15 min read

Astrolabe 15: Sportsball with Ty Schalter, the $1,000 JRPG, and Kings of the Wyld

Astrolabe 15: Sportsball with Ty Schalter, the $1,000 JRPG, and Kings of the Wyld
Blitzball fan art by Frank Att

Mixing Sports and Science Fiction with Ty Schalter

When the world went on pause last year, sports came to a crashing halt as leagues across the world—from youth and beer leagues to the majors—sought to understand the risk associated with play during the Covid-19 pandemic. Like many people, I coped by losing myself in my other favourite hobbies—like Animal Crossing, fantasy novels, and Magic: The Gathering.

But the hole left by the absence of sports was very real, and I noticed once it was gone that watching the Toronto Raptors win championships and the Vancouver Canucks find creative new ways to disappoint me played a similar role in my life to gaming and reading. It's something to sink into when everything else in the world is a bit too much.

I reached out to my good friend Ty Schalter for a conversation. Ty's a lifelong nerd, just like me, but he's also a professional sports writer with bylines on FiveThirtyEight, The Athletic, and Vice.

I joked with Schalter, asking how that worked. Jocks and nerds notoriously don't mix, especially during adolescence. Did Schalter stuff himself in lockers?

"I've always had a foot in both worlds. I've obsessively watched and played sports my entire life," he told me. "But I was also a short, scrawny, smart-mouthed bookworm who thought he was better than the kids who beat him up."

Schalter found himself straddling the line between both sports and geekdom as a youth, but felt left out or judged whenever he tried to mix the two interests.

"In junior high and high school, I hung out with the goth/gamer/anime crowd, and they looked at me like I had two heads if I even mentioned football," he admitted. "Yet I signed up to go out for freshman football, and chickened out the instant I saw... wait for it... all the kids who beat me up in elementary school there. I eventually became a professional sportswriter, which has allowed me to keep a foot in both worlds."

The infamous divide between science fiction and fantasy geeks and sports geeks is disappearing, Schalter told me. We all thought they were oil and water, but it turns out the two cultures are more alike than anyone—themselves included—give them credit for.

"Fandom is fandom!" Schalter said.

"I know it's hard to believe. Growing up, 'jocks vs. nerds' was a cultural norm reinforced by literally every TV show and movie. And sure enough, the meatheads I saw in the bleachers didn't seem to have anything in common with snarkier-than-thou comic-shop denizens.

"But I also couldn't help but notice: Arguments about the best quarterback of all time were indistinguishable from those about the best Star Trek captain."

Tribalism is a well known quantity among sports fans—those who live and die by their favourite teams—but it's also increasingly visible in the SFF fan community. There's always been Star Trek vs. Star Wars-style feuds, and dedicated fan bases, but lately it feels like fandoms are becoming increasingly isolated and hostile toward outsiders. It's very similar to sports fans cheering for their favourite team, and holding very real hatred for their heated rivals.

"Sadly, a lot of the toxicity crosses over, too," Schalter said. "The sexism, the ageism, the gatekeeping about Real Fans, that's all the same. Tweeting that the wrong science-fiction movie Is Bad can get just as scary as walking into a Philadelphia bar with a Cowboys jersey on.

"But that tribalism has a beautiful upside: Seeing hundreds, thousands of people who you know just by looking love the same thing you love is a wonderful feeling."

Schalter likened "uniform culture," which started to appear among sports fans in the late 90s (I'll never forget my Ricky Watters Seahawks jersey, friends) to cosplay. He also compared arriving at a convention to find thousands of other fans dressed up in costume to arriving at a tailgate party outside a major league stadium.

"Getting really into a niche sport like soccer, cricket, or quidditch (yes, really) not only intensifies the geek-culture feels, but increases your chances of finding people who own both a wizard robe and one of those football helmets with the beer-can holders and the built-in straws. You know, like me."

And this trend extends beyond fans. More and more professional athletes are taking the leap into the SFF and gaming fandoms. Former NFL punter Chris Kluwe is a lapsed World of Warcraft fanatic, and released his first science fiction novel last year. (And he wrote a really wonderful piece for Uncanny covering similar ground to my conversation here with Schalter.) Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Cassius Marsh regularly appears on Game Knights—a Magic: The Gathering YouTube show—and recently opened his own card game shop called Cash Cards Unlimited.

Cassius Marsh playing Magic: The Gathering on Game Knights

"It feels new with Zoomer and young Millennial athletes," said Schalter. "You cited some great examples, but there are many more! Former NFL lineman Trevor Pryce wrote a series of middle-grade fantasy novels that were developed into a Netflix series. Current Houston Texans wideout Chris Conley wrote, directed and starred in maybe the best Star Wars fan film I've ever seen. Pro teammates used to compete in cards, darts, dominoes, and the like—but many of them now pass the time gaming. In fact, pro sports teams around the world have been fielding e-sports teams for years, and many pro athletes cross over into the gaming/streamer world.

"As fellow sportswriter and SFF fan Dave Hogg likes to say, nerds won."

But did nerds win, or were they the same as jocks all along?

"I think we were all more alike than we knew—but the merging of values and interests reflects a real change in social capital and cultural dynamics that's tilted the playing field our way," Schalter explained. "Back in the 1980s, Northwestern University was widely known as an excellent institution full of very smart kids who got their tail whipped in sports. Their fans used to chant during their many losses, 'That's all right! That's OK! You'll all work for us someday!' As it turns out, The Real World increasingly values technological skills, adaptive ability, and communication over the ability to swing a hammer.

"It's not that you can't find patriarchy or toxic masculinity in proximity to power all over the place, including in geek culture. But it says a lot about how things have changed that 'water-cooler talk' at the office now mostly happens over computers, and is as likely to be about The Mandalorian as the Local Sports Team."

And then there's the other side of the coin: Sports in SFF. We all know quidditch, but it's just one example among many of films, TV shows, books, and videogames that mix geek with sport.

"One of the most interesting treatments of SFF and sports is in the old Tripod series by John Christopher, a set of YA SF novels from the 1960s," said Schalter. "In them, H.G. Wells-style aliens attack and subjugate much of the world. The aliens then force young men to compete in sporting events for the right to ascend and live with them. A great deal of dramatic weight is given to the protagonists trying to win the honor...only to discover the contests were to identify humans vigorous enough to serve as chattel slaves in the aliens’ toxic environment. Our protagonist then suffers under the thumb of what are mostly stock heartless villains—except he’s shocked to find out they also just love a good ol’ game of three-legged alien baskethooping.

Blitzball in Final Fantasy X. Screenshot via MobyGames

"This is something I see way too rarely in SFF. If the point is to explore all the different ways to be human, the edges of the meaning of humanity, then something as universal to human society as athletic competition ought to be a common touchstone. Instead, in an extension of the nerd vs. jock culture war, most SF I read growing up presumed we’d evolve beyond such primitive inclinations."

Sport and drama are perfect partners, Schalter continued. There's the built-in external and internal conflicts, try/fail cycles, set pieces, climaxes, and endings. "Olympics broadcasters figured it out decades ago," he said. "Just show a picture of a five-year-old in sporting gear, play a couple quotes of that kid talking about their early success and the adversity they faced, and audiences of millions will be gripping their armchairs and flop-sweating through the final round of some sport they'd never heard of five minutes before.

"Of course, real competition doesn't have a writer's room. Sometimes the plucky underdogs don't win, the best anyone's ever seen has an off day, or the $25 million ad campaign goes bust. This is why pro wrestling crafts the storylines and picks the winners."

Schalter's in the midst of revising his first novel, Codex 17, which blends his love for SFF and sports into a tight, highly emotional, whip smart story about growing up, sport, politics, self-belief, and found family. I had the privilege of reading an early draft a few months ago, and haven't stopped thinking about it. What impressed me the most was how Schalter tied sport inextricably into character and plot.

"Obviously, with the novel still in revisions, there's only so much I can say," Schalter told me when I asked him to spill the beans. "But given that it's a YA fantasy set in a magic school, I wanted to hit all the notes I've talked about above. Playing and watching the sport is a meaningful part of day-to-day life, character development is tied into the sports aspect both on and off the field, and (hopefully) I got the sport right. I worked hard to make sportsball feel real, even though magic's involved, and make it real-world playable without magic. I also wanted to make sure all genders and body types would be able to play and play well.

"Oh, and yeah: it's called 'sportsball.' *deal-with-it shades lower from ceiling onto my face*"

Being a sportswriter, Schalter knew he had to get the sports part of the book correct off the bat, so I asked him about his process, and his answer surprised me.

"I knew my temptation would be to lean into what came easy to me and overload the book with sports action and descriptions," he said. "I actually wrote the whole first draft with only passing references to sportsball, making sure everything else stood on its own.

Development started with my setting—a mountainside city with very little open space—and my design goals above: equitable and accessible, played with magic in the fiction but playable without it in the real world. [...] It’s pretty simple at first glance, but gets deeper and more interesting the more thought and effort you put into it—which reinforces a lot of the themes I’m exploring with [the book's protagonist] Kuni."

Schalter expects to be shopping Codex 17 soon. His work can be found on his website, Medium, and Twitter—where you'll find his delightful blend of the geekiest aspects of SFF and sport all rolled up into one neat bundle. He also contributed a piece to Sarah Gailey's wonderful Personal Canons series—it's about Ender's Game, and how to process the complex emotions of finding out your favourite author is a jerk.

This interview with Ty Schalter is part of Transmission Received, Astrolabe’s ongoing interview series. Two days after Astrolabe publishes, paid subscribers get early access to full transcripts or video interviews via a separate mailing.

This feature is being provided to all free subscribers for the first six interviews. (This is the third interview.) If you’d like to continue to receive them, or would like to support Astrolabe’s growth and maintenance, please consider subscribing.

Out & About

(Out & About is where I highlight my work around the web—some recent and some old favourites.)

Why Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete Remains One of the Best JRPGs Ever | EGMegmnow.com Twenty years ago, a cute little Japanese RPG became a beacon of hope in Final Fantasy VII's long shadow.

Getting to write about one of my all-time favourite games is one thing. Having the opportunity to write about it for my absolute favourite gaming magazine is on an entirely different level. "Why Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete Remains One of the Best JRPGs Ever" for Electronic Gaming Monthly is a deep dive into the history of Working Designs and Game Arts's legendary Japanese RPG for the PlayStation (and Saturn, in Japan), and a look at how it impacted me personally and the genre as a whole.

It’s been 20 years since I traveled to the moon, defeated an evil Magic Emperor, and fell in love.
Like many gamers of a certain age, I was obsessed with Japanese RPGs during the mid-’90s. I played the Chrono Triggers and Final Fantasies, Suikodens, and Breath of Fires, but few games have stuck with me over the years with the same intense emotional connection as Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete.
A PlayStation remake of a Sega CD game called Lunar: The Silver Star, Lunar: SSSC was developed by Game Arts and released in North America in 1999. It tells the story of young Alex, an erstwhile adventurer with dreams of following in his hero’s footsteps to become the next Dragonmaster. At his side is Luna, his childhood friend with a literally magical voice, and entrepreneur-in-the-making Ramus. Together, they set off on a journey that will change their world.

Read "Why Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete Remains One of the Best JRPGs Ever" on Electronic Gaming Monthly

Some more:

LTTP—Panzer Dragoon Saga (1998, Sega Saturn)

( LTTP stands for “Late to the Party” and is a regular column where I let Twitter decide which retro game I’ll play for an hour. Do your worst, Twitter!)

Emulation is a wonderful thing.

In the wake of the news that Sony is shutting down the PlayStation Store for the PlayStation 3, PSP, and Vita, all eyes are on emulation and its role in games preservation. Unfortunately, the corporations who publish games, and the platforms makers themselves, are uninterested in games preservation for a variety of different reasons—the foremost being that it doesn't make money the way new releases do.

This is all to say that this issue of LTTP is dedicated to the wonders of emulation and community preservation. I went and filled my Twitter poll with three expensive Sega Saturn games I've never played before, and, unsurprisingly, cult classic Panzer Dragoon Saga walked away the victor.

Title Screen via Panzer Dragoon Legacy

Released in 1998 on the Sega Saturn, Panzer Dragoon Saga is a post-apocalyptic JRPG full of unique gameplay elements, a dark world, and a battle system that stands out from the crowd, even 20+ years later, for the way it mixes traditional JRPG systems with Panzer Dragoon's patented dragon-riding goodness. While the Sega Saturn was popular in Japan, it struggled in North America, making English NTSC copies of the game rare and exceedingly expensive.

Sega Saturn emulation has come a long way over the past few years, and the game generally ran smoothly on my older iMac in Retroarch. Unfortunately, I hit several random lockups while playing (testing different emulator cores, to rule out a bug related to a specific core), so that limited the experience I could have with the game. That's also the reason you won't find a video stream at the end of this LTTP.

Screenshot via MobyGames

What I did get to play, though, left an impression. I got a glimpse of what makes Panzer Dragoon Saga special, and why its absurd price point is earned by its quality and unique qualities as much as its rarity. Some games are expensive because they're hard find, regardless of whether they're good or not, but Panzer Dragoon Saga is one of those unicorns that sits right at the fulcrum of rare and good.

Screengrab via GameValueNow.com

After many minutes of voice acted (!) cut scenes setting the stage for a conflict involving a mysterious magic girl, an evil empire, and a spunky nobody caught up in it all, the player takes control of protagonist Azel in a dark mine. Azel acquires a dragon, which he uses to navigate the overworld, and also acts as the main combatant in battles. I didn't actually get a chance to take part in any battles, so I can't comment on them, but my understanding is that their one-on-one, dragonback structure is unique and fun, carving out its own space within the genre, rather than piggybacking on established systems. Panzer Dragoon Saga has a reputation for doing its own thing, and that's clear right from the get-go.

Screenshot via MobyGames

Perhaps the most notable element is the game's dark atmosphere. Early console 3D is generally unimpressive across any of the systems, and Panzer Dragoon Saga is no exception, but it works within its limitations in really interesting ways to create a world that feels interesting and hostile as you explore and peel back its narrative layers. There's a lot of dark colours, but the way the artists pick out details with bold colours is wonderful.

I'll probably never get to play an original copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga on a Sega Saturn, but this small taste via emulation absolutely has me interested in finding a way to play through the whole thing one day via emulation.

Panzer Dragoon Saga was released for the Sega Saturn in January, 1998 in Japan, April, 1998 in North American, and June, 1998 in PAL regions. It has never been rereleased, causing it to be one of the most sought after and expensive JRPGs on the market.

Author Nicolas Eames and Kings of the Wyld

Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

As part of research for an upcoming project, I finally got around to reading Nicholas Eames's Kings of the Wyld, which has been on my radar for years due to its reputation as a gritty epic fantasy with a whole lot of heart. Eames's first novel takes a daring turn right out of the gate—trading primetime heroes for their washed-up counterparts 20 years later. It's such a deliriously brilliant idea, executed flawlessly by Eames so the book exceeds its lofty promises. There's blood and guts galore, but it's accentuated by great humor, and a surprising amount of tenderness and vulnerability, making it the perfect read for this 37 year old nostalgia addict.

On top of that, Eames is a hug JRPG nerd like me, and this book is riddled with references to games like Final Fantasy, which regularly had me rolling on the floor. Kings of the Wyld is a very easy recommendation for anyone who loves epic fantasy, JRPGs, or just wants to revisit a genre they haven't read since their younger days.

Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames is available now from Orbit Books

Quest Markers

(Quest Markers is a collection of the coolest stuff I’ve read around the web lately.)

End Step

I had a lot of fun with this issue! Chatting with Ty about two topics I'm passionate about was really refreshing. One thing I've really noticed over the past few years is how people often exist within multiple fandoms, and I think it's so interesting when those streams cross.

I was only able to include a portion of my chat with Ty, which went really long and in-depth into sports, fandom, SFF, and Ty's work-in-progress novel. I think you're really going to enjoy the full interview transcript when it drops via Transmission Received in a couple of days.

Thanks for reading!

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