July 21, 2014

Of soccer and spoilers

Let's look at sports from a literary angle.

Perhaps the differences between the preferences of the average American sports fan (who cares about soccer every four years) and the rest of the world (who can't live without it) can be analogized to how people respond to the twists and turns of narrative plot.

More specifically, does knowing what's going to happen matter? Or put another way, do you read spoilers or studiously avoid them?

In Wired magazine, Jonah Lehrer sums up research by Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt at U.C. San Diego. Testing the enjoyability of a range of short stories with and without spoilers appended, they concluded that "spoilers don't spoil anything."

Almost every single story, regardless of genre, was more pleasurable when prefaced with a spoiler. This suggests that I read fiction the right way, beginning with the end and working backwards. I like the story more because the suspense is contained.

As I argued before, it is the predictability in the strategic play of American sports--the sports fan knows what to expect, when and how--that makes them popular, while the inability to anticipate even a definitive ending in soccer is at the core of its appeal.

Soccer is a story where "anything can happen," including nothing. Soccer as postmodern theater: instead of Waiting for Godot we're "Waiting for a Goal." The genre in genre fiction, by contrast, is its own spoiler, where "the same only different" is a virtue.

Or put another way--to switch metaphors in the middle of the stream--American football (done well) is like a classical symphony while soccer (done well) is like jazz improvisation. And like soccer, I'm afraid I respect jazz a lot more than I actually enjoy it.

And I happily read spoilers.

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# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
I don't read spoilers before the fact (I read Wikipedia articles after the fact), but I will read the ends of novels before I begin them, especially long novels. I refused to start Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell until I had read the end. I enjoyed the book, but no way was I going to slog through 1000 pages to be disappointed by the conclusion. Not when there are so many other things to read!

I force myself not to read the end of mysteries, but I do reread mysteries as do many mystery readers. And I think our willingness to reread the discovery of what we already know directly supports the idea that readers like predictability or, rather, we like to be surprised and impressed and delighted all over again. That was so clever--let's see it again! (Does that explain instant replay?!)

I think this is where arty films and books make a fundamental error. They mistakenly assume that because we audiences have already seen parents reuniting with a long-lost child a hundred times before, we don't need to see it again (let's change things up!). But actually we do. There's a reason the mythic hero cycle got used and reused and re-re-used and why it still works today. We can never get enough of the best cliches!
7/21/2014 9:30 AM

# posted by Anonymous Dan
For as random as soccer appears the outcomes are very predictable. The better teams win. Compare this to NCAA basketball where the namesake tournament is celebrated for its upsets and unlikely champions. And of course single elimination basketball tournaments gave us "Hoosiers" and a single elimination hockey tournament gave us the Miracle on Ice.

Is there anything equivalent to these surprises in the history of the world cup?
7/22/2014 11:46 AM

# posted by Blogger Eugene
Professional sports are surprising in predictable ways. The question comes down to what is predictable and where the surprise arises. (I believe the literary metaphor holds in this respect.)

In American sports, there's always a top seed getting eliminated and a bottom seed making it to the finals. Call it a "strategic surprise," which in the post-game analysis can be explained according to the execution of superior tactics.

(Like stock market analysis, these diagnoses aren't necessary correct, but in the short term they do actually make sense.)

Soccer is surprising at the tactical level and predictable at the strategic level. There was nothing predictable about Germany's winning kick in overtime, or Argentina's winning kick being invalidated by the dumb off-sides rule.

Ultimate victory in soccer reflects the steady accumulation of slightly superior odds, often undetectable on a game-to-game basis (unless there's a rare blow-out) and even during the game.
7/22/2014 12:39 PM

# posted by Anonymous Shizuka
I agree with Katherine, there so many things worth to read! I little peak to the ending or a little spoiler can tell me if that novel/manga/anime or so is my cup of tea, saving my time.
About soccer I live in a country that almost live for it. Soccer is the national sport so even I, who don't like it too much, know some tips about it. It's true, soccer is quite unpredictable, or maybe you can say that, in comparison with other sports, is more difficult tell the result of a match (even if a big team is playing with a relatively small one). But I don't know much of US sports or soprt that are highly predictable so my opinion can be conditioned by this fact.
7/23/2014 5:26 AM