipes out everything on the field.”
Erin looked at me admiringly.
“Well!” she said.  “I think we know where all your sports knowledge went!”
And the truth is, when I watch Magic, I’m watching with probably 70% of the skill of a professional Magic player.  I’m not nearly good enough to play in PTQs – because the skill level of a Magic pro player is incredibly high – but I have edited what’s widely acknowledged as the best book on Magic strategy ever written, and was thanked by the author for fact-checking him and suggesting improvements.  So when I watch Magic, I do so as though I am playing – what card would I play next?  What’s my line of attack here?  Oh, he did something different, he’s better than me, what am I missing?
And I assumed that sports fandom was the same thing.
I’d played football videogames, and was immediately baffled by the massive number of plays I could select from.  There were 150 options, each presumably for a different situation to favor different player strengths, and I didn’t understand them.  I knew the basic rules, but what I needed to know to properly savor the game was to know which huddle was correct based on the game state, and which strategy was most likely to achieve the immediate objective.
If I knew all those strategies, then I could enjoy the game the way that others did.  I’d be able to anticipate the next play, to take full appreciation of just how difficult making that pass work was, and….
…well, that was a lot of work.  Magic, I’ve picked up incidentally over seventeen years or so.  I didn’t play football, or baseball, so my ability to understand its nuts and bolts had been accidentally hampered.  If I had, then I’d know when you needed to use the ol’ knuckleball and the infield squeeze.  And then I’d enjoy the game the way it was meant to be played.
Imagine my surprise when my friends Nathan and Ian told me that probably 60% of the baseball fans had practically no more knowledge than I did right now.
They just liked going out on a sunny day and watching their team win.
But, they assured me, it was true.  Most fans don’t get the fine bits of football they way I do Magic.  They have a couple of people they root for, and maybe some guys on their fantasy league they’re hoping get in the yards, and of course GO OUR TEAM.  But do most people understand the reasons for the 150 plays that can be made?  Do they watch the field as though they were the coach, determining what the next play should be?
No.  They’re just happy to watch muscular men smashing into each other, and cheering when someone makes a great catch.
I’m still a little weirded by this, actually.  I assumed that football fandom was akin to an apprenticeship, where one packed in the knowledge so one got the payoff.  But no, Nathan referenced XKCD’s story generation cartoon, where people go to games to see narratives played out (even as they don’t understand all of the factors that go into those narratives), or to enjoy the weather, or to BEAT THOSE GUYS.
I have no reason to think he’s wrong, but man.  That’s weird to me.  And Ian said, “No, you could learn everything you need to know to enjoy sports in maybe a month.”
And my answer, which makes me feel even more freakish, was “No.  I couldn’t learn everything I needed to know to enjoy sports in a month.  But I’ve just learned how I enjoy things is totally at odds with the normal crowd.”
Once again, Ferrett is a freak.


  1. Carmel J.
    Dec 19, 2014

    No, you’re not alone in this. As a kid I could not comprehend what my parents saw in football, why it had to dominate the TV every weekend during the season.
    Then I went to college in a football town and married a dear man (it’s our anniversary today!) who had grown up in a football and baseball loving household. He’s a strategically minded geek, so he had learned the football plays and strategies. So to teach me what was going on, he used video games. The football games would have practice and tutorial modes and he used that to teach me general formations and plays. So I have an idea what “the option” is and how hard it can be to both pull off and defend against a triple option formation. And now I can stand to watch football. Especially college and especially if Florida State is playing. 😉
    Baseball I can only watch in person, with friends. Beer, crochet, and boiled peanuts (in part or combination) all help.
    Given that there is a tabletop miniature version of football called Blood Bowl that has had a fanbase for years now I think you and I are not alone either. 🙂

  2. Kat
    Dec 19, 2014

    Truthfully, much of my enjoyment of watching Football now (besides the fact that a person who does not keep up on SEC standings is a social pariah in the South) is having Nick explain things to me – there are so few times where a couple who has been together for 5+ years can teach the other half something new.

  3. Sandra
    Dec 19, 2014

    I can’t play football video games for the life of me, because I can’t figure out the plays. None of it makes any sense to me in a video game.
    But I also don’t watch football because I like to see guys slamming into each other.
    Even if I couldn’t call a specific play, I can appreciate the outcome. I can get a rough idea of how my offense is going up against their defense. I appreciate a long pass that completes, even if I couldn’t read the squiggly lines that the players memorized to get that receiver in that position.
    It’s like going to an art museum. One person can enjoy the visceral feeling they get when looking at a painting. Another might appreciate the brush strokes. Another might be awed by the story told by the symbolism in the painting. Another might appreciate the dyes in the paint, which were so rare and hard to produce at the time of the painting. And some few might appreciate every one of those things and more. But you don’t _have_ to appreciate everything that went into the painting to enjoy seeing it.

  4. Yet Another Laura H
    Dec 19, 2014

    How to have found a scientific error on this blog, of all places!
    It’s 2014, almost 2015. Even the most dedicated cryptozoologists admit that “normal people” are a myth on the order of manticores.

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