Now this is podracing!
Most of the genres I’ve examined so far have been ones that the Star Wars universe can adapt and has adapted wholesale, in addition to pulling in elements of the genres for its own use. Not every genre out there, however, drops easily into the Star Wars universe. That doesn’t mean that those genres don’t still have relevance, however. The sports genre is one of them.
Sports stories are a familiar brand of fiction. The most recognizable is the uplifting sports movie, one or two of which seem to come out each year. In that formulation, the narrative follows an athlete, coach, or team through adversity on and off the field, ending with a significant victory. The action of sports livens up the personal drama of the subject, almost always an inspiring underdog. It seems almost comically formulaic, but it has worked time and time again. Rocky, Moneyball, Remember the Titans, Warrior, Seabiscuit, Hoosiers, 42 . . . the examples go on and on, covering all kinds of sports. There are other ways of making sports fiction, however. Field of Dreams examined the way baseball binds generations together, how people find meaning in the sport, and its rich emotional resonance. Films like The Hustler and Raging Bull used sports as a backdrop for examining larger issues of character and personality, and Raging Bull is additionally a good example of a sports biopic that is interested not in inspiration, but in the flaws and rise-and–fall narrative of its central figure.
Shockboxing in Fists of Ion
But in any form, it should be clear that this genre is a rather more awkward fit for Star Wars than most others. Star Wars doesn’t really have a ton of room for stories purely about space football. The only existing Star Wars works I can think of that are stories about sports are the shockboxing short story Fists of Ion and the racing video games Episode I Racer and its sequel, Racer Revenge. Both of the games are tie-ins to the most prominent sports sequence in Star Wars, the podrace from The Phantom Menace.
Say what you will about the cartoonish execution of the podrace, but the idea itself is solid. In an adventure series like Star Wars, integrating high-adrenaline sequences that happen to revolve around sporting events is a perfectly fitting diversification of the action. Whether it’s Anakin Skywalker entering illegal garbage pit races, Han Solo fighting in gladiatorial contests on Jubilar or the Wheel, Luke and Ben competing in the Dathomiri version of the Olympics, or the Solo kids racing starships at Ord Mantell or Dubrillion, sports sequences have been successfully integrated into Star Wars stories. They are an excellent way of providing fresh types of action. Sports can offer intense action and conflict in thrilling sequences without unnaturally high stakes — though as with the bets riding on Anakin’s podrace, they certainly don’t have to be low-stakes events.
So far, the Expanded Universe has generally focused on universal, easily translatable sports concepts like racing and gladiatorial combat. While Star Wars analogues to popular spectator sports along the lines of American football/rugby, basketball, golf, and soccer have been created, they tend to be used as background detail, not played out in the course of the narrative, due to the difficulty of fully selling a made-up space version of modern spectator sports with their fiendishly complex rules. This is not an insurmountable obstacle, however, and a great variety of sporting action is possible.
Swoop racing. Star Wars has a lot of different racing.
One can imagine many ways to integrate sporting events into tales. In Return to Ord Mantell and Vector Prime, sporting competitions were recreational diversions, undertaken as part of the setup for the story or killing a little time before the story kicked in for the competing characters. Like the technique of putting the characters at a sporting event as spectators and describing the action they witness, this is a way of building in sports that doesn’t rely on tying the event deeply into the plot, but it does depend on the characters being at leisure to use their recreational time in such a way. So while there could be a few stories with Chewbacca entering a wrestling match to make a little money while waiting for a smuggling job, X-wing pilots playing limmie in their downtime, or spies making a handoff at a smashball game, it isn’t a device that could be used too heavily.
More integrated to the story are scenarios in which the protagonists are forced to compete by the larger plot. A captured character might be entered against his will in gladiatorial games. Characters facing hostile aliens or attempting to enlist their aid might have to beat them at a rough-and-tumble local version of rugby where they may not know all the rules. An undercover Jedi Knight might enter an underground shockboxing tournament to get close to an assassin who competes in his spare time. Han Solo might compete in a swoop race to get the money to repair the Millennium Falcon while stranded in the middle of a smuggling operation. In a story set at the Jedi Praxeum or Imperial Academy, students may participate in extracurricular sports, in much the way Quidditch is integrated into the Harry Potter novels.
Soontir Fel, Carida Academy grav-ball star back in the day
Including scenes of sporting action, however, is not the only way to integrate elements of the sports genre into Star Wars. Giving characters backgrounds in sports, or even making them current athletes, can inform their characterization and bring in story elements from sports without requiring sporting events on the page. A military character might be defined by his past as a standout athlete at the academy, or by his continuing dominance in battalion grav-ball tournaments. A smuggler character could have a past as a down-and-out shockboxer, providing a possible entry point for former competitors, ex-promoters, and match-fixing mobsters to weave their way into a scoundrel’s story. An espionage story might feature a popular wegsphere player who is secretly a Rebel spy, able to travel from world to world to pass messages along. Perhaps a Jedi Knight is a great sports enthusiast, but his partner on a mission roots for the rival team.
There are lots of ways that sports — such a staple of modern life, and such a staple of storytelling — can be used to add color to the universe, even if the opportunities for straight sports tales are few.