Don’t tell me the score!

22.11.21

by Matt Fernand

The UX of sport storytelling

22.11.21

by Matt Fernand

The UX of sport storytelling

As a UX designer working in sports media, a lot of my work involves thinking about how to present scores — lots of tables, cards, tickers, charts, graphs and other tricks we’ve evolved. But as I’m fond of saying in client calls, checking the result of a sporting event is a bit like reading the last page of a whodunnit. Knowing the killer’s name isn’t really the point, it’s how we find it out that turns a novel into a thriller.

Likewise in sport, the score is important, but the real drama lies in how we got there. This is something that I’ve been thinking about for quite a while now. When we’re telling the story behind the score, how do we convey the drama that we’ve encountered along the way?

Classically, when it comes to telling stories, Freytag’s Pyramid is a pretty good place to start:

Source: https://writers.com/freytags-pyramid

What I find interesting from a UX point of view are the ways in which different sports follow the model. When does a 100m sprint race reach its climax of tension — just before the starter fires the gun? Some way down the track when it’s clear who’s going to win? Or not until the winner breaks the tape?

On the other hand, a lot of sports go around the drama cycle many times in a series of mini-stories which create the bigger pyramid that’s the narrative of the whole event.

Formats, outcomes and narratives

So I started thinking about some fundamental models for how the drama in different sports is actually created. I’ve got four so far. Well, four and a bit. But this is a work in progress so there may be more to come. Those fighting sports need a place somewhere.

Format 1 — Race

This is arguably the most basic form of competition. Fundamentally it’s any situation where one or more people gather together in one place, and then try and get to another place as quickly as possible.

Of course, there are variants on the theme, such as covering a set distance by going round in circles, or the ones where you have a certain amount of time to get as far as possible. But the basic principle is the same: speed = distance / time.

The source of drama here depends on the format of the race. Sprint races tend to be about tension and release. All the build-up, and then an explosive few seconds of power.

Longer races start to include strategy so here the drama unfolds over time: will the leader be able to maintain that pace or is someone further back saving something in reserve to overhaul them later?

Or if you’re a cyclist then all bets are off. There’s a guy in fancy dress on a moped involved. What’s that all about?

Seriously, what? — Image credit: AFP / www.ft.com

Format 2 — Serial competition

This is pretty much all Olympic field events and also things like time trials. The idea here is that everyone gets together in one place and does their thing, but this time they do it one after the other. Sometimes as in discus or javelin, it’s the best individual effort that counts. Other times, as in bouldering, each round adds to a cumulative score, or maybe it keeps the competitor in for the next round like in weightlifting.

In the case where the best one wins, the drama is about planting flags. An outstanding early hammer throw sets the target for all of the other competitors. This creates a jeopardy for the leader, who may lose their top spot at any time, and a tension for the rest of the field as they line up to try and better the distance. Or maybe we’re heading towards a gripping final round where anyone could win and it’s down to who can pull out the best effort under pressure.

In the cumulative case it’s a steady build of tension — maybe the favourite has a bad round and leaves the door open for someone else to overtake them, or drops out early so a wildcard can take gold.

Format 3 — Opportunity-based scoring

Match formats such as hockey, football (both kinds) and rugby are all about the ebb and flow of scoring opportunities.

The drama here comes from those moments when a player breaks away from the pack to run for the line, or when a succession of passes edges into the opponent’s half ready to set up for a goal. Tension builds as the opportunity to score gets closer and either succeeds or doesn’t.

But basically most of the match is spent passing the ball around trying to find a way through the other team’s defences to set up for the next edge-of-the-seat moment.

Format 4 — Turn-based scoring

This is a game like tennis, baseball or cricket where you don’t have to create scoring opportunities, they’re baked into the rules. The other player or team has to pitch, bowl or serve the ball to you.

Here the drama comes from the ebb and flow of the score as the match progresses. Once the ball is in play, will the score be different when it comes to rest, and who made the most of the chance? This happens over and over as the meeting unfolds and one team or player edges ahead.

5 — Exceptions and hybrids

Of course there are sports that fit in between the categories I’ve suggested. Mainly things like snooker or darts where it’s kind of a turn-based race to reach a score. The question of whether these are sports or games is not one that I’m going to get involved with here.

The paradox of suspense

The thing that complicates all of this for us as storytellers, is the paradox of suspense. On its surface, suspense is based on uncertainty. We don’t know what’s going to happen or when, and this drives the emotion behind the narrative and makes for a compelling watch.

In practise, it‘s not that simple. Otherwise why do people re-read detective stories or watch thrillers multiple times? Similarly in sport, there’s a growing and popular trend to offer streams of classic past events as part of the coverage of this year’s tournament.

More importantly, every evening round-up show tells you the result then shows you the highlights. If suspense needs uncertainty, surely that’s the wrong way round. Why would you care once you know the outcome?

Simply put, no one’s quite sure yet. Possibly there’s still some residual tension that comes from the clash between what we’d like to happen and what actually does happen which doesn’t go away even when we know the result. The idea is that this dissonance keeps an emotional response when we re-watch old games. Or maybe we just replace uncertainty with anticipation and somehow get the two mixed up.

Most likely, it’s a combination of things depending on the context. People will watch a movie a dozen times and still want to shout “No, no, don’t go in the basement!!!” at the critical moment. But reading the lottery results twice isn’t even slightly interesting the second time.

So what have we got?

Ultimately sport is a brilliant place to be as a storyteller. These are real live dramas that play out to people with a huge emotional investment in the outcomes. I’ve always thought that this is why fictional sport movies so rarely work, while sport documentaries so often do. How are you ever going to artificially create the same passion a lifelong fan feels every time their team takes to the field? The punch-the-air moment when they score in the grand final, or the punch-in-the-gut feeling when they’re knocked out of the tournament?

So the half of the work is done. The drama and the buy-in is already there, we just need to find ways to create narratives to bring them out. It’s not just about the way that each sport uniquely unfolds its drama. Every season, year or match carries a human story as well and all this adds to the mix of what we need to bring out in our designs.

Exciting isn’t it?