Imagine you’ve been living in the trenches for weeks, maybe months. Corpses of your allies, friends, brothers, surround you. The smell of their rot revolting, the pain of your loss excruciating. Rainwater has made the ground where you stand thick with mud. You’re unbearably cold, and will be that way for a long time. You’re stuck in a living nightmare. Hell on Earth. Joined by your enemies and allies, you’re fighting in the most brutal war the world has ever seen. The Great War.
But you wake up one morning and everything is different. Today you leave the trenches. You escape the smell of rotten bodies. You drop rain-filled boots to run on the grass barefoot. You lay down your guns and pick up a ball. You stop shooting at your enemy and instead start shooting at their goalpost. It’s a Christmas miracle because today you’re not fighting. You’re playing football or soccer with the people you’re supposed to hate most in the world.
When they say that sometimes reality is stranger than fiction, stories like these often come to mind. On December 25th, 1914, there was a temporary ceasefire during the Great War, and Allied soldiers from Britain played football with German soldiers instead of performing their sworn duty to fight. This moment is remarkable for many reasons, but what stands out to me is what the soldiers did on their Christmas Day truce. They played sports. And this isn’t the first time enemies paused their fighting to play.
The first known Olympic Games took place among warring city-states in Greece. The year was 776 BCE and possibly nude athletes from all over Greece competed in dozens of events. Many of which are still used in the modern Olympic Games. Citizens were brought together to revel in the spectacle of it all. Warring factions would take a break to watch athletes compete and would continue to do so for many centuries to come.
Today, the Olympics still brings countries of the world together in the spirit of healthy competition, many of whom are not friendly with one another anywhere else. Why do we love sports so much that we’re willing to put aside even our most extreme differences to participate in them? Maybe it’s because we want to feel the highs of winning without the fear of the consequences of losing. When the soldiers played against each other, they could get excited over the potential of winning, without worrying about what would happen to them if they didn’t.
Competition exists everywhere in nature. It’s survival of the fittest for most species, even humans. But with sports, we’ve been able to create friendly competition that provides almost the same benefits, without potentially deadly repercussions. When two bulls knock heads together, one of them almost always limps away with some physical and lasting damage. But when two kings face off over a game of chess, the worst that could happen is a bruised ego.
But this doesn’t fully explain why we like sports. Because unlike chess, most sports are very physical and with fighting sports, in particular, competitors can leave with more than just a limp. If friendly competition isn’t the reason, why then do we love sports? Like with most things, perhaps evolutionary theory can give us a clue. Strength was very important for primitive humans. The strong were more likely to survive, and this made them more attractive mates.
This is what scientists Andreas de Block and Siegfried Dewitte used to try to explain why we are so drawn to sports. They suggest that sports show off evolutionarily desirable traits in a mate via athleticism. Engaging in sports is essentially our way of showing off our peacock feathers. Our brains haven’t changed fundamentally since the early days of human existence, leaving us hardwired to find these traits desirable even today when maybe they aren’t as important as they once were.
Now while I'm not suggesting that we only swing a bat or kick a ball to prove our worth to a potential mate, some of you probably agree that keeping that athletic body in shape never hurts. And that fact is backed by science. In 2004, researchers conducted a study and found that both male and female athletes had more success at mating than non-athletes. And out of all the people who’ve read that study, approximately no one was surprised by these results.
This theory helps explain why the sports that demonstrate desirable traits the best are typically the most popular. It’s probably why lawn bowling and curling are yet to catch as many eyeballs as football, the two of them, or basketball. While evolutionary theory helps us understand why we are interested in athletes and playing sports ourselves, it doesn’t really explain why we love watching them. And for that, we have to look past the physical nature of sports.
Because when we’re not at war with each other, it might just be that we love sports because of the narrative they create. We hand over our emotions to the game with uncertainty over its results. Good fiction gives us a similar experience. We don’t know how it will end, and so there’s a sense of excitement to find out. With sports, we’re guaranteed a grand finale that wasn’t pre-determined and so the suspense can be that much greater.
We can get caught up in a book or movie and forget that the end is determined, but it will never feel as open-ended as a game. Whether it’s the underdogs defeating the giants, or the old guard showing the overenthusiastic newcomers who’s boss, sports almost always have a story. Or at least we create one out of the games. If our favorite team wins the top prize, we interpret all the struggles along the way as a victory march. And if they don’t make the playoffs, the occasional victories are thought of as overachievements of a team that was destined to lose.
It’s what’s referred to as narrative bias. We interpret the season as one big coherent story. This narrative-based theory helps explain why people enjoy a game or a season, but the instances of shows or genres of stories that billions of people watch together are few and far between. So why are sports so special compared to a TV drama or a blockbuster movie? When most people say they love sports, what they truly mean is that they love a specific team or player. Most people won’t watch football if their favorite team isn’t playing.
Instead of caring about what the entire sport is doing, people get invested in players, teams and the culture surrounding all of that. As a result, most of us watch sports because we want to see our squad succeed. Fans are often invested in their team emotionally and even financially. Studies have shown that what happens in a game can affect a fan's cortisol and testosterone levels.
It can trigger our fight or flight mechanism, leaving many of us deciding whether to yell at a broadcast or turn it off in disgust when faced with our favorite team losing a big game. Our attachment to a team clearly has a powerful effect on our body and mind. Psychologists have studied fandom closely and found that our attachment to a team has a lot to do with identity. Our sense of self gets wrapped up in our notion of who we are as fans.
When most people talk about their favorite teams, they use the pronouns “we” and “us”, referring to themselves as part of the collective group. That’s why we can get so emotional from our team winning or losing. We can even feel like our personal pride is on the line. It’s like we lost, or we won. But fandom isn’t all about winning or losing. Many of us don’t drop our favorite team because they lost a game, or even several in a row. We remain loyal because we get a sense of social connectedness from it.
Franchises that don’t win a lot have success by promoting that sense of community over winning. Putting the emphasis on the social element of sports over the emotions that come with victory can help a low-budget team keep fans. The Chicago Cubs didn’t win a World Series for over 100 years and rarely made the playoffs. Yet the club still enjoyed a healthy fanbase even before their 2016 championship win. At Wrigley Field, fans came for the sense of community and atmosphere, even at times when the prospect of winning was merely a dream.
This social emphasis is healthier for the self-esteem of the fan too. Even though your team didn’t win the big one, you still have the community to connect with and players to relate to. Cheering for the same team also links us with family and strangers alike. When you go to a bar and see someone wearing the same jersey as you, it’s almost guaranteed that you could walk up to them and have a fruitful conversation. Your team is a gateway to bonding with others.
It’s no wonder that identifying with a team is associated with lower levels of loneliness and alienation and higher levels of positive emotions and collective self-esteem. Most of us grow attached to the teams our family and friends support and usually the team we grew up close to. When we become adults, going to a game can be nostalgic and surprisingly emotional. The experience can bring back fond memories of childhood, feelings of loved ones who may have passed away or friends you don’t get to see very often.
Many of us are not able to shake the strong bond we have with our favorite team, even after we move physically closer to a rival organization. Our attachments are entrenched from our early childhood experiences and these strong bonds just can’t be replicated easily. That’s why trying to cheer for a new logo or colors can feel so empty and disappointing, even after strong efforts to foster familiarity.
So why do we love sports? We might never know for certain, but one thing we can say confidently is that it has as much to do with ourselves as it does with what goes on on the field. We want to be successful, we want to be desirable, we want a sense of community and we love a good story. In the end, it might just be a game. But isn’t life itself just a game as well?