Sports video games are where I started to understand fan fiction

I finally saw it Challengers this week. It immediately entered my personal echelon of great modern sports films (as well as a gripping, thorny romantic drama). The film makes great use of the existing powerful story structures and character archetypes in sports to create a compelling story – the washed-up prospect, the fading star, the phenomenon that never got its seemingly destined chance at glory.

And true to form, I bought the relatively new tennis game Top Spin 2K25 immediately afterwards back to my roots as a (very bad) tennis player in my youth. In a surprising turn of events, the way I played Top Spin immediately after seeing Challengers it felt a bit like writing fanfiction – and I realized that, without realizing it, I had been doing fanfiction in my own way for years.

In the character creator I decided to make my tennis player one of the three central characters in the film. Forget the boys – Challengers The most compelling star is Zendaya’s Tashi Duncan, a former teen phenom whose knee exploded during a college match, ending her promising professional career before it began. But what if I could rewrite that story? What if her knee injury wasn’t so catastrophic and she still had a chance?

Image: MGM/Everett Collection

In my version of Tashi Duncan’s career, her knee injury still occurs, but full recovery is possible. My save file in my mind starts at the beginning of that process, when she enters the tour ranked low, regaining her confidence and control over her body while I learn how to play this game. I gave her some kinesiology tape on her right knee and furthermore, I did my best to style Tashi as she appears in the film (I have limited clothing options this early in my career).

Sports video games are where I started to understand fan

1718551941 717 Sports video games are where I started to understand fan

Image: MGM and Image: Hangar 13/2K Sports via Polygon

I’m at the beginning of my career and having a great time. After a disappointing loss in my first match (when Tashi got used to using her knee again and I got used to it Top Spin‘s controls and play patterns), I bounced back with an upset victory in the first round of my next tournament. Next: a chance to get revenge on the player who beat me in that first match.

I’ve never considered myself a fan fiction person; I never begrudged anyone who was, I just never understood the appeal. But eventually it all clicked while I played as my Tashi Duncan Top Spin: Sports video games are often just their own form of fan fiction.

Once I came to that realization, my entire history with sports gaming clicked together. I’ve played so many this way. In Football Manager I always set out with a specific goal, because the game has no natural victory condition. Maybe it is to make Norway the most important football country in the world, or to get tiny Boston United promoted to the Premier League. In NCAA Football 14, I created an alternate universe where North Texas was a national powerhouse. In the Out of the Park Baseball and Baseball Mogul franchises, which allow you to start a save file at any point in baseball history, my favorite save files (1) are eliminating baseball’s color barrier from the beginning and finishing out careers with Negro League legends like Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell and (2) continue with my beloved Dodgers in 1989 and see if I can avoid their terrible meltdown in the ’90s when I attended those games as a kid.

Tashi Duncan hits a forehand in TopSpin 2K25

Image: Hangar 13/2K Games via Polygon

One of the most exciting new features of NBA 2K in the past decade has been the addition of Eras mode, which lets you replay key historical periods of the NBA. Want to see what would have happened if Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were teammates, not rivals? You can make that happen. Do you want to see Michael Jordan play his entire career with the Wizards and not just the bitter end? Go for it!

Even the way I played these games as a child fits into this new understanding of these games for me. Instead of my current approach of trying to come up with a unique story or storyline to pursue, I would simply create self-inserts of myself in these games. Maybe I’m a star quarterback on Madden, or a seven-foot center on NBA Live, or a baseball player who can actually hit a baseball – you know, fantasies. (Apologies to my former teammates on the Blair Blazers JV baseball team.) I added myself to my favorite stories… As it happens, those stories are not purely fiction.

This in turn changes my relationship with real sports – I have an extra affinity for athletes who were pivotal in my save files, and it’s especially fun to see the real-life development of young players who I watched grow in the fast-paced world of sports video games , where you can quickly face the future.

Sports games don’t have the prescribed stories that many other games have. Instead, you create them as you play. Like fan fiction, these games make you daydream about how things might be different from real life, or of a fictional story you’re drawn to. I can’t actually participate in the professional sports leagues I follow in real life, but at home I can create and enjoy new stories that border on these worlds, and the worlds I’m a part of. And I’d be lying if I said I haven’t organized fake press conferences about my team, where I’m both an interviewer and an interviewee.

Anyway, back to my save file. Will Tashi Duncan (fingers crossed) end up taking home her own Grand Slam career, instead of having to live vicariously through her clearly-not-anymore-in-this-husband’s career? Can she regain her place at the top of the tennis world? I’m going to find out, and I can’t wait.