I have this theory that there are two types of fans when it comes to sports, and you can tell which a person is by their answer to a simple question: “What do you think your team’s chances are?”
I don’t currently follow any physical sports. Haven’t watched a game for at least a decade, and when I had any interest at all, it was more for the spectacle and the specific vernacular of sports than the games themselves. Often, I would skip the match itself and only listen to the post-game call-in shows on the radio. There, I could hear fans call in to give oddly self-congratulatory takes on a win, or even better, their confident reads on which line changes, trades, or front office firings would break the current losing streak, whether it was ten games long or one. And, of course, each caller gave his or her answer to that universal question.
Occasionally I’ll have a complete stranger strike up a conversation about a local sports franchise. I don’t know if it’s how I look, or where I live, or the time of day, or what, but it happens often enough that I’ve worked on developing a system of responses. One part cold reading, one part mix-and-match cliches, I can bluff my into and out of the sorts of surface-level discussions you have with someone who just wants to talk about last night’s game on a noisy bus ride.
Most of the people who start those conversations with me seem to be on the optimist spectrum, open and eager to talk about something they enjoy, that adds passion to their lives. They’re the first group of fans. To them, no matter how bad their team looks on paper, they have an honest shot at the postseason if they make a few tweaks and play with some heart.
The International 6 is over, and with that I get to put my imaginary jersey back in the closet, and my own attempt at fandom with it. It’s as sincere attempt as I can make. DotA is a game I’ve enjoyed for something like a decade now, and I chose a team to root for using sentimental reasons, as is only proper. I was already fond of Southeast Asian players and teams from DotA 1, so of course I knew of Mushi and the rest of the Orange Esports crew before The International 3 began. Their spectacular run through that tournament drew the attention of the rest of the world, but it also cemented my choice. I’ve thrown my lot in with each subsequent iteration of those teams and players, from EHOME.my, to Team Malaysia, and now Fnatic.
Which means I finally had the chance to compare what it means for me to be a fan with what I’ve encountered everywhere else. And I was not the positive type.
My impression was that real fans form a sympathetic bond with their team. Which I may have done, but it’s less reciprocal than I expected. Sure, it feels nice to see my team win, but that usually comes from the release of anxiety. Because, really, all I’ve managed to do is project what must be my own issues onto the team I’m silently cheering for.
“So, what do you think their chances are?”
They’re always bad.
When I’m watching Fnatic, each loss feels inevitable, a foregone conclusion from the moment they make a single mistake. I may want them to win, but I’m expecting them to lose. Which is silly on every level, because they are a genuinely skilled team. There’s no reason for those victories to feel like surprises except one that might be unique to me.
I used to play competitively as well, in a few different games. I did that after a solid and consistent formative period of second and third place finishes, which have coloured my views ever since. And though I lost more games than I won, I was never bitter. I had fun. Sacrilegious as it may be, through the dozens of tournaments and leagues I’ve entered or been invited to, I never once started with the expectation, or even the intention, of winning. In the language of cliches, I did it for the love the game and because it was an honour to be there.
I don’t believe it makes me a bad fan (or competitor, but that’s a different topic), either. Far from it. I’ll be there on the side of my team win or lose, and I take those losses without anger or disappointment. Which is more than I can say for some of the people I used to listen to (or the comments I read now).
I’ll remain a Fnatic fan, and a fan in general, no matter how good or bad at it I may be. After all, I enjoy surprises, and get too few of the good ones. Meanwhile, I might broaden my fan horizons by doing that other thing I’ve heard fans like to do: finding a team to hate. Or maybe not.