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THE BIG GAME
by Patrick Storck

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THE BIG GAME

We've all seen at least one or two sports films in our lives. It may not be your thing, and I know a lot of creative types and film buffs that don't like or actively detest sports, but you can't deny that they have audience appeal. If sports films didn't do well, the genre would be dead. Instead, you have a much better shot at an award by making a sports film than you do making a comedy, science fiction, or horror film. The most imaginative genres unfortunately tend to be the most subjective. With any genre there is a formula, and though it's not an absolute, the following one for the sports film should make for a successful one if followed well and executed with integrity.

The sports film is almost always an inspirational story. It's about doing the impossible, achieving the dream, clearing that hurdle, giving your all to get to your dreams. Since I'm writing this on Super Bowl Sunday, I will use football as an example. Since I am a proud Baltimorean I will use Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco.

First you must start off with humble beginnings. In Flacco's case, he played football at a generally ignored college, not one known for developing professional quarterbacks. He's already beaten some small odds, but in reality this is as far as anyone would expect him to go. Still, somebody believed in him enough to take that chance. You should always establish early that the person has a deep passion and / or natural ability for the sport, and somebody sees a hint of that potential. The skills and drive can't come completely out of nowhere later in the film. If they do, you're staring at the wrong part of the story.

He also did not own a car until he joined the team. In the era of extravagant lifestyles for players this is a nice juxtaposition to define him as different from the world he's becoming a part of. After showing his discovery and humble beginnings, introducing the character in their little pond, you want to introduce the new big pond in which they will swim. Maybe the team picks on him, or at least gives him some razzing. Generally you won't see a third string rookie get a ton of respect on day one, no matter how good a guy they are.

While you establish how they treat him, you can take a moment to establish all of your supporting cast. They will introduce themselves in some fashion, but you can also make sure to put them by lockers with their names, show them in named uniforms, and calling each other by nicknames. Take some extra time to establish a dynamic between them, and let the new guy just observe. On the Ravens, there was always a rivalry between the defense, which has typically been the real force behind the team, and the offense, which has been predominantly a mess.

You need to have some authority figure who understands your hero. They can be a coach, a veteran player, a former team mate, a current superstar, a reporter, just somebody with a few years around the sport. It helps to give them their own goal to achieve, whether it be returning to the spotlight, reconnecting with a family member, quitting drinking, or some other sub plot. The best ones are accomplishments that can be helped by seeing the younger player succeed, then being motivated to reclaim elements of their past, during happier times. They should be a reflection of the end of the journey the lead is on, the happiness the climax of the film will bring, and that there's life after that which just isn't the same.

Oddly, in the case of the Ravens, this wasn't the sub plot. Instead, we also had a rookie coach. In his first year heading up an NFL team, he was given a team generally ignored or spoken poorly of by the media, and who had the aforementioned internal rivalries. His getting set into place can mirror Flacco's, and they can both learn to lead together through shared experience and innocence.

With all of the elements set you need a catalyst. Some moment has to propel the main character into the spotlight, everybody watching, people talking trash, and a small fan base growing. It's the first fight, game, whatever. They can do well, but not great. The opponent needs to be favored but not insurmountable. Most importantly, they don't need to win. This moment is about getting attention. When the two QBs ahead of Flacco weren't game ready, a rookie third string quarterback was put onto the field and made plays.

The second act is all development. Training, studying, doubting themselves, coming to gain the respect of their team, becoming not just somebody you want to cheer on, but someone you actually do cheer on. Flacco helped the Ravens win far more games than any analyst had predicted, took risks more prominent quarterbacks wouldn't, and constantly worked to develop his game. It's reported he would show up hours before practice and leave hours after, watching footage of other teams. He would learn their strategies, formations, and anything else he could use against them. If you can't picture a montage, you're just not trying at all.

Coach and QB also helped to unify the team as an actual team instead of defense and offense, and the presence of "superstar" players virtually disappeared. In most interviews, especially very leading ones trying to fish for ego, the players all talked about the team as a whole. Nobody claimed complete credit, everyone spread the wealth, even former hot shots, and you got a sense that this was a team unified in being the best in a game they loved, not just getting a great offer next year for their numbers this year. It was, as the film should be, about the love of the sport.

Once everyone close to the protagonist has come around to believing in him (or her, if I've gotten too lost in referring exclusively to my example), it's time to bring on the big match. If there's a real one, uses that. There should be one that's obvious to you or the story wouldn't seem like a good one for you to tell anyway. If you're making it up, just remember that most sports have playoffs, championships, and so forth. There's a whole series of matches in which each holds more weight than the last. It's up to you how far they go.

You might think they have to win it all, that people just want to see the winners, and so it has to be the championships. If so, go back and reread everything you've written so far, because there's a good chance you've missed the point. People watch sports to see winners, but people watch sports movies to feel inspired. Rocky Balboa losing was in many ways more powerful and impressive than him winning. He went the distance when people thought he couldn't. In FIELD OF DREAMS there was no title at stake, just a friendly game and some redemption. RUDY was about getting the chance, MIRACLE about the weight of the cold war being lifted a little by some none-nuclear competition. In CADDYSHACK it was about letting the snobs know they couldn't treat people like commodities. If Danny hadn't sunk the putt he still would have bested Judge Smails and won the respect of the people he cares about.

People want to see someone doing something they love, and overcoming the odds everyone else put up. Most people aren't professional athletes. We do all have something we love doing, and if even for an afternoon we can imagine empathetically that we could show the nay-sayers how wrong they are, that's worth a few bucks. If the Ravens can be predicted to have twelve losses and four wins this season, yet still get to the AFC championship, that's a victory of the spirit. And next year we're taking it all.

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Patrick Storck
Patrick hails from Baltimore, MD, where playing by the rules is frowned upon. Only average things come from playing it safe.


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