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Astrolabe (15): Transmission Received with Ty Schalter
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In Astrolabe 15, I spoke with sportswriter and lifelong SFF fan Ty Schalter about the parallels and crossovers between sports and geek fandoms. Topics covered include athletes making the jump into geekdom, sports in SFF, and Codex 17, the YA book he's writing that blends sport and epic fantasy in delightful ways.
I couldn't come close to fitting our entire conversation in the feature, but that's exactly what Transmission Received is for! I hope you enjoy this full transcript with Schalter as much as I enjoyed working on it with him.
An Intro to Blitzball with Ty Schalter
Aidan Moher: So, Ty. You’re an SFF author and lifelong genre fan, you love retro JRPGs enough that your current work-in-progress has chocobos, but you’re also a professional sports writer. I thought jocks and nerds don’t mix. Did you stuff… yourself in a locker in high school?
Ty Schalter: Well, I've always had a foot in both worlds. I've obsessively watched and played sports my entire life—but I was also a short, scrawny, smart-mouthed bookworm who thought he was better than the kids who beat him up. In 1988, when I was seven, I wrote self-insert fanfic of playing college football with Barry Sanders at Oklahoma State. I didn't get the chance to play as many team sports as I wanted, but I did well in baseball and gymnastics. In sixth grade, I wrote a quasi-weekly Detroit Red Wings 'zine and sold copies to classmates for a dime. 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. 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.
AM: I kid! In reality, I’ve also straddled the two fandoms and found immense value in both of them. I’ve been a huge hockey fan since childhood, and it’s given me a lot over the years, in different, but equally important ways as gaming or fantasy books or whatever. Part of the reason I wanted to talk to you is that we’ve discussed the similarities between sports and geek fandom in the past. How do you see these two cultures fitting together?
TS: Fandom is fandom!
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. My own tactic of well-actually'ing such sports arguments with superior historical and statistical knowledge came straight from the comic shop. Sadly, a lot of the toxicity crosses over, too. 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. Tailgating outside the stadium before the game feels like meeting up at the hotel bar during a con. The advent of jersey fashion in the late nineties/early aughts led to a remarkable sports-uniform subculture that's very much like cosplay. 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.
AM: I’ve also noticed things going in the other direction, too, where you have more pro athletes embracing geekdom. Former NFL punter Chris Kluwe is a lapsed World of Warcraft fanatic, and released his first science fiction novel last year. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Cassius Marsh regularly appears on Game Knights—a Magic: The Gathering YouTube show—and recently open his own card game shop. Is this new within sports culture? Or are the tides just shifting in terms of how people are able to accept and take part in different fandoms?
TS: It feels new with Zoomer and young Millennial athletes. 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.
Obviously, digital media and online culture has had a huge impact. The mass-media takeover by genre IP has given social cover (and an easy on-ramp) for countless non-traditional geeks to find community in fandom. Many big sports-media properties like The Ringer obsessively cover geeky shows and movies, too. The phrase "dungeons and dragons" used to be a shorthand for people too hopelessly awkward for normal society--and now actual-play podcasts and streams crack the mass-market charts of iTunes, YouTube, and Twitch. As fellow sportswriter and SFF fan Dave Hogg likes to say, nerds won.
AM: I mean, we all knew in our heart of hearts that nerds were gonna win, right? For me, the thing about sports and geekdom is that they’re both platforms for the same sort of healthy, slightly obsessive fandom that loves intricate debates, theorycrafting, and breathless anticipation. Like, I tinker with my fantasy sports teams in the same way I do a build in World of Warcraft, and talk with my brother at length about the crossroads during Vancouver Canucks’s 50 years of failure the same way we talked about Game of Thrones theories and plot twists. Did the nerds win, or did it turn out were were all just the same in the end?
TS: 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.
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.
Again, 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.
In terms of obsession? It's absolutely the same. Sports fans will spend days hyperventilating about what it means for the future of a team that one middling player did (or didn't) get a contract extension. NFL fans spend months poring over, creating, sharing, and arguing about mock drafts, trying to predict which new college players are about to join their favorite team--when statistically, even top picks rarely make an immediate impact.
I sure didn't know that nerds would win when I attended my first Star Trek convention--which took place at the same venue and day as a Shriner convention and a clown convention. I didn't know nerds would win when I journeyed to the weirdo alternative video store to rent "Japanimation." But when I joined a soccer-watching group that would rent out an Irish pub at 7:00 am on Saturday mornings so we could all watch the footy with pints of Guinness and supporters' scarves, I realized how universal Being A Fan really was.
AM: I think we’ve all noticed a larger shift within SFF fandom toward smaller, more siloed groups of fans that are fervently dedicated to one specific fandom. This reminds me a lot of the ride or die attitude of a lot of sports fans. But while I think it’s fine for someone to be a Detroit Lions lifer (if they tend toward masochistic self hate, of course) and loathe the Packers, it feels a different in geekdom. There’s always been Trekkies vs. Star Wars fans, etc., but lately it feels like the silos are getting even smaller and more specific. What’s driven this shift toward SFF fans becoming more and more defined by their fandoms? And how do you think it reflects on sports fandom?
TS: Great question, and one that gets at the heart of both the similarities and differences. Defining yourself by the things that you like means you have natural allies in the people that like those same things. But the more time, money, and effort you invest in a fandom, the more you take it personally. If someone attacks that thing, it's like they're attacking you.
The big difference, of course, between traditional sports fans and traditional geek culture is that sports fandom was primarily defined by regionalism. You cheered for the teams you lived close enough to go see, whose games you could pick up on your radio, whose highlights were shown every night on local TV, that got written about by your local newspaper. But geek fandom was about expression of taste: hard sf or fantasy, sword 'n sorcery or futurism. Even choosing geekdom at all was self-selecting into a subculture--you were rejecting the entertainment of your local neighbors, radio, TV, and newspaper.
However, that's changing in both directions. The Internet has made it possible to follow sports teams from anywhere like a local (Liverpool fans, you'll never walk alone!), so people can much better tailor their fandom to reflect themselves. There's a minor-league Austrian soccer team, FC Pinzgau Saafelden, that recently changed their entire business model to appeal to North American sports hipsters.
Meanwhile, the explosion of geeky media has exposed how little choice there used to be. As a young Trekker, I used to wonder what Star Wars superfans had conventions about. Did they all just stand around and talk about how they still really liked those same three movies?
Now the explosion of choice, and depth of fixation, is such that you can put 10,000 My Little Pony fans in one spot--but an SFF bookworm, a tabletop gamer, an anime addict and a videogame streamer might not have anything to talk about. I think the Internet is driving that, too: the ability to sort ourselves into smaller and smaller sub-communities and find closer, tighter connections is thrilling. But it also makes it harder for geeks to share the same kind of broad, instantly welcoming community that makes anyone wearing the same color jersey as you your buddy.
AM: Switching gears a bit, I want to talk about sports in SFF. They’re both very focused on story and drama, which makes them natural partners. Everyone knows about quidditch, but what are some of your other favourite examples of sport and SFF colliding between the covers of books or on the screen?
TS: 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. 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.
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.
That said, there are a few good examples. The co-Ed indoor space football from Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of Starship Troopers is as well-staged and entertaining as it is stupid, which is extremely. In a similar vein, the Twilight vampire baseball sequence might be mocked and meme’d to death—but century-old vampires playing superhuman baseball in old-timey uniforms makes a lot more sense than those same vampires hanging around high schools and picking up teenagers.
You and I have talked about Blitzball in Final Fantasy X two decades ago; it might not have been until 2017’s Pyre that a narrative-driven video game incorporated sports elements so extensively or well.
I also have to shout out the entire Sports Anime sub-genre, which is not only full of amazingly accurate and resonant sports storytelling (SEE: “Haikyu!!” and “Hanebado”), but also dips into the fantastic or deploys battle-anime tropes in ways that feel superhuman.
On the page, examples are pretty thin. In many cases, SFF sports aren’t sports at all. They’re war games, battle simulations, A Video Game Except Real, dystopian death games, or the like.
Recently, John Scalzi’s Head On is arguably all of the above—but it’s also an adept riff on the brutality of modern sports culture by someone who understands it well. On the fantasy side, Amparo Ortiz’s Blazewrath Games is everything I think SFF sports can and should be: plot-integral, a lens through which to view both the protagonist and the world culture, and also involving dragons.
There’s also this novel I’m currently revising... *coughs gently*
AM: One book we’ve discussed at length in the past is Ender’s Game—which features sport prominently in its plot, and ties it inextricably to its shocking twist ending. What does sport tell us about storytelling?
TS: Absolutely, Ender’s Game does so much of the sports stuff well: intra- and inter-team dynamics playing out on and off the field, strategy and technique woven into action, scoring systems and rules that make sense, match results that impact the plot.
As you said at the beginning, sports and drama are connected in so many ways. Sports have built-in external and internal conflicts, try/fail cycles, set pieces, climaxes, and endings. Olympics broadcasters figured it out decades ago: 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 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.
AM: I was watching a movie with my kid a couple of weeks ago, and pointed out a little plot hole. She said to me, “Yeah, but if they did that, then there'd be no movie.” It was a really great point, and it reminds me of the maelstrom of perfect events that lead to championships. In hindsight, they seem predestined, but at the time they're full of lucky breaks, diverging roads, and endless possibilities.
That sort of organic storytelling is great—because you genuinely don't know what's going to happen—but there's also a lot within that narrative's that's more or less pointless: games that don't matter, blowout wins or losses. So, there's also something so satisfying about a carefully constructed narrative—whether its wrestling or a fantasy book—where every piece fits in nicely, building tension, offering reward.
I had the pleasure of reading an early draft of the novel you're writing, and it brings together your background in sports and SFF in a really delightful way. What are you willing to share about the book?
TS: Thanks, man! Obviously, with the novel still in revisions, there's only so much I can say. 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*
AM: One of the things that stood out to me is that the sport isn’t just window dressing, but informs a lot of the culture between the characters, and importantly, impacts the plot, especially later on in the book with protagonist Kuni. What sort of process did you use to develop the sport, and how did you go about working it into the plot?
TS: Being a sportswriter, I knew my temptation would be to lean into what came easy to me and overload the book with sports action and descriptions. 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. I wanted it to be a ball sport, with some contact but not a lot of heavy collisions or excessive concussion risk. I also wanted foot speed be relevant despite the small court, and incorporate some of the strategy of behind-the-net play in hockey. “Basketball in the round” would be a decent elevator pitch for it. There’s a single pole at the center of the court, to which four hoops are mounted at different heights and facing different directions, with different point values.
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 Kuni.
AM: We could talk about this forever, but I think we’re at a good place to wrap up. What’s next for you, and where can people find your work?
Let’s be honest: we will be talking about this forever! But Astrolabe readers can check out highlights of my writing and work at tyschalter.com, my intermittent Medium posting at tyschalter.medium.com, and my incessant Twitter posting @tyschalter. Keep your eyes peeled there for news about my novel (which I will be querying soon under the working title Codex 17), as well as new freelance work, podcasts, and other projects.
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