“To view the potency of narrative, consider the following statement: “The king died and the queen died.” Compare it to “The king died, and then then queen died of grief.” This exercise, presented by the novelist E. M. Forster, shows the distinction between mere succession of information and a plot. But notice the hitch here: although we added information to the second statement, we effectively reduced the dimension of the total. The second sentence is, in a way, much lighter to carry and easier to remember; we now have one single piece of information in place of two. As we can remember it with less effort, we can also sell it to others, that is, market it better as a packaged idea. This, in a nutshell, is the definition and function of a narrative.”
-Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan
As we saw in Molly Brooks’ excellent comic that came out this past week, it’s easy as a fan to reduce hockey to theatre. It’s not just hockey: political reporters love to attribute slight increases or decreases in poll support to the public’s reaction on a promised policy change or event on the campaign trail.
It’s easy and satisfying to attach reason to everything, but part of the beauty of sports is that things happen without regard of logic or good sense. Not each outcome is determined, and the best team doesn’t win every game in every sport. If they did that, nobody would watch.
Later in the chapter that contains the passage I copied above, Nassim Taleb quoted an experiment from Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Respondents suggested that “an earthquake in California, causing massive flooding, in which more than a thousand people die” had higher odds of occuring than “a massive flood somewhere in America in which more than a thousand people die.”
Look at those two sentences side-by-side and it’s apparent that the second statement is much more likely to occur than the first. I’m not geological wonk, but there are probably plenty of ways that a massive flood can occur in America, and even then, some not-so rational ones could happen. I’m not sure it’s likely that “massive rain in Phoenix will cause a major flood, claiming over a thousand lives”, but the mere, slim possibility of that scenario occurring makes the second statement in Kahneman and Tversky’s scenario more likely than the first.
Apply the same thing to hockey. I googled a couple of buzzwords and landed on “Five reasons Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup” published as summer fodder for the Chicago Blackhawks’ official website. I could condense each of those five reasons into a headline that might accompany my post-Game Six story.
Transition game leads Blackhawks to Stanley Cup win over Bruins
Toews, Kane reunite; help Blackhawks defeat Bruins
Blackhawks expose behemoth Chara, defeat Bruins in final
Blackhawks master faceoff dot, Bruins, win Stanley Cup
Coaching the difference as Blackhawks defeat Bruins
Those headlines are not particularly interesting and I could quibble with each of them, but they provide narrative context where Blackhawks defeat Bruins in championship hockey series provides exactly none. I missed the second half of the Seattle Seahawks preseason game last night and was about halfway through an Associated Press recap of the game before I realized that there was no information being presented on the page that wasn’t already contained in the boxscore. As uninteresting as forced narrative can be, raw facts are even more uninteresting. I like to use statistics to help shape my knowledge of a game, but you don’t actually see anything if you’re just reading them off a page. There’s no drama or excitement or laughing at dumb things announcers say or watching spectacular plays in real time. Those are some of the reasons it’s best to watch sports live, talking to other people that watch sports. Not because you’ll gain valuable insight into why one event happened and other didn’t. Sometimes things happen for no logical reason.
One problem is that the further we step away from hockey and into psychology experiments and discussion of biases and the like, the further we are from describing the game. During the summer there’s less to talk about and discuss surrounding hockey games in particular, and we fill the void by introducing philosophies, speculating as to how teams will do in the future and nobody is ever right. By November, certain things will be apparent (the breakout of a rookie nobody thought would make the league, a key injury, an unexpected trade) that will void the predictions everybody made in the summer and the preseason. Landscapes change, and it’s impossible to do a full analysis of something and include every single possible variable.
You could take any one of those “fake” headlines from above and deduce a way to exploit the market in the future if you’re a general manager. Acquire skilled skaters! Tank and acquire lottery draft picks in consecutive years! Don’t get big old defencemen on your team! Get players that are good at faceoffs! Start with the coach! To some extent, teams attacked those philosophies in the summer, possibly without taking into consideration that next year it will be five other things that will be the difference for the winning team over the losing team. There’s no year-to-year common thread in the philosophy that shaped a team as there are discernible traits in each of the antagonists in Shakespeare’s plays or James Bond villains.
The conclusion of a plot in a play or a movie is the result of several events of consequence that added up to provide a satisfying ending to the viewer. Sports are different. The drama isn’t the result of an outcome predetermined at the beginning… but so many people think it is because the human mind works better when things can be easily explained.
Sports are great because the chaos almost always trumps that easy explanation. Remember just six years ago when nobody thought that a European captain could possibly lead a team to the Stanley Cup? Whatever happened to that theory…