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I read again the Harry Potter novels and thought how much Quidditch has a broken gameplay system (Seekers are way way overpowered compared to other players and can basically carry their own team to the win regardless of the opposite team. It is because they have close to no mechanics related to their teammates, except dodging bludgers and that catching the golden snitch give you 150 points while most game have less than a 150 points difference). A very realistic thing about Quidditch though is that it can be played by wizards in their garden, and as such would be a good hobby for young wizards, in the same way than football can be played in the street or in your garden. I remembered that every sport I read about in sci-fi books were flawed in a way or another.

The important thing to consider for designing a realistic (and popular) sport is not how much fun it is to play the game, but also how much fun it is to watch it played, for example tennis is fun to play and to watch, squash is funnier to play (imo) but is extremely hard to watch.
I understand that most of the fictional sports are there for their narrative value, but I suppose we could do better.

So here are my questions, keep in mind that I'm not looking for ideas for fictional sports:

  • How can I create well-designed sports?
  • What are good rules of thumbs?
  • What are some examples of fictional team sports that are realistic?
  • What are commonly made mistakes?
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    $\begingroup$ Tennis is fun to watch? Are you sure about that? $\endgroup$ – Ghanima Apr 8 '15 at 8:06
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    $\begingroup$ Multiball! MULTIBALL! Bleern! Bleeeeeeerrrnnnn!!!! $\endgroup$ – Samuel Apr 8 '15 at 15:43
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    $\begingroup$ Quantum soccer! $\endgroup$ – Federico Poloni Apr 8 '15 at 18:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Twelfth In that situation, you could simply make Harry a striker and have him score a few key goals, without making the game as outrageously broken as Quidditch. $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Apr 8 '15 at 21:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Fabinout funnier means something is more funny (like a joke), not more fun. You should just say Tennis is more fun than squash. $\endgroup$ – Styphon Apr 9 '15 at 8:46
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(Clarification - when I say football I mean soccer unless otherwise specified.)

Hey, great question.

Here's some thoughts on basic rules and questions which might help you design an interesting game.

What are the unique rules of the world?

Any game inherent to the world you're building should ideally seek to incorporate the rules of the world. The idea (if your story is set in a different world from ours) is that there is something unique in your world that led to the development of this sport. The beauty of quidditch is not that it is a magical game loved by the wizards, the beauty of the game lies in the fact that it is a normal game which makes complete sense for the rules that govern the world of wizards, yet it remains fascinating to us muggles.

Any game would be far more thrilling (to write and read) if it had flying broomsticks. Find the flying broomsticks of your world and incorporate them into the sport.

Identifying Thrill-Moments

Watch a full length football match. There are moments where you're excited and there are moments where you're not. When do people get excited in a football match?

When the ball nears the goal post? Will they score? Will Messi slide one in? Feel that thrill. When a player pulls off a ridiculous move? Notice the awe.

Sport is popular because it creates moments of excitement and conflict. But how those moments are created depends on the sport. Some observations in this behalf:

  1. Football relies on fleeting moments, but man when things happen its crazy. You wait and wait and wait and then someone comes close or scores and its all madness.

  2. Basketball has these moments occuring more frequently, but with lesser payoff unless something absolutely spectacular happens.

  3. An interesting sport in terms of Thrill creation is Cricket (not unlike baseball in some structural terms). The game is broken into segments called overs, where a small red ball is hurled six times by a bowler to a man holding a wooden bat, trying to ensure he doesn't get out and score the most amount of runs possible in those six turns (a *very** general idea of the game). There are eleven members in a team but there is always a bowler vs. batsman situation happening. The game can be tediously slow, but there are times when the very nature of the contest within a contest (individual battle nested in a team battle) is riveting stuff.

What kind of thrill do you want to create? Slowly built up tension like cricket? Random but exhilarating adrenaline like football? Or steady but rewarding fun like basketball?

When you say Physical sport, how physical do you mean?

Usually - usually - the more intimate and physical a sport is, the more exciting it is to watch. A more physical sport will also make you wince more, may hurt your sensitivities, and may not be for everyone. Then again look at American football or ice hockey. They are very physical and aggressive by design, and the prospect of physical injury adds a layer of tension to proceedings.

With the advantage of the sport being fictional, it can range from being gladiatorial combat based - where one might die, to just knocking around a weightless shuttlecock like in badminton - where changes of a brutal injury are not as high. A general rule appears to be - higher the physical danger, the more tension it'll create, leading to more fun reading and writing.

Some things to ponder in this regard are:

Is your sport going to hurt? How much and how often? Is death possible?

Some examples of Great Fictional and Real Sports worth your Attention

The bending tournament in Avatar: Legend of Korra is without contest my favorite fictional sport. It blends action, tension and worldbuilding perfectly.

It is a two team sport. There are three participants in every team with a demarcated area that is their own. Each team must use martial arts and bending (air/water/earth/fire) to push out the other team from their zone while dodging the oppositions attacks.

Quidditch is something already addressed in the question, and is fantastic. Real danger, high speed, major thrill moments.

A real sport I think you should check out is Pro Kabaddi League. It is a smaller version of kabaddi, with limited room, and makes for some awesome moments of raw physicality, cleverness and fun. A lot of inspiration for creation of new alternatives there.

BONUS FOOD FOR THOUGHT FOR THE WRITING PART

How inherent to the plot is the sport? (or how complex can you make it?)

If your story is a sports underdog story in a secondary fantasy world, well firstly, awesome idea! Secondly, you have open license to complicate the sport and make it as interesting and intriguing as possible. Put another way, if the sport itself is inherent to the plot, you can reveal all the nuances of the game at leisure to the reader.

If it is just throw-away worldbuilding which you may or may not utilize at a later point in the story, well, don't spend too much time explaining it just yet. A good example of this is Nine Kings from the Lightbringer trilogy by Brent Weeks. In the Black Prism (the first book) he merely references the game because it is practically of no relevance to the book. By the second book, its slightly (but not yet enormously) important to the plot so he slowly starts weaving in references and rules. In the second book, we see plenty of games of Nine Kings but the rules are only explained towards the end and even then partially. By the third book, this game (and the cards involved) become essential to the plot and suddenly, we know a lot more about the nature of the game, the cards, the rules etc. I get that Nine-kings is not a physical team sport, but the lesson for exposition remains the same IMO.

In conclusion, know if you're writing a magical Mighty Ducks story or something more akin to the Lightbringer trilogy.

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    $\begingroup$ One other thing I'd include - I think people will find it more realistic if you have the "nonsense" rules that most real sports end up with to prevent exploits - a rule that makes no sense when you first read it, but when explained is necessary to keep fair play. The best example I know of is baseball's infield fly rule, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infield_fly_rule. Most mature sports end up with these, and I think it will add an element of realism. $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Apr 8 '15 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ I would also add on the question of "how can we break this", to find things like the golden stitch that just don't make sense. Is a rule easily manipulated, or is one character too important. Are there situations where the game just doesn't become fun because one team has effectively won even though the game isn't over? In those cases go with Dan's approach and make "nonsense" rules if need be, it actually make the system feel more real. Also, don't be afraid to have in-story char complain about silly aspects of a game. Don't fall into the "we have one sport, everyone plays on it" mindset $\endgroup$ – dsollen Apr 8 '15 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ I'm tempted to downvote just because you describe Quidditch as "fantastic". $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Apr 8 '15 at 21:09
  • $\begingroup$ @KSmarts, Given that my high school has previously had Quidditch tournaments, there is obviously something about it that people find compelling. $\endgroup$ – CoolCurry Apr 8 '15 at 22:41
  • $\begingroup$ Everyone knows the best fictional sport is "Whack-bat" from Fantastic Mr. Fox $\endgroup$ – Nacht Apr 8 '15 at 23:57
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It's going to be different depending on your Genre, for example a high-fantasy sport is going to be different to modern day and futuristic sports. The thing with sports though is they evolve. Association football (soccer) has been around for hundreds of years, but in its modern format has only been around for about 160 years. The game evolved, and not only in one way but many. Rugby football is a good example of how football evolved in another way.

What I'm getting at is one way to make a good sport is to devolve (for fantasy) or evolve (for futuristic) an existing sport. An example of an evolved sport is American Football in Starship Troopers.

Even if you're going to start your own sport from scratch you can still take influences from across existing sports. Many sports have come from other sports, altering the rules to suit the creators ideas.

Other sports came about from boredom or a lack of access to other activities. The general public would use items available daily in sporting activities that they weren't originally designed for. Take ice hockey, where late 18th - early 19th century workers would take sticks with a curved end and a "bung" (a large cork stopper used to stopper barrels) and knocked it about on the ice.

If you have an idea for a sport and you want to make it realistic, think about how it would have started, what's its origins? How did it become more official? Any sport that goes on to be as popular as football or quidich will have an official body. And what makes it fun to watch? Some people prefer feats of great athleticism, others great skill. What makes the beautiful game beautiful is those with great skill can make the ball do amazing things that the average person couldn't.

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    $\begingroup$ To add to the last paragraph, how would people cheat/exploit the rules and how would they be patched. For example the offside rule is there to prevent deep passes behind the defense for easy goals. $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak Apr 8 '15 at 9:26
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    $\begingroup$ It is also natural to make sport of the physical chores, skills, and challenges necessary in their world. Modern rodeo is an obvious example. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Apr 8 '15 at 11:06
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The most important thing I have found in a good sport is to minimize the number of "winning" approaches. Ensure everything you could want to do is exploitable. Assume that, if there is a "winning" approach, 100% of teams will do it instantly (this is the issue with Seekers... we didn't see teams abusing the 100% win solutions in Quiddich)

Starcraft 2 may be the ultimate example of "inventing" a sport. It was designed by Blizzard Entertainment from day 1 to be "the next eSport," and a great deal of effort went into making a sport that was fun to play and watch (they were even kind enough to talk about how they did it, so you can get some pointers from them if you look). In that game, you build up armies to fight. Each type of unit in those armies has a weakness to another unit. These usually formed cycles. Zerglings are weak to marines which are weak to roaches which are weak to marauders which are weak to zerglings. If you stick to one approach, they simply change to defeat you. Mixed armies are harder to field, requiring more skill and more commitment of resources. In many cases, a mixed army wins over a monoloithic army. However, the monolithic army can get built ever so slightly faster, possibly disrupting the creation of the opponent's mixed army.

This is the other key: there should always be a balance between strategy and tactics, no matter your skill level. If your opponent is planning too much, one fluid tactical strike should upset their plans. If they are striking too tactically without an overarching plan, you should be able to wear them down. Each team should have to define their personal balance between strategy and tactics, based on how their players like to work together. Some of the joy of watching professional and college sports is watching how the different approaches to the game play out.

The last key I will mention is a hard one to explain, but its the balance between the opening and the end game. The opening of the game should matter, all the way to the end, but the game shouldn't play out as "well, team A got the opening point, so team B basically can't do anything." Likewise, it should be remarkably hard to pull off an "upset" right at the end of a game. It upsets the crowd, of course. Quite often I find this aspect is not written into the game at all, but shows up in the psychology of the game. A basketball team that nails 3 3-poitners right in the beginning is only ahead by a few points. However, the psychology of watching them effortlessly work around your defenses can be spirit breaking.

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  • $\begingroup$ Starcraft isn't a sport, it is a game. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Apr 8 '15 at 17:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Oldcat It is an E-sport, just as League of Legends is. LoL had more viewers in its World Championship than Baseball world series. (also, sports are games) $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Apr 8 '15 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ Since you say "tactics" and "strategy" is an important balance, I think its worth mentioning what the difference between them are, some people think they mean the same thing. "Strategy" is what you plan to do, overall - while "Tactics" is how you accomplish your "strategy." $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Apr 8 '15 at 17:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Oldcat: Football is a game as well. The reason I feel comfortable claiming both of them are sports is because they are games which people play professionally and do so in front of spectators. There's even advertizing budgets involved in both cases. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Apr 8 '15 at 17:57
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In the novel I am writing, I came up with the sport of "fan-fly". Two lines of dragons use their wings to fan an insect called an "utter-fly" away from their side in hopes of making the utter-fly touch one of the opposing players. Each touch is worth a point, and contact with the head is worth ten. Allowing the utter-fly to escape costs points and flying more than a few feet off the ground is a foul. The fun is when a dragon takes it on the head. The utter-fly is telepathic and makes the dragon do silly things, depending on what the trainer "uttered" to the bug while it was in its chrysalis.

My goal for this sport was humor. Huge, fire-breathing dragons terrified of touching a tiny insect would be a sight to see. As mentioned by the other posters, it uses novel features of my world - dragons and utter-flies - and the special abilities of the dragons - flapping wings, low-level flying. The "ball" is as unpredictable as the snitch in quidditch. And the price of losing is not pain or physical wounds or loss of money - it is loss of pride, which means a lot to dragons.

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My two cents: Unless the details of the game a key to the plot, just imply the rules of the game while its being played or better yet watched. That lets the reader exercise their imagination and they will fill in the blanks.

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