Humans have probably played games for about as long as they’ve been human. Some of these are mental (chess, etc.), while others are mostly physical in nature. These physical games, when they become somewhat organized and competitive (two other universals in humanity), can be called sports.
This post, then, looks at what it takes to create the rudiments of a fictional sport. I’ll admit, very few stories will need such fine detail. The specifics of a sport likely won’t feature in any work of fiction, though there are examples of sports being a focus. The video game Final Fantasy X has its Blitzball, for example; it’s both a mini-game and a major part of the culture of Spira, the game’s fictional world. Similarly, the Harry Potter book/movie series has its game of Quidditch, which forms a backdrop for certain events of its story. (And that fictitious sport later received its own video game, Harry Potter: Quidditch World Cup.)
Again, let’s spell out what the post considers a sport. It has to be mainly physical, first of all. Go and chess are both classic games with long histories and intricate strategies, but they are tests of the mind, not the body, so they don’t meet our definition.
Second, sports are competitive. They pit one person or group against one or more others of relatively equal strength. The opposing forces don’t have to be present at the same time—baseball is effectively 9 against 1—but each side must have an equal opportunity to claim victory.
Third, sports have goals. This can be a literal goal, as in soccer or basketball, or a figurative one, like the highest or lowest score. Goals also imply an ending condition, such as time, score, or distance. Otherwise, you don’t have a sport.
Finally, the key factor in turning a game that meets all of the above criteria into a sport is some form of organization. This can be nothing more than a common set of rules, or it can be organized leagues with sponsorship and broadcast rights and billion-dollar contracts. Pickup games of street basketball and gym-class dodgeball fail this test, but they are simplified versions of “true” sports, so they get a pass.
In modern times, we’re familiar with quite a few sports. America has the familiar triumvirate of football, baseball, and basketball, all very popular. Hockey, soccer and rugby are three other big ones around the world, and the Olympics this summer will showcase dozens more. And that’s not counting track and field events, racing (whether on foot or using a vehicle), golf, cricket, and all those others we tend to overlook.
Each of these “modern” sports has a history, but all those histories, whether long (soccer dates back centuries) or short (BMX racing, now an Olympic sport, started in the 1970s) boil down to same thing. Someone, somewhere, started playing a game. More people then began playing. With more players, rules evolved. As the game grew in popularity, it became more fixed in its form, and thus a sport was born.
But sports don’t remain fixed forever. Different rule sets can emerge, and those can give rise to new sports. Rugby split off from soccer when players decided they wanted to pick up the ball and run with it. (Later on, Americans decided they liked a turn-based version better: football.) Cricket never caught on much in the US, but rounders, a simplified version played in English schoolyards, did; after a lot of tweaking, it developed into baseball. The list of “derivative” sports goes on: street hockey, beach soccer and volleyball, Australian rules football…
Nor do sports ever truly die. The Mesoamerican civilizations (Aztec, Maya, Olmec, etc.) have become famous in recent years for the archaeological evidence for their ball game, which dates back as far as 1600 BC. Despite all that has happened since then, a descendant of the Aztec game, now known as ulama, is still played in parts of Mexico. Over in the Old World, the Greek fighting sport pankration, a staple of the classical Olympics that was dropped when they were modernized, has been modified, organized, and subsumed into mixed martial arts.
Birth of a sport
Every culture has its sports. Sometimes, they’re inextricably linked. Few play cricket outside of Britain and its former colonies. Racing on an oval, as in NASCAR, is quintessentially American. Others gain more widespread appeal. Soccer—whatever you want to call it—is a worldwide game. Baseball bas become popular throughout the Americas and Asia. And so on.
Most sports will come about because of a culture. They’ll be part of it, at the start. Sometimes, they’re related to warfare, possibly as training (running, javelin throwing) or as a war “proxy” (the Mesoamerican ball games, maybe). Alternatively, they can be childhood games that “grew up”.
Which sports a culture plays can depend on its outlook on life, its technological advancement, and plenty of other factors. Technology’s role, of course, is easy to understand. After all, you can’t race automobiles until they’re invented. In the same vein, European games before the 1500s didn’t use rubber balls, because they didn’t have them; they tended to use wrapped animal bladders or things like that.
The level of organization is also dependent on these factors. Video replays obviously require video, but that’s an easy one. Precise timing is also necessary for many sports, but it took a long time to master. And from a cultural perspective, it’s not hard to imagine that a more egalitarian society might focus on loosely defined individual competitions rather than team games, while a martial civilization may see rigorously regulated team sports as a perfect metaphor for squad-level battles.
So let’s think about what it takes to make a sport. Looking back at the introduction, we see that we need an organized, competitive, and physical endeavor with well-defined goals. That’s a pretty good start. Let’s break it down in a different way, though, by asking some basic questions.
Who’s playing? Options include one-on-one, like martial arts; one against the “field”, like racing and golf; or team-against-team, as in baseball or football. Anything other than a contest between opposing individuals also requires a total count of players. For “serious” team sports, you can also work out rules for substitutions and things like that.
Where are they playing? Indoors or outdoors is the natural first approximation. But you’ll also want to know the size and shape of the playing area. This is usually the same for every event, but not always. Baseball fields have a bit of variation in the size of the outfield, and the racetrack at Daytona is almost five times as long as the one in Bristol.
What do they need to play? In other words, what equipment does the sport require? Balls are very common, though their composition (rubber, bladder, wood, etc.) can vary. Sticks show up in quite a few sports: baseball, hockey, and cricket are just three. Nets, posts, racquets—the possibilities are virtually endless. That’s not even counting vehicles or, as in polo, animals.
What are they trying to do? “Get the ball in the goal” is one possible objective. “Reach a certain point before X” is another. Those two, in fact, cover most sports Americans recognize as such. Add in “Don’t let the ball touch the ground”, and you’re pretty much set. You can also substitute “puck” or whatever for “ball”, if your sport uses one of those instead. Note that this is the main objective, not the entirety of the rules.
What is and is not allowed? These are the finer rules of the game. They’re the bulk of the gameplay, but a fictitious story is allowed to gloss over them when they’re not pivotal to the action. You have to be consistent, though, but from a storytelling perspective. A sport’s rules don’t necessarily have to make sense. Football’s “catch rule”, the definition of “charging” in basketball, and the whole sport of cricket are evidence of this.
Who wins, and how? This is the victory condition. Some games are time-based, where they end after a certain period has elapsed. Others, such as baseball or tennis, finish after a set number of turns or scores. Sports where score is kept will generally be won by the side with the most scores; golf, though, is a counterexample. Races, of course, go to the one who finishes first, and a few sports (gymnastics and figure skating, for instance, but also boxing) are scored by judges.
There are quite a few other details you can add, like what happens after an event, whether there is enough organization for leagues and championships, etc. The level of detail is important here, though: don’t get lost in impertinent trivia. It’s fun, but you probably don’t need it for the story.
In those stories where it’s warranted, on the other hand, an invented sport can add flavor to a culture. It’s a good illustration that we’re looking at a different set of people. This is what they think is fun. Sure, many cultures will have similarities in their sports. Soccer could plausibly be created just about anywhere, at almost any time. Many of the martial events at the original Olympics came about from soldierly pursuits, and everybody has soldiers. But it’s the differences that we notice the most.
With fantasy, there’s also the potential for new sports that are beyond our capability. Anything involving magic fits this bill; our two fantastic examples above are both physically impossible for ordinary humans. But fantasy worlds might be more amenable to bizarre sports. The same is true in futuristic science fiction. We can’t play games in zero-G today, but that doesn’t mean people on 24th century starships can’t. As with everything in worldbuilding, the only limits are in your mind.