Narrativized Ludology: Sports Film and Rule-Based Climax

EDIT: HAH! This has barely anything to do with the narratology vs. ludology debate other than the name, but you’re interested, aren’t you?! I thought up the title after I had written most of the post and I like the idea, but I don’t know what it means. Here’s some stuff about rules and sports films. SPORTS!


Yeah. It’s a Thursday and I’m talking about something completely different than what I thought I would be talking about, but fuck it. I’ve got something in the mind mill about stats and Moneyball and Nate Silver’s existence, but I’ve been thinking a ton about sports films the past few days and wanted to get some words down.

This topic is coming from my current viewing of Major League, which I am watching because of this awesome ‘oral history’ piece that’s been floating around sports blogs this past week about the 1989 Cleveland Indians. It’s worth a read, but if you know the plot of Major League as well as I do, it’s a bit of a bore that just makes you want to watch the actual movie. It doesn’t have Bob Uecker’s voice or Wesley Snipes ridiculously small car, so it’s lacking to say the least.

Rules and strategies of games are usually relegated to the players of those games and their fans. These codes have been agreed upon and have disseminated through their use by pro teams throughout the country. Leagues have rule books that are understood, for the most part, by those playing or coaching the games. I say mostly because of a poll that went around a few weeks back about obscure baseball rules and how there were a few announcers and coaches that did remarkably bad. This is a poor way to start. “Rules” and “strategy” are fucking horrible, ill-defined words that can mean almost anything in any situation. How about I actually try to do that instead of keeping up the shit tradition of not defining anything.

I guess I should define what I mean by a “rule.” To be honest, I don’t really know how to define that term well. For the purpose of sports, I’m taking rules as written statements which designate allowed actions, describe the flow of play and dimensions of the play space, and set up parameters for how winners and losers are established. On the other hand, strategies entail direct responses to those rules which have also become institutionalized, but not in written ways. The sports strategy becomes systemic, in that it infiltrates certain teams or coaches or players. Often, strategy isn’t looked at as strategy, but labeled as ‘philosophies.’ In baseball, certain teams will play ‘small ball,’ bunting, stealing and sacrificing runners ahead to increase the probability that they can score a few runs. Football has a long-standing tradition of having certain strategic philosophies originate in college-level ball and making their way up to the majors through new coaches. The wildcat system and the West Coast offense being two of the more famous of examples. Well, there are some definitions. They aren’t going to work for everything, but they’re there. This is me patting myself on the back.

These are all codes that sports fans come to pick up on from various places, be they family members, telecast announcers, magazines, websites, so on and so forth. They’re mutually-agreed upon symbols. Well, they aren’t mutually agreed upon. They have been agreed upon and you better learn them or you’re not as welcome in the environment as those who do. This is trending towards symbolic convergence theory, a term coined by Ernest Bormann, but I know that theory is specific to rhetoric and doesn’t necessarily work well. Maybe social semiotics or something else would work, but I don’t know what would be best. Communities create and are endowed with symbols that they take on, understand, and keep up. It doesn’t always work like that, nor is it necessarily the norm, but I’m not trying to make a lengthy argument about symbol and meaning-making for various groups.

But what happens to rules when we move from sports as a part of the games medium to sports as topic for another medium, particularly the sports film. With a shift in audience, and a shift in the relationship between audience and game, there has to be a shift in the ways that rules are understood and displayed.

There’s a particular trope of overtime being used as a rule that is exploited by film to heighten the audience’s intensity. I watched Invictus the other day and it uses extra time in the same way that The Mighty Ducks 2 uses the shootout. These allowances within the actual sport are not brought up until the climax of the film in order to put an extra bit of umph into the suspense of the moment. Now that I think about it, the first Mighty Ducks movie does the same thing with the penalty shot that Charlie Conway takes at the end of the climactic battle with the Hawks foe. Yes, I do remember all of the intricate details of the Mighty Ducks franchise and it’s sad, but I’ll deal with it.

The rules of the game are not laid out for the audience when we deal with the game in film. In Friday Night Lights, they choose to go the entirety of the film without mentioning the role of penalties in football, but in the last scene, where the multicultural, rural Panthers are up against the all black, urban Dallas Carter team (seriously, go watch that again. It’s disgusting how much they build up this black, urban, male team as the ultimate enemy. Can’t we have more cases where the Aryan Icelandic team is the disgusting foe like in MD2? Not perfect, but definitely different.), the Panthers are called for a holding penalty in the last minute which brings back a go-ahead touchdown. Why is this the first time that penalties, events that occur frequently within a single football game, are brought up in only one game where the entire season is on display.

****Note: I thought about that some more. That isn’t the first penalty that is brought up in the game, but that game is the only one where penalty flags fly. Earlier in the game a penalty is given to a Dallas Carter (read: black) players kicks the dislodged helmet into the face of a white Permian player. The penalty isn’t used as a plot twist, but it is definitely used in order to further the idea that Dallas Carter are the ‘baddies’ here. That they’re disgusting and unsportsmanlike and that you should hate them. It’s fucked.

Sports films operate under such a different understanding of the role of rules than that of the games (and their audiences) themselves. Their ludological power as rules, as the things that define the games and the way that those games can be played by players, is stripped when being forced into a narrative role. This is understandable, if we understand that the audience for the film is much larger than that of the game. However, who is the audience mostly of the sports film, and how do we deal with large overlays of that audience and smaller overlapping audiences? Invictus was a big budget movie that garnered over $100 million worldwide and around $37 million US. Unlike a movie like Major League, where we’re dealing with a popular American sport, we have a more untrained audience with the sport of rugby. This is probably why there isn’t as much focus on in-game play in the first 75% of the film. The only extended gameplay (can I call it that even in a scripted, biographical environment?) comes in the last half hour. It’s obvious that the writers tried to account for a more ignorant audience by showing the scoreboard every time that there was a score, constantly reminding them of the score and how the game worked. More emphasis is placed on the referee and what he said throughout the game in order to keep the audience up to speed.

This post also comes through the games readings that I have been doing, and I think that it’s ultimately an interesting thing that happens to rules when games move from games as medium to games as topic. Rules can no longer stand on their own because they don’t directly affect the audience, but they still play an incredibly important role in films about different sports.

I feel like I should say something about unwritten rules. For the most part I have been talking about rules that have been institutionalized in certain ways, mainly by being in the league’s actual rulebook in ACTUAL words. I haven’t been talking about hockey’s fighting ‘code’ (such as, always stop hitting when the other guy hits the ice) or baseball’s unwritten rules about running up the score late in games (no sacrifice bunts or suicide squeezes allowed). I’m sure there are some in football or basketball, but I don’t know those cultures as well.

Let’s first be honest: these aren’t technically “rules,” but social norms within certain subcultures of sport. However, they still come up in certain places in sports film. If we take Friday Night Lights again, we see the unwritten rule of being honest and open about medical conditions. The Permian star running back gets hurt in the first game and goes out just to get hurt more. Thus we get this moralistic understanding of how players are supposed to act. Same thing can be said for Varsity Blues on the coach’s side, forcing injections and more playing time on already injured players.

There are code words that are used as well within these films, but they offer a bit of a different feeling than the emphasis on rules. As I’m watching Major League, I noticed something. Bob Uecker is famous for his “Just a bit outside” comment, but after the first game of the regular season, Uecker calls the 9-0 thumping the Indians took as a “heartbreaker.” Those who know the sports code would recognize that as, at best, optimistic hyperbole. Heartbreakers in baseball refer to one-run games or blown saves that lead to losses in the last inning. These aren’t relied upon as much as rules, particularly in high tension moments, because of the acknowledgment that the entire audience won’t understand or get the joke.

You know what? I don’t know what the purpose of this blog post is. It’s mostly just me rambling about how rules are used differently when the audience is placed further and further away from their implementation and use. Rules are important for the player for their ability to play the game, for fans to understand the ways that the player is playing, but they are important for the sports film audience in order to understand the flow of the story that is being put forth. They are used to create the climax, or at least to heighten a particular moment within the resolution of a problem. They are markers of narrative points, unlike their persistent existence within the actual game. I’m not suggesting this is a bad thing or a good thing. I don’t know if it’s really even a thing.

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