LANDodger: Sunday Tennis

BY Andrew Miesner / February 8, 2009


Written by Mike “LANDodger” Luxion

(This article is an editorial and does not necessarily represent the opinion of compLexity Gaming or its parent company.)

What a game last Sunday. It was one of those (sometimes all too rare) matches in sports that actually lived up to all the potential storylines. Old vs. Young. Experienced vs. Inexperienced. Good vs. Evil. Alright, maybe not so much that last one, but you get the idea. It was a game that no sports fan would want to miss.

The only problem? It was on at 3:30 in the morning on the same day as the Superbowl.

Obviously, I’m not talking about Steelers vs. Cardinals.

No, the match in question was Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer. Before we go any farther, let me preface the rest of this by saying that I have zero interest in tennis. Absolutely none. Normally I don’t even pay enough attention to say whether I dislike it or not. Asking for my opinion on tennis would be like asking for somebody’s opinion on dirt. It’s dirt. Who the hell cares?

So what drew me in this time? Simple. It was the rivalry. It was Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, man! Federer came in looking to tie Pete Sampras’ all-time record for victories in “major” tournaments. For the last few years Nadal, five years Federer’s junior, has been the only guy consistently resisting Federer’s march towards the history books.

To add even more intrigue, Nadal was coming off a five hour, fourteen minute semi-finals match less than 48 hours earlier. I’m not sure how to translate that into another sport, but let’s just say if I had to play five hours of tennis I’d need two weeks, an oxygen mask, and probably some knee-replacement surgery (not necessarily in that order) to recuperate. And Federer? He was coming off an easier match and he had an extra day of rest. Who would win? Young but tired legs, or the old but rested hand?

I had to find out.

I don’t want to spend too much time describing the match, but it was absolutely gripping. For the first three sets, Nadal looked like he might break down at any moment, even calling out the trainer to work on his right leg. And just when it looked like Federer was going to crush Nadal’s spirit by breaking his serve, Nadal rallied back to win three consecutive points – the tennis equivalent of preventing a TD on first and goal at the one yard line. And somehow Nadal got stronger as the game went on while Federer slowly unraveled.

In the end, Nadal finished the job and Federer would get another chance to tie Pete Sampras’s all-time record in the next major tennis tournament.

While I was watching the match, not daring to turn away lest I miss another incredible shot, it suddenly hit me how important rivalries are to broadening a sport’s audience. The man who has the same opinion about tennis and dirt just watched a whole match, and will probably tune into the next one, but if this was any other tennis match between any other competitors I would have watched all the other great programming on at 4 am. I’m not even kidding. Before this if you gave me the option between watching tennis or taking “the field” I would have taken the field. There would have to be at least one interesting program. (And no, I’m not counting Girls Gone Wild infomercials as “interesting”.)

While I was watching the match, not daring to turn away lest I miss another incredible shot, it suddenly hit me how important rivalries are to broadening a sport’s audience.But Federer/Nadal got me to change the channel. Being a sports fan, I knew some of their history and the circumstances surrounding the match. That was enough for me. Their foot was in the proverbial door, and from there the action carried the day.

The problem for sports leagues (to say nothing of gaming leagues, where the problem is even worse) is getting to the point where a potential fan is allowing themselves to be carried by that action. When you’re selling a product that has a tangible effect, like hair shampoo or food, it’s easy to sell your customers on potential benefits. Get rid of dandruff! Don’t starve to death! The product does the work. When you’re selling a form of entertainment things get a little trickier. In that field, every ad basically comes down to a single message: “we think you’ll enjoy this.” That goes for movie trailers of all sorts, whether they promote action, drama, or comedy, ads for new TV shows, and (of course) sports. They’re promoting the things they think you’ll like.

The trouble here is that, if you’re anything like me, you learned at an early age that people with A) no idea what you like, and B) a large incentive to sell a product, aren’t exactly trustworthy sources. Heck, it’s a risky proposition even when people do know what you like. Think of all the times in your life when a friend tried to get you to do something you’ve never tried before. Or vice versa. Games, movies, books, outings … how can you possibly convince somebody to try those things?

In all those cases you need a hook. When you’re talking to your friends, the hook is usually that you trust their judgment and they have a good idea about what you like. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But when you’re trying to attract new fans by the hundreds or the thousands, as gaming has tried to do with such astounding success that we’re still trying to do it, the hook is a storyline.

For my money, there’s no better storyline than two old rivals, both at or near the top of their game, fighting on the biggest stage. At worst you’re guaranteed to have a handful of jaw-dropping individual moments. At best, those moments will be woven into a close, hard-fought match that reminds everybody why they watch sports in the first place. Dynasties are good, don’t get me wrong. But I’m not going to watch Federer beat up on some guy in three sets. I watch sports for conflict and drama, not to see an overmatched opponent.

The big reason I’m writing about this epiphany is that it came at an opportune time. For the last few weeks I’ve been wondering why I have no interest in MLG tournaments or any gaming tournament that doesn’t deal primarily with CS or a select other couple games. I see these tournaments come around. I might pay attention to a big announcement about who wins or loses. But while the actual event or match is happening, I have absolutely no desire to watch the action. You could even stream it on the frontpage of a major eSports media site, and not only would I still be uninterested, I’d probably just be annoyed that the webpage loaded slowly.

This was frustrating me for two important reasons. The first is that when outside circumstances force me to watch a match I might normally miss, I almost always enjoy it. This suggests it’s not the action that’s the problem, but something else. But more importantly it’s all too easy to imagine that my apathy towards MLG is the same apathy that MLG fans feel towards CS, or DoA fans feel towards FIFA, on and on down the line. That’s bad because our fellow gamers are the ones most likely to support new games in the future – it’s a lot easier for a CS fan to become a Halo fan than it is for an 80 year-old pinochle fan to make the same leap.

For my money, there’s no better storyline than two old rivals, both at or near the top of their game, fighting on the biggest stage.So how do we build up rivalries, our hooks to the world outside the niche group of fans for any particular game? The same way that tennis grabbed me for one Sunday night: a mix of time, history between the players (or relatively stable teams), and media coverage that can actually highlight and promote said history. Oh, and we need tournaments that allow all those things to happen. It’s hard to build up rivalries when the best teams are only playing each other a couple times of year, at best, in big tournaments that are here and gone in a single weekend. 

(And while I’m listing things that are of the pie-in-the-sky, easier said than done variety, I’d also like to be rich like Scrooge McDuck. Just figured I’d throw that in there.)

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