How I Would Ruin The Olympics for a Lot of People

Female-Sprinters

It’s hard to pick a cover picture for this sort of topic, but this picture illustrates at least some of what the Olympic Games to be. Credit: femalecoachingnetwork.com

This article is meant as a more informal opinion piece about the Olympic Games and the sorts of sports that are played and showcased there. It will be full of spurious and potentially demeaning opinions of certain sports and their relative merit. It is based on my view of what an ‘Olympic’ sport should be and is therefore not meant to completely demean the value of the sports discussed, but rather simply trying to restore a higher level of prestige – even if it’s just in my eyes – to an Olympic medal.

With that in mind, I have gone through the whole Olympic catalogue and decided whether I think each competition should be involved, stating which should remain, which should be removed, and why. It would be helpful then to know what I think the problem is. When I think of an ‘Olympic’ sport, I think of the ultimate in physical achievement, partly due to their ancient association with Zeus and Mount Olympus, and partly because of the nature of most of the original events which were contests of the most basic human measurables – speed, power, strength, endurance. Now my parameters have a degree of flexibility based on things like tradition within the modern era, but these are the sort of things I had in mind when deciding what made the cut. To earn an Olympic medal should always be a remarkable athletic achievement above most others to be remembered forever, but seeing some of the people who win medals these days, no matter how talented they genuinely are, really bothers me. Spoiler alert: BMX didn’t make the cut.

First of all, I will go through those sports which did make the cut. This should be quite quick as most of them should fit the broad characteristics I have set aside.

sopita

Weightlifting is one of my favourite sports – brute strength, technique, danger, satisfaction. Credit: bangkok.coconuts.co

So without further ado, here are the sports which I believe deserve their Olympic status:

Unless stated, the sports listed are open to both male and female athletes. That will come in to play later in the article.

Freestyle Swimming – 50m, 100m, 400m, 800m (women), 1500m (men).
Swimming (Backstroke) – 100m, 200m
Swimming (Breastroke) – 100m, 200m
Swimming (Butterfly) – 100m, 200m
Swimming 400m Individual Medley
Swimming 4×100 Medley Relay
Swimming 4×200 Freestyle Relay
Swimming 10km Marathon

Running – 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 10000m
Running – 4×100 Relay, 4×400 Relay
Marathon
Hurdles – 11om (men), 100m (women), 400m, Steeplechase
High Jump
Pole Vault
Long Jump
Triple Jump
Shot Put
Discus
Hammer Throw
Javelin
Triathalon
Decathlon (men), Heptathlon (women)

Cycling Road Race
Cycling Team Sprint
Cycling Omnium
Mountain Biking Cross Country

Boxing Men – Flyweight, Bantamweight, Lieghtweight, Welterweight. Middleweight, Heavyweight, Super Heavyweight
Boxing Women – Flyweight, Lieghtweight, Middleweight
Judo Men – 66kg, 81kg, 100kg, +100kg
Judo Women – 52kg, 63kg, 78kg, +78kg
Taekwondo Men – 58kg, 80kg, +80kg
Taekwondo Women – 49kg, 67kg, +67kg
Freestyle Wrestling (Men) – 57kg, 74kg, 97kg, 125kg
Freestyle Wrestling (Women) – 48kg, 53kg, 58kg
Greco-Roman Wrestling (Men) – 59kg, 75kg, 98kg, 130kg
Greco-Roman Wrestling (Women) – 63kg, 69kg, 75kg
Fencing (Foil)
Fencing (Team Foil) (Men)

Weightlifting (Men) – 56kg, 69kg, 85kg, 105kg, +105kg
Weightlifting (Women) – 48kg, 58kg, 69kg, 75kg, +75kg

Canoeing (Men) – C1 1000m Sprint, C2 Slalom, K1 200m Sprint, K2 1000m Sprint, K4 1000m Sprint, K1 Slalom
Canoeing (Women) – K1 200m Sprint, K2 500m Sprint, K4 500m Sprint, K1 Slalom
Rowing – Single Skulls, Double Skulls, Quadruple Skulls
Sailing (Men) – RS:X, Laser, 49er
Sailing (Women) – RS:X, Laser Radial, 49erFX
Sailing – Nacra 17

Simone Biles

Possibly the hardest sport to eliminate because of how impressive it is, but if victory is based on an opinion and not straight-up objectively beating someone, it’s out. Simone Biles deserves all the plaudits she receives though. Credit: npr.org

Ok, now for the meat of the exercise, what sports should be removed from the Olympic games and why:

There are quite a few sports at the Olympics which are extremely impressive and athletic, but that are problematic because of how they are won. To cut a long story short, the following sports should be removed because victory is based on the artistic interpretation of judger as opposed to one athlete objectively defeating an opponent – aesthetics come before the sheer physical prowess, and so they don’t belong at my version of the Olympics. They are:

All Diving, Synchronised Swimming, and Gymnastics

The bulk of the cuts come for the least interesting philosophical reason, but an important one nonetheless. This is really trimming the fat. As suggested earlier, part of this exercise is to champion the prestige of an Olympic medal, and especially a Gold Olympic medal. The more disciplines that earn a medal, the less prestige there is; and there are many sports, regardless of their merit, that offer dozens of medals across different categories based on things like weight-classes. Consequently, if a nation is particularly good at a single sport that offers a lot of medals, it inflates their position in the medals table – foe example with Great Britain and cycling. With that in mind, having gone through the different disciplines, I cut some that I thought were superfluous and possibly ‘half-way houses’ between more major disciplines which made the cut. The events that fit in to this category were:

Swimming – 200m Freestyle, 4x100m Freestyle Relay
Running – 1500m, 5000m
Cycling Time Trials

Boxing (Men) – Light Flyweight, Light Welterweight, Light Heavyweight
Judo (Men) – 60kg, 73kg, 90kg
Judo (Women) – 48kg, 57kg, 70kg
Taekwondo – 68kg Men, 57kg Woman
Freestyle Wrestling (Men) – 65kg, 86kg
Fencing – Épée, Team Épée, Sabre, Team Sabre

Weightlifting (Men) – 62kg, 77kg, 94kg
Weightlifting (Women) – 53kg, 63kg

Sailing – Finn, 470
Rowing – Coxless Pair, Leightweight Double Skulls, Leightweight Coxless Four
Canoeing – C1 Slalom, C1 200m, C2 1000m

With the canoeing, some of the classes were cut not just because of the padding of medals, but because there were some classes exclusively for one gender, so they – the K1 500m for women and K1 200m and K1 1000m for men – were first against the wall.

There are some sports which have such mainstream appeal and high standards of competitions that the Olympics are almost a bonus. The Olympic games, again as part of their prestige, should be the undisputed pinnacle of every Olympic sport, but for many, they are not, and so we see a more casual and lower standard of competition than would be seen elsewhere in the sport. No more was this more obvious than with Golf, where most pro golfers avoided it in droves while footballers, with a few notable exceptions, got on with the start of their seasons while football medals were being competed for in Rio. It is also the case that teams of more than 4 players at the very most share the duty of playing so much that it really dilutes the idea of individuals winning medals. With up to four people in a team, no one can hide, but squads like in football or basketball, for instance, it is very possible that someone will ‘earn’ a Gold medal after being carried by more talented team mates, and that makes a mockery of the prestige of a gold medal. The sports for which the Olympics aren’t their pinnacle and for which there are large squads often overlap, and those disqualified for that reason are:

Basketball
Football
Golf
Rugby Sevens
Tennis
Hockey
Rowing Eights

This is no judgement of these sports, and objectively, they are great to watch, but they just undermine the prestige of the Olympics or don’t quite fit. It was particularly hard to eliminate hockey and, surprisingly, tennis. Hockey is a very traditional Olympic sport, but the team problem remains. As for tennis, it’s an individual, physically demanding sport which is valued by most tennis players, but it still pales in comparison to the majors, so it’s out.

Rio Horse

The horse does the bulk of the work, the rider gets a gold medal. If you’re dressed like that, you’re probably not the one exerting yourself. Credit: rio2016.com

If most of those sports were eliminated because of the sharing of the efforts, another category of sport to be eliminated are some where the effort is shared with some equipment or facilitator. Those sports are:

Equestrian
Shooting
Archery

Archery was another sport on the bubble – it takes a lot of skill, no doubt and is an ancient discipline, which works in it’s favour. The problem with archery though, as with shooting, is that as talented as the shooters are, they are essentially operating equipment, which is something anyone can do. They will be infinitely more accurate, but while it’s impossible for a lehman to outrun Usain Bolt, it is imaginable that even as a fluke, I could hit the same target as an Olympian as long as I could use the gun or the bow. Far more ridiculous though is equestrian. I’m sure the riders train hard and have a lot of skills, but the physical effort and achievement is really the horses and while they get no recognition, the riders get OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALS for hanging on.

Now I won’t lie, I will take a bit of joy in this next section. Some of the following sports also fit in to other categories, but I am saving them for here because they deserve it. In short, these sports, among other things, are just kinda crappy sports. I mean no disrespect to the participants – live and let live, and i’m not claiming I could beat the ‘Olympians’ – but I don’t have a problem disrespecting the sports. These are:

Badmington
Table Tennis
Cycling Team Pursuit
Cycling Individual Sprints
Cycling Keirin
Volleyball and Beach Volleyball
Walking
Handball
Water Polo

Walking is certainly requires a huge physical effort, but what’s the point of walking when there are running events? The cycling team pursuits are quite exciting, but are instantly eliminated because the whole team doesn’t even have to finish. In a team sport, if a member can’t finish, YOU LOSE – but not at the Olympics. In individual sprints, the riders spend half the time not sprinting. That’s not a sprint and while i’m sure it’s super tactical, it’s anti-Olympic in my view. Similarly, the keirin suffers from being a bridge too far in extending the idea of riding a bike – cyclists sprint for the line after following a motorised bike they can’t overtake for half the race, so why are they even cycling that bit. I’m yet to see any sort of decent explanation. Out. At least these sports, for their faults, involve great physical effort; badmington, table tennis, and volleyball can be played by anyone without any great effort and as good as i’m sure the players are, if you’re handing out Olympic Medals, it shouldn’t be for sports which people don’t think twice about playing in their back yard or conservatory. That leads us to two sports which I legitimately found offensive, namely handball and water polo. Imagine the ONE-dimensionality of basketball, but without nearly all of the skill and effort. Players throw the ball in the net, which seems more cheap than anything else and while watching a game, I saw a goalkeeper make 1 or at most 2 saves the whole game, so easy is it to score. It’s unbalanced, boring, and comes across like a game someone made up at a party. Imagine that, but with players slowed down by water and it being somehow easier to score, and you have water polo. Have at it if you must, but you’re not getting a gold medal for it.

Finally, there is a miscellaneous category for sports that don’t seem to fit well as an Olympic sport for various reasons that don’t quite fit elsewhere. They are:

Swimming 200m Individual medley
BMX
Modern Pentathlon

God they really do give out probably a literal tonne of cycling medals eh? For BMX,, there’s probably some personal bias involved – the event looks demanding enough, but it’s just so … lame, like a millennial, cleansed version of mountain biking. Now I love multi-sport events, they are among the most challenging and physically draining of all, but in the case of modern pentathlon, it involves shooting and horse riding, and as they’ve been cut, this whole event has to be too. Finally, and most banal, the 200m individual swimming medley was cut because it kinda duplicated the 400m medley whithout utilising the four different swimming disciplines that you would expect from a true medley.

By the end of the Olympic Games in Rio, 2016, there will have been 306 Gold Medals awarded, but if it were up to me, that amount would be cut by 154. And that’s how i’d ruin the Olympic Games for around half of the competitors and millions around the globe, for a short time at least. Imagine if every four years, the best physical athletes in the world fought over just 152 Gold medals – still a lot of action, but with the fat well and truly cut. Winning a gold medal, or any medal, would mean that much more. I may be being a puritanical fantasist (if you know me, that’s nothing new) but I genuinely believe that that would actually make the Olympics more satisfying, returning it to it’s rawest elements of physical battle, the ecstasy of victory and the agony of defeat. But that’s just me, I like to spoil your fun, especially if you play handball.

I am contemplating taking the events I have kept in my hypothetical, pure, Olympics and make a true medal table for it to see who really is the greatest. If I do that, you will see it below after the Games. America will still probably win.

 

 

 

Media, Steam, and Our Vast Flat Culture

Steam

Months ago, I started a new post on mourning culture springing up from the deaths of the likes of David Bowie, Prince, Victoria Wood, et al; it was to be a somewhat self-righteous, but I think ultimately valid piece about how it symbolised the way our current culture ingests it’s media and it’s, if you will, Neon Idols. I could never move past a certain point each time a new death occurred, and I think it’s because it felt needlessly judgmental and went against my more libertarian side of live and letting live, even if it’s dumb. I like and think plenty of dumb things after all. Now though, I was thinking again about the writing blockage I have been suffering which extended to my comedy writing and art and I think it’s because I haven’t been able to put this article in to words as opposed to a sort of cotton wool disturbance in my head. I was thinking about another part of the article, and I realised that the celebrity death cottage industry is just a small part of our whole culture which, as Alan Moore says, is turning to steam.

As Alan Moore says in his psychedelic philosodoc, The Mindscape of Alan Moore:

“As I understand the theory of period information doubling, this states that if we take one period of human information as being the time between the invention of the first hand axe, say around 50,000 BC and 1 AD, then this is one period of human information and we can measure it by how many human inventions we came up with during that time. Then we see how long it takes for us to have twice as many inventions. This means that human information has doubled. As it turns out, after the first 50,000-year period, the second period is about 1500 years, say around the time of the Renaissance. By then we have twice as much information. To double again, human information took a couple of hundred years. The period speeds up—between 1960 and 1970, human information doubled. As I understand it, at the last count human information was doubling around every 18 months. Further to this, there is a point sometime around 2015 where human information is doubling every thousandth of a second. This means that in each thousandth of a second we will have accumulated more information than we have in the entire previous history of the world. At this point I believe that all bets are off. I cannot imagine the kind of culture that might exist after such a flashpoint of knowledge. I believe that our culture would probably move into a completely different state, would move past the boiling point, from a fluid culture to a culture of steam… I think the world is purely a construction of ideas, and not just the physical structures, but the mental structures, the ideologies that we’ve erected, that is what I would call the world. Our political structures, philosophical structures, ideological frameworks, economies. These are actually imaginary things, and yet that is the framework that we have built our entire world upon. It strikes me that a strong enough wave of information could completely overturn and destroy all of that. A sudden realization that would change our entire perspective upon who we are and how we exist. History is a heat, it is the heat of accumulated information and accumulated complexity. As our culture progresses, we find that we gather more and more information and that we slowly start to move almost from a fluid to a vaporous state, as we approach the ultimate complexity of a social boiling point. I believe that our culture is turning to steam.”

It’s long but it’s worth quoting in it’s entirety. The History as heat + fluid culture = steam is a bit of a laboured metaphor in some ways, but it has always struck me as disturbingly accurate. The only alteration I would make, which is important to this article is that the heat of the metaphor doesn’t just come from our history of accumulated experience, but also the sheer pervasiveness of our media outlets – ‘outlets’ not being restricted to the mainstream media, but any outlet for a person to broadcast to the world. The egalité of how people can make and produce media (as I am right now, of course) is of course a great progression for personal expression, but the consequences for our culture are serious.

Steam Pepper

Probably the most iconic album cover of all time. How many current album covers can you picture? Credit: The Beatles

The internet is perhaps out greatest invention and far from being a Luddite, I love it and the possibilities it offers. But for our culture, it is like a comfortable bed we lie in for so long that we can’t stand properly any more. I mentioned having some Libertarian views earlier, and that’s true, though the whole ‘free market’ idea has struck me as fatally flawed (I’ll see you later for the Libertarian post); saying that, while the root of it seems dreadful to me, I do have something of a longing for the way the pre-internet free market helped define our culture. As a self-proclaimed music nerd during my teens, I would sometimes think to myself that music was terrible ‘these days’ and would never produce icons like The Beatles, Rolling Stones etc again – meaning artists that were undoubtedly the biggest in the world and unavoidable in popular culture at all levels. It turns out, I believe, that I was right about that, but not for the reason I thought at the time. As a teen, I thought it was because the music of the time was just shit, but now I realise it’s something else – it’s that with the onset of the internet, there is a place for everything to thrive, and what is mainstream is easier to completely ignore. Where previously, the charts dictated what was popular, like a giant pyramid with only a few vaunted icons at it’s peak, music now exists in a much more level, near infinite plane where anything can exist or even thrive in it’s own area, but nothing will truly stand out as representing our culture. Where music used to at least loosely shift in stylistic periods, reflective of our culture, now all music exists at once – there are dozens of genres of music and countless sub-genres of each, and each with it’s own specialised realms online. Artists like Taylor Swift and One Direction are still incredibly popular, but their longevity is stilted by the fact that the music industry supports endless artists and types of music, and there are a great many people who totally ignore them in place of their own musical interest. That, again, is great, people can find what they like and an in-built community is waiting to embrace them, each little sub-genre as extensive as the entire music business at any given time in the 20th Century. The only problem is, when there is no truly dominant culture, there is nothing to define us, nothing to react to, and nothing to rebel against. Punk was a rebellion, grunge was a rebellion, but if The Sex Pistols or Nirvana were to appear these days, they would find a following on the internet, they would tour and do well, but they wouldn’t challenge anything, even if they wanted to – they would just merge with the rest of the steam.

If you imagine pre-internet culture as a pyramid, unfair but clearly definable in a roughly controlled space, then our current culture is that of a vast, flat surface – more is there, but it can’t be truly grasped at once. Everything has it’s place, but it’s impact will always be temporary and vaporous. Some things will go ‘viral’ and will catch people’s attention in a way where it will be arbitrarily related to life in various ways, fading quickly and surviving only and at most as memes, the meanings of which will ultimately be lost eventually. It is egalité to it’s a-logical end where everything has a place but the place is the same for everyone and everything. It is from this realization that I started writing about celebrity deaths. There are so many online column inches and so many hours of dead TV time that whenever anyone dies it’s always an unqualified tragedy, because that is how we talk about death and there is space to be filled. Memories are cleansed, #RIP’s are typed, and the essence of the person is lost either in simplified degradation or ill-deserved plaudits. All deaths are the same and are discussed the same way, whitewashing dark histories or recent irrelevance and overestimating importance for those that didn’t earn it in life, simultaneously, as the ever-expanding arena of the internet and 24-hour news media invites reactions. That sounds callous, but it’s true that some lives had more impact than others, and as meaningless as mourning is, I struggle with the reality that whenever a celebrity dies, they are mourned almost by protocol – a tweet, a blog, some time on the news, maybe, depending on the cycle, and then on to the next death. This new mourning is just another framework we have created, and though doubtlessly sincere in the main, it has become an evolved routine demanded by the way we consume and regurgitate information.

Steam Pray

All we have are hashtags, and why do they ask us to pray? Credit: quotesgram.com

Never before has it been so quick and easy to access news and the fallout of news. Within hours of people’s last breaths there are reams of speculation, tributes (short, easy to read tributes) and in some cases, leaks of emergency recordings of the morbid discoveries. Imagine then, the (still well intentioned) almost necessary levels of uniformity in the aftermath of a disaster or terrorist attack, when the victim’s aren’t famous and there’s little to be said about them individually. Understandably, reactions are of shock and sorrow as well as the ever present ‘Pray for…’ hashtag. #PrayForParis, #PrayForBrussels, #PrayForNice. We pray for victims, or cities, or countries, or at least say we do, after the attacks, as if it is useful. We hashtag as if satisfying a check-mark, maybe alter profile pictures with national flags, until we update it with another cause or tragedy. People are sincere in their fear and sadness, but the prevailing ways to express that are very limiting, in terms of space, and expectations. The news is 24/7, available in all formats, and something must be said. News outlets ponder why such attacks happen, and then broadcast politicians explaining that those responsible hate x’s way of life. Prayers, sadness and fear, again and again. As with everything else, it is vast, pervasive, and without depth, millions of people doing a bare minimum. Steam is a routine of massacre and counter massacre, and the thoughtful, meaningful reactions to them just suffer from numbed diminishing returns, swept up by the gutter press for clicks and influence simply because that is what their medium, and their business, has evolved to demand.

Arguments used to happen in physical arenas – marches, stages, pubs, parliament, etc., and still do. The difference now is, for better or worse, that no argument prevails. Whether you’re point of view is moral, mainstream, radical, or dangerous, there is a place for you to have and share your opinion without true critique. If you’re a socialist, a feminist, a meninist, a fascist, a pacifist, a Eurosceptic, a racist, a libertarian, a conservative, a liberal, or a moderate, there is a selection of websites, hashtags and movements, some more taboo than others, for you to share your beliefs and have them supported with confirmation bias. Everyone is a silent majority, typing very loudly somewhere in our vast, flat culture but rarely penetrating consensus. For every action or event there is a flacid routine of action, reaction, reaction to the reaction, and ultimately a meme that will soon be forgotten in the next cycle. While this sounds critical – and I am certainly lamenting it to a degree – I reiterate that it’s neither good or bad, it’s an amoral part of human evolution that has affected our culture. While I lament how part of that affect is making our culture more of an indistinct vapour, it is absolutely great that people have more ways to express themselves.

Our culture encourages and celebrates routine and labels, but renders them near meaningless in practice by ruthlessly partitioning to the n’th degree creating more frameworks that are simply imagined constructs which represent us exhaustively; so exhaustively that the representation serves to highlight our differences as much as our variety. I preface this section by saying that I neither judge anyone or expect anything of anyone’s sexuality; it’s not my business, and frankly, I don’t care. I say that because again, this will sound like a criticism when that isn’t intended, it is merely a recognition of another way our identity has been spread as wide and thin as the spaces and opportunities for us to express ourselves have. It is generally seen, and understandably so, as progressive that people can define their sexuality however they want – people identify themselves in a multitude of ways from heterosexual, to homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, demisexual, polyamorous, and several more distinctions beyond. It is fantastic that people can identify themselves more clearly an comfortably than ever before, and as with political identities, there are more and more places to find people with similar identities, thanks to the various places people can present themselves. There is however something about all of these labels that seems strange to me. Sexuality seems to be more outwardly fluid than ever before, but it also appears that there is something of a burden for people whose sexuality is more fluid to identify themselves. It is this fluidity that has created so many more sexual labels, while trying to label something like sexuality seems increasingly to be restrictive folly. Complex sexualities are nothing new, but the labelling of them is, relatively speaking. I speak purely for myself here and certainly from a point of privilege, but my view of identity, tolerance, and harmony has always been that the labels, and the consequential expectations that come along with it, are confining, no matter how exhaustively they are tailored and created. You should be able to desire someone, and express that desire without having to justify it to a sexuality based on the other person’s various identities. That’s just my view though, and people like to – and should, if they so wish – label themselves, so it will likely never happen, and there will always be a place, in our ever vaporous culture to express yourself.

Steam news 24

The news cycle both on TV and off, is endless and all-pervasive while barely telling us anything credit: edelman.com

On the surface, this expanded capacity for expression would be good for our consumption of news, but in reality, the overload of information we suffer from has led to a neutering of the news cycle. A consistent theme of 2016 has been that it’s been ‘crazy’ with the amount of celebrity deaths, disasters and tragedies, and it’s appeared as if every day brings another earth-shattering headline. Whether the stories behind them are particularly new or unusual – I imagine that at least to some extent, they are not – is an issue for another article, but what I personally believe is that the space with which to present news has actually made it less nuanced. News and current affairs has become just another cottage industry, presenting ‘content’ as quickly as it can – all news is breaking news, and all breaking news must be reacted to; if not, the other providers will win. But when the news cycle has to stay so fresh, where people expect the pundits who help shape their insight, the news becomes a limp, background propaganda which serves only those at the top of media and political empires. What’s embarrassing is that it’s probably not part of some great plan, it’s just the free marketeers and career politicians doing their job, doing very well out it, regardless of how it affects the populous.

The last month or so has brought with it huge sea-changes to British and international politics – just naming the more significant ones, the UK voted to leave the European Union, the government and opposition have held simultaneous leadership contests, there is a new Prime Minister, an official report has found that an entire war was undertaken on a false premise and the former Prime Minister behind it was at least somewhat complicit in manipulating the country to action, there have been two well reported terrorist attacks in Europe, there is a small-scale but significant race war occurring in the United States as it chooses a new President (who may turn out to be a crazy racist businessman who has starred in a marquee match at a WrestleMania), there was failed coup attempt in Turkey, and the UK committed to a multi-multi-billion pound nuclear weapons programme. Many of these have occurred on the same or consecutive days, and while they have been treated with due reverence, there is another feeling of routine to the news cycle. Report-Opinions-Counterpoints-Repeat. There’s nothing wrong with that of course except for, again, the sheer amount of space both with 24-hour news and 24-hour alternative media and social media for that cycle to take place in. Everything is examined from every possible angle, but only for a short time; dominant reactions emerge and are reported too by every mainstream news source which more or less falls in line with the other. There is no time to properly react, and endless reactions to be had, and so before the impact of one event can be digested, another event has taken place, and so on, and so on, ad nauseum. Reactions are presented from across the political spectrum, often featuring extreme minority views as strongly as any other, to the point where even the most straight-laced reporting struggles to present a cohesive story. The reaction is as important as the event, the reactions are often vastly inconsistent, and no one really knows what to make of it all.

The recent reporting of ‘Brexit’ is a good example of this. The nuts and bolts of the story are incredibly complicated and multi-faceted and neither the mainstream media with it’s attention defecit nor the social media reaction with it’s lack of credible, unbiased knowledge were equipped to consume and pull together a purposeful understanding of the story. What is easy to consume and readily available though are the opinions of specialist sects and interested parties, and so complicated an issue is it that there were near endless opinions offered related to trade, immigration, the economy, Scottish independence, the UK’s relationship with America, the downfall of  a swathe of political leaders, including the sitting Prime Minister, that no one really knew what Brexit meant – all that was left was shock. Brexit is an especially complicated issue, but it is a microcosm of the whole news cycle – complicated issues being analysed to the n’th degree but without satisfaction until the story becomes quite literally senseless. Many people say they have become numb to the news as they have been swept away with significant and often tragic news, and as the information – and opinion as information – is churned out, always with a place to be churned out to, it becomes impossible to process. Adam Curtis refers to this phenomena from a different angle as ‘oh dearism’ – we pray for Paris, we wonder what Brexit will mean, we witness a new Prime Minister with little fan fare, we say ‘oh dear’ and we move on because something else has happened and has been reported and reacted to already. There is more news, but it’s less distinct. The news cycle churns and the steam builds.

To be belligerent with the keyword, the steam we live in is not morally good or morally bad, it is just a side effect of our evolution creating and storing more information, and there is no practical way to stop or slow it. Our culture is spread thin and indistinct, and as the population and sources of information expand, it will only get worse. That sounds scary and defeatist, but remember that life can be as simple as doing what you enjoy, and there is meaning in that. Watch TV, play sports, write about wrestling – most of it will get lost in the steam once you’re gone, but who cares if it makes you happy, even just for a while? To quote George Carlin, when you’re born, you get a ticket to the freak show, but it’s up to you how much you engage with it all.

Leicester City, the Greatest Sporting Achievement of All Time & Snap-Judging the Favourites for Next Year’s Crown

leicester-city_4

Manager Claudio Ranieri, ‘Captain Morgan’, and their band of unlikely heroes lift the most unlikely of Premier League titles. Credit: sportsmole.co.uk

Football has always been my favourite sport – all you need is a ball, and that doesn’t even have to be a ball; and from it all has come memories – both good and bad – which are as vivid as the clearest memories I have. That is why sport is important, and why football is most beloved around the world.

In recent years though, it’s been hard to love it quite as much. While the magic of playing football can never be taken away, the culture of football seemed to be in a constant nosedive. Cynical owners had essentially bought titles for teams of their choice, transfer fees and wage bills continue to rise so high that ticket prices rise to meet them and keep the common fan away from regular matches, the sport’s governing bodies showed themselves rotten to the core – in short, a sport that draws the most love and loyalty across the world, and it’s fans, have been relentlessly abused by those who oversee it. The natural result of this was an apparent exclusive club of competitive teams in the Premier League who, given the conditions, would be the only possible league champions. That is until this year when, without hyperbole, Leicester City have undone them all and struck a blow for true football and justice, while rejecting what just seemed to be expected norms of champions.

I won’t analyse Leiciester and the specific reasons of their victory too much because – as is borne out in the inability of teams to stop them – they almost defy such analysis, but there are some characteristics of their play which spells success, even if opponents are completely aware of what they are up against – something of a perfect storm, though certainly no accident of circumstance.

It reads like a fairytale: Leicester City, having scraped themselves to safety in the Premier League last year, coached by a manager coming off a run of dismissals whose appointment was questioned by many, and players who had either languished in lower leagues or been cast aside by other teams, were up against a league which offers the most TV rights money of any other to top teams and dominated by a small group of teams so rich that challenging them should be insurmountable. But Leicester City did, did so after spending a fraction of the money of their competitors, and did so in style.

In this day and age Leicester City shouldn’t be able to win the Premier League. For teams who survive relegation, their championship becomes staying in the league, maybe finishing surprisingly high, staying out of the relegation fight, and feeling more secure in the division. Everyone at Leicester City was written off, and frankly, in an objective way, rightly so, but cliched as it is, there is no greater motivator than being told ‘you can’t do this’. ‘Motivated’ is just one word to describe Leicester City this year. Ranieri, with nothing expected of him, created an atmosphere where players could believe in themselves, where everyone was equal and no one’s past mattered; the only thing that mattered was playing to your potential, doing your job, and having fun while doing it. With some notable exceptions, even now I don’t think many of the Leicester team are particularly remarkable players or among the best at their position, but they did their job as asked and rarely faltered. Ranieri, formerly a ‘tinkerman’, had evaluated his squad and set them up in a system which played to their strengths and created remarkable football; not parking the bus and fighting for scraps, but playing firm and pressing at the back, siphoning the ball forward in midfield with short passing, and attacking and counter-attacking with pace and precision.

So often in the Premier League, top teams will simply sell and replace unsuccessful players, but at Leicester City, league champion players were created with training, and savvy scouting which found the right players for their role who could be trained to be rock solid in their role. The team as a whole has raised the level of every individual there, the work-rate and passion of the players has made them very hard to break down and out-play, and the chemistry of the players, borne of a unique level of bonding and brotherhood, has given them a consistency to their play which eventually saw off all competitors.Of course, players like Mahrez, Kante, and Vardy are more than just role-players – their creativity and skill helped give them an extra edge against both the most talented and most stubborn players and teams in the league.When a team has everything from motivation, determination, creativity, a free-flowing mentality, and the players and coaches to follow it through, it suddenly feels less shocking that they would win the league.

The real reason I am writing this article though is that, despite the subjectivity and inability to compare successes in different contexts, I believe that Leicester’s achievement is so unlikely and so remarkable that it is quite clearly the greatest sporting achievement of all time.

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Advertised as canon-fodder, Buster Douglas knocks out Mike Tyson credit: deepishthoughts.com

League’s are designed as such that victory excludes those that rely on flukes or luck and insists that the winner be the best consistently over the course of an entire season. So as great and memorable as one-time successes like Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson, non-league Luton knocking Norwich City out of the FA Cup, or Japan beating South Africa at the rugby world cup are, these are freaks of nature, magical moments that happen once. As special as that is, it doesn’t compare to a team defying the odds time and time again and actually proving a dominance over their competition. So, to my mind, the only achievement that could compete with Leicester’s win would be a similar sort of league-structured victory.

As big an NFL and New York Giants fan as I am, it would be easy to look at their Superbowl XVII victory over the to-date undefeated Patriots, but the truth is, the Giants are a team who had already won two Lombardi trophies before that victory, and as great an achievement as any Superbowl victory, it only comes together after a maximum of twenty games in which you don’t play every other team competing. So as far as i’m concerned, a Superbowl victory is ruled out from this discussion, and that is before even considering the several – laudable – policies in place throughout North American sports which encourage a rough parity of competition and also rule them out of consideration for this honour. It has indeed been fascinating trying to see American sports fans marvel at Leicester City without culturally being unequipped to fully understand the magnitude of the achievement.

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John Daly, a rookie unknown, poses with his PGA Championship, credit: nydailynews.com

I have also seen some comparisons made to John Daly’s 1991 PGA Championship win. It was certainly a hell of a shocking and remarkable victory. Daly, a rookie, who until then was often not even an also ran, being an alternate for championships before, who only secured a place in the tournament days before when Nick Price dropped out, who had to use Price’s caddy for the championship, and who hadn’t had a chance to practice at the course beforehand, went on to win the championship in most certainly the most incredible golfing victory ever. In terms of odds being against him and the surprise of the victory, he is close to rivaling Leicester, however, when you consider the nature of golf and their tournaments, it falls short. Though it takes consistency to win a golf tournament in a way that largely eliminates any ‘luck’, it still only takes good form over a weekend to succeed, again, as opposed to a whole season. More importantly, in golf, though you play alongside rivals, you control your own ball and aren’t competing directly with anyone – other golfers don’t game plan for you and you don’t have to our smart opponents, you just have to play the best on your own. A team, liable to each other and facing a team that is game-planning for your style and actively trying to stop you succeed, requires much more of an effort in overcoming than simply the playing field alone, and so as impressive as Daly’s achievement was, it simply can’t compare.

So back in the world of football, there are a few achievements that are reminiscent of Leicester City’s Premier League win. Perhaps the most reminiscent is what Brian Clough achieved with Nottingham Forrest between 1976 and 1980. Forrest, as a second tier team, were certainly of similar standing to the Leicester City of last year when Clough took charge, and by getting swiftly promoted and then winning the top tier championship in their first year of promotion, Nottingham Forrest completed a magical, unlikely achievement. This was only surpassed when Forrest went on to win two successive European Championships – the pinnacle of European club football. This, on paper, even surpasses the Leicester victory, but it is important to remember the footballing climate of the time. While this in no way undermines the Nottingham Forrest achievement, the fact is that the financial gulf between not only teams in the top division, but between teams across divisions was nowhere near as large. With the right manager, like a Brian Clough, though it was still a huge challenge, it was much more feasible for a new team to rise up and compete for the first division championship. In fact, when Forrest signed Trevor Francis for £1.15 million, the fee smashed the existing transfer fee record, showing that Forrest, despite coming from the lower league, were more than able to play on level playing field to their competitors. Compare that with Leicester, who were on the fringe of the second tier football last year; their largest transfer fee was just £7 million for Shinji Okazaki, a very small fee for any starting calibre Premier League player, never mind one of it’s strongerst performers. Though Nottingham Forrest’s rise and success is the most reminiscent of Leicester’s then, it still can’t compare because they simply didn’t face the inherent barriers that Leicester faced as a team who had previously barely survived the Premiership.

So what about a more modern footballing achievement? In terms of sheer near-unparalleled achievement, Arsenal’s 2003/04 run in which they dominated the Premier League and went undefeated in doing so will quite possibly never be replicated again. Since the old first division became the Premiership, and the sponsorship money and larger gaps in financial power came in to play, such dominance should have been impossible. Arsenal were no doubt one of those financially blessed teams themselves, but the fact that they never slipped up and lost even once was truly remarkable. That Arsenal performance was truly special, but the only reason it drops in relevance when compared to Leicester City  is that Arsenal were already a strong and very competitive team going in to the season having won twice since 1997 and competed well in years well they fell short. Not only that, but Arsenal built a team around historically great players like Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp. When compared with Arsenal, players like Vardy and Mahrez are great, but simply not in the same conversation as Henry and Bergkamp; and Leicester City’s win came out of almost literally nowhere. As amazing as Arsenal’s modern invincibles season was, it was the result of historical momentum and historical talent that Leicester simply didn’t have.

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Angelos Charisteas celebrates his unlikely winning goal for Greece in the Euro 2004 final credit: realclearsports.com

The final phenomenon that could, to some, challenge Leicester City’s win for greatest sporting achievement is the still surreal happening of Greece winning Euro 2004. Greece, who had only been to two major tournaments in their history and never won a game, showed up in Portugal and went on to grind out results against the likes of Spain, France, the Czech Republic, and finally, the hosts in the final to win the most unlikely international title of all time. Greece were a team of practical nobodies who, like Leicester, played smart, hard-working football (though without the flash of Leicester City), and beat out the giants of Europe. The result was practically an aberration as Greece would never replicate anything like this success again, a success which legitimately shocked the football world. Even compared to Leicester, this team had no expectations of victory. However, despite how anonymous they were, their prospects of victory were still more feasible simple because of the amount of competition they faced. Greece were one of just 16 teams competing for the European crown and only had to play six matches in the tournament. While Greece won the tournament, they did so after a series of shocks coming from eked out victories while Leicester really shone and looked unstoppable over a 38 game season. Greece’s Euro 2004 victory will live on in memory forever, as will Leicester’s, but Leicester’s victory coming over a longer season with more competition means it again edges the Greece victory in terms of level of achievement.

While it’s hard to make such a sweeping statement, the more I think about it, the more I want to double down: Leicester City, coming out of a relegation battle, with cheaper players who had been rejected or ignored previously, and going on to beat out a sizable handful or financially and historically elite teams with flair and apparent ease and from out of nowhere is the greatest sporting achievement of all time. We’re just lucky we all got to witness it.

Snap Preview of the 2016-17 Premiership Season
The 2015-16 Premier League season has indeed been like a fairytale, driven by new contenders playing with youth, passion, and dedication, usurping the historic and financial powerhouses of the league. Now that the winner is determined, the big questions that are rising are can Leicester City and – to a lesser extent – Tottenham, keep a hold of the new young standouts that propelled them to the top of the table, and can they possibly recreate their success next year and in seasons to come?

With that in mind, i’m going to do something I’ve never done before – mainly because my interest in the league had been slowly waning – and preview who I believe to be the likely contenders for the 2016-17 Premier League title and explain why I think they will, or won’t, win the league. Perhaps I’ll overlook an underdog like Leicester City were this year, but hopefully not.

Leicester City
The story of Leicester City’s season was one of consistency, being doubted because of their pedigree, and a slow tide of belief that they might actually go and win. One of the major narratives of the season was that despite their consistency and the length of time they spent as league leaders, there was still skepticism about their ability to follow through; and that seems to be the prevailing thought even know – that yes they won the league, but surely it was a one off.

I’ve written at length about why they won the league this year, so I won’t rehash that, but theoretically at least, there is no reason to imagine they can’t recreate that. Teams had plenty of time this season to ‘work them out’ and didn’t because their system was about consistency, not surprise, so if they can continue to play to their tactics and maintain their work-rate, they should be contenders. The dangers for Leicester will be if other teams are smart enough to adopt aspects of their philosophy, and whether they will have the right players at their disposal to execute their game plan. Indeed, the prevailing question about Leicester City is whether they will be able to keep their key players like Schmeichel, Morgan, Kante, Okazaki, Vardy, and especially Mahrez. If they lose any of these players, they will need to replace them with new players who can play to those standards and with the intangibles of passion, work-rate, and creativity that have made them the difference-makers for the champions.

To my mind though, I think there is an obvious love and passion for the club that, when reciprocated by the fans, played a large role in their success. The team  showed faith in the players and achieved something special, and when you mix faith and success, you will usually create loyalty in your players. Leicester will surely have to offer these key players lucrative and competitive new contracts, but that shouldn’t be a problem given their success, With money presumably not an issue, I don’t see why players would want to leave the reigning champions who will be playing in the Champions League for another team in England, especially given the many flaws and inconsistencies shown by the established ‘Top 4’ teams. Therefore, I think it will take an elite European team such as Real Madrid, Barcelona, or Bayern Munich to tempt players away, and as good as these players are, perhaps with the exception of Schmeichel, I don’t see those teams being quite interested in them.

I singled out Schmeichel there because having an elite Goalkeeper is near priceless and given his performances, and certainly not hindered by name recognition, there could be interest in him. I don’t see him leaving though. Schmeichel, despite his lineage has had a rough ride of a career until now, playing for teams like Leeds and Notts County before making it back to the top. He has been playing with Leicester for 5 years now and their faith in him, mixed with the success they have brought him, I think will create a strong sense of loyalty in him. That goes even more for Vardy and Morgan. Both have been with Leicester for multiple years in lower leagues, and neither would have imagined the possibility of winning the league. They did that because of their place at the club, and I find it very hard to believe that players who have been on such an incredible, long journey with the club and the fans will have much desire to leave at the height of success.

That leaves Kante, Okazaki, and Mahrez under the microscope. These are Leicester’s most flashy, skillful players who will have caught many a manager’s eye, and they are also the ones who have been with the club for the shortest amount of time, not toiling through the lower leagues with them like the others. Nonetheless, I think the obvious team spirit and bond created at Leicester surely wasn’t lost on them, not to mention, as before, the opportunities that playing for Leicester as champions itself now presents. Even for these players, it is hard to to think of a club with a significantly superior draw than Leicester that would also be particularly interested in the players. Perhaps some of them could leave, but I will be surprised.

I think, personally, that the real danger faced by Leicester is trying to make the sort of preseason moves that may be associated with top clubs: most obviously, high-profile signings. While their big-money rivals will hope to learn from Leicester, there is potentially a danger that Leicester try to behave more like a top club and make impressive signings of players who don’t fit their system. In many ways, it would be ideal is Leicester could just play next season with the exact same squad, but if they are tempted by the transfer market, they have to be careful to respect what this history-making team have achieved, and only buy players who can play the high octane, high effort style that Leicester play while remembering to fulfil their position and role diligently. If they are able to do that, they will be competing again.

Tottenham Hotspur
Tottenham Hotspur themselves would be the fairytale team of the league this year if it wasn’t for the ridiculously unlikely achievement of Leicester City. Tottenham have a rich history and have been fleetingly involved in European football in recent years with the emergence of Gareth Bale, but despite these relatively humble successes, they haven’t been close to a title run in decades. They are also surrounded by similar questions to Leicester City going in to the next year – namely, can they repeat their feat next year and challenge for the title. Interestingly though, the prevailing belief seems to be that they will be in a better position than Leicester, despite losing out in the title race to them this year.

While Leicester showed the consistency of champions, it is hard to argue that there was a team who played to the level of quality as Tottenham at their best. In recent years, Tottenham have always had a fairly neutral disappointing goal difference, but this year they have had, statistically, the most fearsome attack and most sure-handed defence leading to a monster goal difference. Players like Kane, Lloris, Vertonghen, and Erikson have managed to maintain a high-to-incredible level of play while players like Alderweireld, Walker, Rose, Lamela, and Alli have emerged from either lower leagues, other teams, or relative mediocrity to play to the same level. No team has had such rich quality throughout their ranks as Spurs have, and Mauricio Pochettino is seemingly the architect of the flourish. Unfortunately for them, too many draws early in the season before they really found their feet and not quite being able to match the consistency of Leicester when it counted costed them a championship they perhaps objectively deserved.

It will be interesting to see how much difficulty Tottenham face in keeping their squad together because unlike Leicester, there doesn’t seem to be much speculation that they will struggle to. They will surely get tempting offers for Lloris especially and other members of the squad, but something special seems to be going on at the club, and as a Champions League team with a huge new stadium in the works, and increasing financial power, I think Tottenham should be able to hold on to their players, especially now that Pochettino has signed a big new contract extension. He was perhaps the most likely to be pursued by rivals, but it is clear he is building something at Tottenham. That’s something you don’t leave behind, and it’s something that the players will want to stay around for. If they do, Tottenham will keep a very powerful, young and exciting squad.

This season did have a feel though that if they couldn’t win this year, they might not get another chance, and as teams have a preseason to adjust themselves to the approaches of Tottenham and Leicester and perhaps take inspiration from them to close the gap, there are valid reasons to worry that Tottenham might not be able to quite recreate the magic of this year.

But again like Leicester, philosophically at least, if they keep the same quality in their squad, and the same passion and work-rate in their play, there is no reason at all that Tottenham can’t make another strong push for the title. For Tottenham, there aren’t many areas of their squad that can be significantly improved, but what they do need is strength in depth, and if they can add that to their squad without upsetting it, if anything, they’ll be in an even stronger position than this year.

Manchester City
Manchester City are an intriguing prospect, having seemingly forgone any interest in Premier League as they limp to the end of the season while going on an unlikely run in the Champions League. Despite that success though, that seems like a bit of a misnomer if i’m completely honest, Manchester City feel like a team in flux, en route to a new era and major rebuild under incoming headline manager Pep Guardiola. Guardiola is generally seen as the best manager in the world following his long list of achievements at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, and he will certainly, again, have a huge transfer budget to play with this preseason. So despite the huge disappointment of this year, City will certainly be considered among the favourites next year.

That said, Guardiola and City have a lot of work to do with a squad which seems old, tired, and listless when compared to how powerful it should be. As good as many of the players there are on paper, there has been a high turnover of starting City players since City became a financial powerhouse, meaning that players have seemed more disposable and their time at City more transitory. In this time, there have been some players such a Hart, Kompany, Silva, Toure, and Aguero who have become stalwarts, and the closest thing to ‘hearts and souls’ of the team possible for such a cynical venture as they have become. But as time goes on, the number of players on that list good enough to anchor a championship winning team has dwindled. Vincent Kompany, once the fiery figurehead of the team, had become injury prone and less effective when able to play, while Silva and Toure have appeared less motivated and consistent; and as good as they are, a team can’t be highly successful in a league with a team anchored by three consistently good to great players in recent stalwarts Hart and Aguero, and newer sensation Kevin De Bruyne.

What it means is that this team, in line with it’s ethos, has to be largely torn apart and rebuilt. Keep Hart, De Bruyne and Aguero, sell the coasting dead weight like Navas, Silva, and Demichelis, and buy at least 4 or 5 hungry, quality players. Guardiola’s name and City’s money will be enough to draw most of any players they have their eye on, and while the potential of a ‘Galacticos’ approach is shaky at best, City themselves have had success with it before.

Nonetheless, even if City make these moves, which isn’t guaranteed, it would be a major rebuild which could quite possibly take more than a season to ‘take’. I don’t think City can win the league with their current squad, and I think a manager like Pep will want to stamp his authority on the side, so I can see this sort of rebuild taking place, so City’s prospects will rest solely on how quickly Pep’s new team can gel, and while I think City will be force eventually under Guardiola, I think there will be enough competition to beat out City as they rebuild next year.

Manchester Utd
Manchester Utd are currently a fascinating team. It is natural that after a legendary manager like Alex Ferguson moved on, that they would go through a period of struggle and rebuilding, but given the recent history of Utd, it has been a period of huge disappointment for the fans, and of schadenfreude for fans of their rivals. In the second half of this season though, something has started happening there that gives them reason to be very hopeful for the future. This season, part of their struggles have come due to a raft of injuries to top players. The rather sizable silver lining of this though has been that Louis Van Gaal has been forced in to select numerous players to his starting eleven from deep in to the Utd youth system. The arrivals of Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Jesse Lingard, and most explosively, Marcus Rashford, has given Utd a tempo and attacking flair that the side have been sorely missing for the past few years. Giving young prospects starts is something Van Gaal is well-known for regardless, but it’s a pretty safe bet that these players wouldn’t have all gotten their shots so quickly were it not for the injury bug; in fact, the injury bug may have forced Utd to play less like a ‘top’ team, and more like Leicester City did, with youth, passion, and desire.

These three young players have been nothing short of a revelation. They have played to incredible standards at their respective positions and have lit a fire under other established players like Anthony Martial, Antonio Valencia, and even Wayne Rooney who seems to have been playing more freely now that the attacking verve of the team doesn’t run near exclusively through him. The team is still inconsistent and definitely needs more development, but the foundation of these players as well as having a world-class goalkeeper and improving centre-back in Chris Smalling is giving them something to really build on.

With this in mind, this is no time for a change at manager, and Van Gaal deserves one more season to see if this foundation can be built on. Keeping De Gea will be crucial, but if they can do that, add one or two more dominant defenders, and add a bit more youthful, hungry depth to the squad, I think Manchester Utd could be on for a major revival, and quite possibly, a run at the Premier League title.

Arsenal
Arsenal are under consideration here due to their consistent place in the Top 4 in the past decade and the fact that they were, for some time, a legitimate contender for the title before fizzling out shortly after Christmas. Arsenal are a strange team who consistently play quality, flowing football, but who, in recent years have also been – if you will  – consistent in their inconsistency, perhaps keeping faith in players unduly long after they should have been replaced. For years, they have flashed with quality but haven’t been able to maintain it enough to make a serious run, and I don’t see why that would change next year.

Giroud is a good striker, but certainly not good enough consistently, and though Welbeck, Walcott and even Campbell are good, it just feels like they are lacking the sort of transcendent striker that Leicester, Tottenham, City, and maybe Utd have to make them true contenders. That, mixed with a couple of upgrades at the squad’s weakest points – maybe a savvy signing each in defence and midfield replacing the aging Monreal and bringing in competition for Ramsey – could possibly make them more realistic contenders, but their problem is also of attitude.

Fair or not, Arsenal seem to play without urgency for lengthy periods, and don’t seem to have the fire of more successful teams. It is this, more than a few squad changes, that would be key to their next title challenge. Wenger is a great manager, but if he is the problem, it is in this respect.

Chelsea
Chelsea are seemingly a team in no man’s land, at least relative to the recent expectations. Guus Hiddink managed to steady the ship for the most part after the freefall they experienced at the start of the season, but Chelsea have been non-starters this year and a near irrelevance in the league. Like their super-wealthy contemporaries in City, their team just feels tired, and are about to hire a new manager who should rip up the team and start again, and should have the budget to do it. The problem is, Chelsea seem to have even less current talent than City do, haven’t had any sort of European run, and are hiring a manager with much less of a draw than Guardiola. Besides Courtois, Hazard, and maybe Diego Costa, no one really seems irreplaceable, but so invisible has their season been that it’s hard to imagine many top quality players having a huge interest in a move to Stamford Bridge. That all said, Chelsea’s season has been so strange and anonymous that they are a real wildcard for next season.Speaking from a pure hunch though, I just can’t see them building any sort of significant challenge.

Liverpool
Liverpool haven’t really earned consideration as title challengers next year based on their performances this year, but the cult of Klopp mixed with flashes of quality play over this season and Liverpool being in the mix in recent years means they can’t quite be ruled out as contenders.

Though Liverpool have some excellent players such as Coutinho and Firmino, they are lacking the requisite quality to really challenge significantly since Gerrard and especially Suarez left. For teams like Manchester City and Chelsea, I have suggested complete rebuilds in line with their resources and ethos, but for Klopp, I think he will have to rely on his open, fluid managerial style as much as he will on new players. Some new signings will be necessary, but his real job will be to get the most out of some players who still have some potential to live up to; players such as Lallana, Can, Ibe, Benteke and Sturridge all seem to have more to give, and if Klopp can get them playing more naturally and consistently in his system over the course of a proper pre-season regimen, they could improve a great deal.

So without further ado, and purely on instinct, here are where I predict these teams will finish next season:

Predicted Top 6
1) Tottenham Hotspur
2) Manchester Utd
3) Manchester City
4) Leicester City
5) Arsenal
6) Liverpool/Chelsea

A Round-table On WrestleMania 32 and It’s Divisive Build

 

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The poster for this year’s WrestleMania at JerryWorld, credit: WWE

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article about Daniel Bryan, his career, and the magical but fleeting zenith of it that was WrestleMania 30. In that article, I mentioned the probability of writing about this year’s ‘Show of Shows’, though at the time, I didn’t have a handle on what to write about. Now, just days before Mania, I’m still struggling to grasp how I feel about the show, and it strikes me that – to differing extents – that is how I’ve felt about the builds to each WrestleMania for the past three years, starting at that show.

For this article, I had initially planned something snappier than the veritable essay I wrote about The Last of Us, but this being about what I warmly refer to as ‘The Real Christmas’, I’ve decided to take a page from Vince McMahon’s dog eared playbook and bring in some big names for a one-shot deal to write about this year’s WrestleMania. Of course that means this is going to be lengthy, but I think the insights of these wonderful, smart, and funny people will provide some insight on to how WrestleMania has come to be of late. Before we get to them though, I’m going to introduce my point of view to measure it against as I get the feeling that this year’s show has had a wider, though not necessarily fervent, range of feelings towards it.

I don’t know if this is a trend I have convinced myself of, but it seems like after WrestleMania 29, the ‘Road to WrestleMania’ became a bumpier and more fluid place. Before that, once the Royal Rumble was done it felt like WrestleMania matches were set in stone. Approaching WrestleMania 30, until the latter stages of the build, it seemed like we were getting Orton-Batista, only for the collective will of fans and probable reactionary nous of WWE brass to enter Daniel Bryan in to an equation which left the main event unclear until after the show was underway. Since then, the Road to WrestleMania has had the air of a negotiation period between fans and WWE bookers with WWE offering fans a main event, fans weighing up their approval of the players involved and voting with their cheers and boos regardless of the presentation before them.

This isn’t right of wrong necessarily, it just feels different, but there certainly are pitfalls of this form of build. The Royal Rumble, unfortunately, has become a referendum on Roman Reigns over and above the great, open-ended spectacle it once was, in which Reigns enters, is booed relentlessly until he is eliminated, and whoever squares up against him is instantly supported. This has led to nothing short of surreal scenes two years running at The Rumble, both associated with Reigns. Last year, the near unimaginable happened when fans drowned Reigns and a bemused looking The Rock of all people in boos after Roman won his WrestleMania shot. Conversely this year, Triple H became a hero to the people, somehow, simply for stopping Reigns from winning. I still enjoy the Rumble, but their Reigns-centricity has been an unfortunate turn for it of late. What’s worse, is i’m not sure how to even fix the trend.

On top of the effect on the Rumble generally, I think this veil of negotiation, whether or not it’s just a mirage cultivated by the WWE, has led to a climate in which WrestleMania can strike gold, as it did in New Orleans, but which I fear could also fail just as spectacularly. This year, my main feeling about WrestleMania is one of confusion. I’m confused about how to feel about Reigns and Triple H, I have no idea what is going on between Shane McMahon and The Undertaker, I’m not exactly sure what The New Day are, and I don’t understand why Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens can’t just slug it out without five others, including Zack Ryder, sharing the ring with them.

I think Reigns has a heap of potential, but it is clear that something isn’t working. His spectrum of responses go generally from mild approval to the tunnel vision hatred of the crowd from the go-home RAW. Meanwhile, the booking alterations to address this seem to be miniscule while Reigns himself still seems on auto-pilot most of the time. Meanwhile, contextually, Trips is still ‘The Authority’ heel, but when he’s intense, committed, and when he’s beating Reigns down, he is beloved. At this stage, it would seem simply tone-deaf to give us the Reigns victorious confetti ending and the program appears to be crying out for some deus ex machina similar to that of Seth Rollins closing last year’s show.

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Reigns cashing in Money In The Bank and keeping the title from Reigns turned a good, fun show, in to a great show, credit: WWE

At least contextually, the Reigns-HHH story follows rough logic; the Shane-Taker feud is perhaps the most confusing main event program WrestleMania has ever seen. Shane-O got a great response upon his return because people associate him with some cool moments, and genuinely missed him because he is kinda goofy and hasn’t been seen from in years, but by the end of the night, it was buried under a brow-furrowingly strange match-up with The Undertaker. Against most people, Shane would be a loveable fan favourite (in an alternate universe, Shane vs Triple H would be a logical barnstormer), but against The Undertaker, he is sharing the spotlight with the WrestleMania G.O.A.T. respected by all in a feud that is full of sizzle but bereft of meaning, with more equaling less. Between the high stakes that stink of contrivance, and the splitting of loyalties between the combatants, it is hard to find the hook for this. I like the idea of Shane sticking it to Vince (at least in kayfabe) and changing RAW, which is a weird thing to tease fans with if it isn’t to happen, but especially at WrestleMania, I don’t want to see Taker lose to Shane, especially with the caveat that it would trigger it being his last WrestleMania. I respect Shane and the crazy things he does, but I just wish he was doing it against someone else. To make it worse, Shane has sounded monotone and shaky throughout, his words not matching his actions, while The Undertaker just seems to be moving through it all, a pawn on a bigger board. Of course, part of that is intentional, but the effect that should have of creating intrigue hasn’t come to pass as a result of the strange ingredients surrounding it.

The fact is, WrestleMania 32 will probably be great. Intrigue for WrestleMania 31 wasn’t in a much better state than this year’s until the end of the event and Seth Rollins’ intervention. I won’t go off half-cocked on the idea that WWE may be restling on laurels in the knowledge that people will watch Mania because they are subscribed to the WWE Network or can get access to the Network for free; but I will say that I get the feeling that their successes in the last two years with standout Manias that succeeded almost in spite of their developmental build process has made WWE somewhat complacent about this year’s show. Is a great WrestleMania worth a build process that involves months of mostly bland TV focused on manipulating and alienating fans just so the big event can succeed in response? More importantly, what happens if WWE can’t replicate the magic of this recent formula and WrestleMania 32 isn’t even that good? What do we have left then?

So wrapping up my part of the article, I will go through what I care about on the show, what I want to happen, and what I think will happen before handing over to my friends and comrades. I won’t be reading what they write before me, and will only minimally edit, so similarities in opinion can be read as something of a trend (within a tiny microcosm of course).

What I Care About At WrestleMania 32
I’m currently most looking forward to Ambrose vs Lesnar. Lesnar and Heyman are Lesnar and Heyman. Heyman’s hype is always second to none at this time of year, and Lesnar is easy to hype as he retains the impression at all times that he might tear someone apart. Here, his journey from amused, condescending humouring of Ambrose to someone who he wants to tear apart because he won’t go away has frequently been the most intriguing part of the show and Lesnar has been a great adversary for Ambrose to grow against. For the first time in months, Ambrose was able to show what the ‘Lunatic Fringe’ is beyone a haircut-sounding piece of marketing and stands above all others as someone willing to throw his body in to the meat grinder because he loves it and it’s all he knows. The street fight stipulation helps the match too as it legitimately plays to Ambrose’s character against the prize-fighting Beast, gives Ambrose legitimate hope in the match, and promises a degree of grindhouse insanity.

The second match I particularly care about is the Divas title match. The build has spun it’s wheels a bit for the last few weeks, but the mixture of the history and chemistry the women have in-built from NXT mixed with Charlotte’s coming in to her own as a condescending, fathered-in heel, the clear fun that Becky Lynch is having while clearly passionate, and Sasha showing glimpses of the true ‘Boss’ while interacting with Becky has made this feel like a fulfilling feud that should culminate in an exciting match.

I’m excited about Jericho and Styles, and seeing Zayn and Owens on the big stage, but both aren’t so developed that I am especially looking forward to them as perhaps WrestleMania demands. Saying that, I think if we get the best of Jericho, his match with Styles could be an absolute show-stealer.

Also, the New Day’s entrance and potential fourth partner.

What Do I Want To Happen at WrestleMania 32
I think this Mania will live or die, believe it or not, based on the success of it’s main event. While i’m most baffled by the Shane-Taker feud, I think it is so baffling that it can almost get away with being OK as long as Shane gets in some sports, no one gets hurt, and we move on. On the other hand, while I do like Reigns, I couldn’t help but have a bit of an empty, disappointed reaction to him overcoming the odds, surrounded by confetti. Triple H seems to be in amazing shape, and I trust him implicitly to tear it up, but Reigns needs to do something new – not necessarily because he’s doing something wrong, but because the fans – rightly or wrongly – will reject it out of hand if he doesn’t.

If it was up to me, I would certainly be looking at the double-turn. Triple H’s recent promos about obsession, and striving to be the best is easily translated to a more sports-like heroic figure, fighting for the company and ‘sport’ he loves. I’d like to see Reigns give in to his petulance and not be able to take down Trips legitimately while we see Hunter give everything he has to succeed. I think Reigns has to win in these circumstances, and rob Triple H of the title. If i’m being really greedy, I would love to see this trigger a road to where Triple H becomes an authority figure more like we have at NXT – a respected veteran who genuinely wants what’s best for business, and does it with a nod to respect and fairness. Reigns’ turn can perhaps be linked to whatever the result of the Shane/Taker match is. The embittered loser of the battle between Shane and Vince could take Reigns corner as a heel, proclaiming him as the future of the company and a way to keep an investment in the company following the event. That may be a step too far, but if done well, it could give the event as a whole a cool narrative thread.

What Do I Think Will Happen at WrestleMania 32
The only thing I am particularly confident about at the event are that The New Day will beat The League of Nations given the gulf in interest and popularity between the two teams.
Beyond that, I simply don’t see Shane beating Taker, so ridiculous would that be at WrestleMania.
And for the main event, it just seems like Reigns is nailed on to win as Triple H only makes sense as champion almost as a metaphor. The question is whether Reigns wins as a face or heel, and that i’m not really sure of. WWE have done a good job in recent years of delivering great WrestleManias in spite of their own booking and build, and I do trust them to do that, so I see Reigns winning in a way that is somehow less than pristine.

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Ambrose seems primed to shine on the big stage, win or lose. Credit: WWE

Luke Healey (@pitxapillar)
More will be written about this one day, but the era of wrestling we currently find ourselves in – common wisdom has it that Grantland columnist David Shoemaker coined the term “reality era” in the aftermath of 2011’s Money in the Bank PPV, but looking back it appears Shoemaker initially favoured the phrase “worked shoot era” – is defined no matter what you call it by repeated attempts on the part of management to negotiate hostile crowd responses to the product. If the rebellion against a stale main event scene incited by CM Punk in his now-legendary “pipe bomb” promo that year set the precedent for arena crowds crossing the streams of kayfabe and vocally demanding that the “workrate” guys get a look in on the upper-card spots typically reserved for the “body” guys, it was Daniel Bryan that pushed this phenomenon to its peak in the three years that followed.

Wrestlemania XXX was not the end of the story, however: somehow, despite the clear signalling from WWE that they had taken note of the relative crowd reactions to appearances by Bryan and Batista (who was supposed to be the brightest star on that year’s mega-card) and had adjusted their plans accordingly, we are still witnessing the kind of booking that made the “pipe bomb” and the “yes movement” seem so necessary and so vital in their moment. The decisions that made Roman Reigns’ rise to the top of the company by contrast seem inorganic and ill-advised don’t need to be rehashed here; what is most significant in the build-up to this year’s Wrestlemania is that this time the WWE don’t appear to be prepared to pull out any measures to adjust course in the wake of Reigns’ increasingly calamitous audience reception as the company’s apparent top babyface.

The legacy of the previous two years’ Wrestlemania shows has been decided by thoughtful kayfabe responses to real problems with hostile crowds: in 2014 Bryan was worked into the main event via a choreographed fan “occupation” of Raw and a match of the year candidate with Triple H, and last year Seth Rollins’ deux ex machina run-in with the Money in the Bank briefcase spared WWE from either having to hand Reigns a defeat in his first Wrestlemania main-event or to find out what a smark-filled Levi’s Stadium sounds like when a man the crowd refuses to love gets the win over a competitor that had been for a year been built up as nigh-on indestructible.

The build to both these events was fraught at best and laughable at worst, but the last two Wrestlemania cards ended up delivering in a big way; it might not just be a case of recency bias when fans repeatedly proclaim these two shows to be among the best in Wrestlemania history. Which begs the question, how do the WWE pull it out the bag this time round, having passed up the opportunity to work Dean Ambrose and Brock Lesnar into the main event, and without the convenient device of a Money in the Bank cash-in? The WWE title match is one of the less promising matches on the card, but we’re not dealing here with something in the nature of The Rock and John Cena’s main events in 2012 and 2013; for all that the New Day’s first appearance on the Wrestlemania main show, the seven-man ladder match, the Ambrose-Lesnar street fight and, most notably, the triple threat match for the soon-to-be re-branded Divas’ Championship seem like the best bets for all-out pro wrestling gold, finding out what becomes of Reigns’ push is still an extremely interesting proposition. Fans, performers and bookers are still finding their way through the corridors that Punk and Bryan, to say nothing of NXT and its indie-inflected alumni, built in the first half of this decade, and this year’s Wrestlemania can’t help but go a long way towards showing us where we’re all at – assuming the company’s top brass are inclined to listen.

Team Total Divas vs Team BAD & Blonde
This match is mainly interesting because of the sudden introduction of two women – Emma and Eva Marie – that have lately been developing their character work effectively down in NXT. I sort of assume that from now on every call-up will have a proper fanfare, but I guess the two of them had already appeared on the main roster in any case. Have they explained yet what Lana’s beef is with Brie Bella?

Kalisto v Ryback
Going off what people have said about their Smackdown match last year I fully expect this to be an entertaining affair but the pre-show slot is hardly a vote of confidence for either man, especially given the pomp and circumstance with which the US title match was introduced last year.

Andre Memorial Battle Royal
It’s quite obvious that this is where Bray gets given something to do. Hopefully he, Rowan and Strowman get embroiled in some faction warfare with the Social Outcasts, leading down the line to Bo Dallas becoming the Wyatt he was born to be.

AJ Styles v Chris Jericho
It’s the sort of thing that would look careless in other circumstances, but I quite like that the build to this match is based off a number of recent in-ring encounters. There’s an effective asymmetry to the idea of a fourth match that spills out of the best-of-three series as a result of personal vendetta. On the other hand, we’ve seen these two pull out all the stops numerous times before, so I can’t see how this match ends up anything other than overshadowed.

Kevin Owens v Sami Zayn v Dolph Ziggler etc. etc.
I’m glad they’re not rushing into the Owens-Zayn blow-off in their respective first Wrestlemania appearances, but there are other aspects of this match which I seriously regret. Neville belongs here, but so does Tyler Breeze, and a match bringing together more former NXT talent (Sin Cara and Zack Ryder don’t count) would have made for a very effective use of this stipulation. Will still be fun, obviously.

New Day v League of Nations
All I want from this is for The New Day to ride out on unicorns, gradually parting to reveal their mystery fourth man, who pulls up in a golden unicorn-drawn chariot…it’s their captain, Seth Rollins.

Charlotte v Sasha v Becky
The news about the WWE’s decision to follow NXT in ditching the “Diva’s” label and bringing back the Women’s Championship is great news, as is the suggestion that this match might get a full twenty minutes. This needs to be the first example of a properly long, emotive, high-stakes NXT-style women’s match on the main roster, and I’m sure it will be. I’d love to see Sasha walk out as champion, but there’ll be plenty of time for that down the line.

Ambrose v Lesnar
Probably the most exciting match on the card. There’s a real sense of narrative purpose and momentum to this one, and the outcome is unpredictable. They’re teasing blood and gore, so I’m hoping for something that comes close to the drama of the “Grave Consequences” or “Cero Miedo” matches from the last season of Lucha Underground. I’m fairly sure this is the match that cements Ambrose as one of the company’s top stars for years to come.

Shane v Taker
You have to look through the recent booking short-cuts and think about this match in terms of its utter strangeness, a strangeness which was more palpable when Shane made his initial return last month. Shane McMahon. Wrestling the Undertaker. Inside Hell in a Cell. What!? This could go all over the place, both literally and figuratively, and is unmissable despite all the narrative mis-steps that have been made in the build.

(Editor’s note: Also check out Luke’s writing archive on tumblr, whatever that is).

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WrestleMania has a lot more to compete with these days, including bona fide dream matches under it’s nose. Credit: WWE

Adam Wilson (@gingerpimernel)
(Disclaimer: I make no pretense of being an impartial journalist. This simply predictions for each match, and what I’m looking forward to most, and who I want to win)

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Wrestlemania. The Grandaddy of Th-REDACTED: Wrestlemania is henceforth the Extremely fit and virile young man of them all looms. Biggest wrestling night of the year, easy. It’s become a thing unto itself, with independent companies from throughout the US around the world, converging on whatever city The Big Yin is running in. Even around the world, such as here in the UK, companies run shows on the night with screenings afterwards. It’s a great time to be a fan. Even if WWE isn’t your cup of hot beverage, there’ll be something on for you.

Truthfully, I feel underhyped. I’m more excited for the shows I’ll attend in person that day (Fierce Females and ICW, in that order), and definitely more so for NXT Takeover, because, y’know, SHINSUKE NAKAMURA. It’s not that I think the matches will be bad, far from it. It’s just the stories leading into it that haven’t gripped me personally (I watch shows to be INTO them, not to sit and go “Ooh, he’s selling that move well!”). Then again, people are daft about the Shane McMahon stuff and I don’t like The Rock, so what do I know anyway? That said, there is stuff in there I’m excited about, and the spectacle itself is always fun. Still no idea how they’ll top last years ‘OMG RUSEV IN A TANK’, but let’s take a look.

(note: I’ve no clue what the running order is, so I’m just going to do them in the order they’re listed on Wikipedia)

US TITLE MATCH: KALISTO VS THE RYBACK
Consensus seems to be this’ll be on the pre-show, and that’s probably fair. Not much of a build other than Ryback going “Here, you’re good and all, but I’m The Big Guy, and Big Belts For Big Guys”. Despite the slagging Ryback gets online, this’ll probably be a fun enough match. Wee flippy guys like Kalisto are usually a good foil for big guys (but for The Big Guy? Who knows?), David ‘n Goliath and all that. Anyhoo, my money’s on Kalisto to win.

THE TOTAL DIVAS VS B.A.D. AND BLONDE
Again, lifting that name off Wikipedia, and I got confused at first because I went “Here, Naomi and Tamina aren’t even remotely blonde”, until I cottoned on that it’s ‘B.A.D.’ as in Team B.A.D., AND Blonde, as in blonde lassies, because I’m a bit slow sometimes. Folk are moaning about Eva Marie making the save, as if WWE want folk to like her, even though her partners treated her arrival like a fart in a lift. Hopefully, like with NXT, they’ve realised no one likes her and play to that. Still shocking she gets a Wrestlemania payday and Bayley doesn’t though. B.A.D. & Blonde to win, probably with Lana pinning Brie Bella.

THE USOS VS THE DUDLEYS
I keep forgetting this one is happening. Which is a shame, because The Usos are fun as hell. Not really much to say about this one, other than I hope The Usos win to continue the ‘old Attitude Era duffers getting battered by the new breed’ thing they seemed to start at Wrestlemania 30.

(now I’m switching to reverse Wikipedia order, because otherwise I’ll finish on New Day v The League of Nations, and that CLEARLY isn’t main eventing)

THE NEW DAY VS THE LEAGUE OF NATIONS
The League of Nations confuse me, but then again, WWE’s historic “Multiculturalism? BOOOOO!” attitude generally does. I really like Barrett, and LOVE Rusev, and want better than this for them, but I cannot bring myself to cheer against The New Day, who’ve consistently been the most entertaining thing on WWE TV for the best part of a year now. That said, League of Nations will probably win, because there’s more of them, which I’m OK with because the titles aren’t on the line, and The New Day need to keep those FOREVER.

ANDRE THE GIANT MEMORIAL BATTLE ROYAL
So who’s all in this? From what I’ve seen/remember, The Social Outcasts, Kane, Big Show, Darren Young, The Ascension… and I can’t remember anyone else offhand. According to this handy and informative Wikipedia article, Tyler Breeze, Mark Henry, Jack Swagger, Fandango, Damien Sandow, Goldust, & R-Truth have also been announced. I know they’re building the whole Kane/Big Show “we’re huge so your efforts to hurl us out are FRUITLESS” thing, but let’s face it, they’ve lost nearly every Over The Top style match they’ve ever been in. My pick here is Curtis Axel of the Social Outcasts, because it’d be an amazing tribute to his dad, after the lovely one he did on Raw the other night.

AJ STYLES VS CHRIS JERICHO AGAIN
I find it a bit weird this is on without a stipulation, given the amount of times it’s happened already. 2/3 falls maybe? It’ll be good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s been done to death. Also, while I’m at it, their bit on Raw was weird. AJ Styles coming out like “I’m not going away and I’m going to chant obnoxiously til I get what I want” is the logic of a four year old throwing a tantrum, and should not be encouraged. Meanwhile, Jericho initially refuses the challenge, which’d mean no Wrestlemania match, because he doesn’t believe they should, so he’s actually a man getting booed for putting his principles ahead of monetary gain. Weird. Anyway, this’ll be good and AJ Styles will win.

INTERCONTINENTAL TITLE MULTIMAN MATCH
Again, thrown together and weird, but it’ll be heaps of fun. I didn’t like that Sami Zayn’s first pinfall over Kevin Owens was not only in a throwaway match on Raw, but didn’t actually get mentioned. To be honest, I can’t decide between Sami and Owens here. I can’t see any of the other guys winning it, but I’d prefer a Zayn title win over Big Kev to be one on one, so I’ll go with Owens for the victory. Also, non Shane O Mac mad bump of the night will probably go to Ziggler.

DIVAS TITLE MATCH: CHARLOTTE VS BECKY LYNCH VS SASHA BANKS
Of all the matches, this is probably the one I’m most looking forward to. I really want Becky to win this (even though my head says Sasha will), but most of all I just don’t want Charlotte to win, and nothing makes  a match more exciting than caring about the outcome. Anyway, between here and NXT, they’ve all shown they have great chemistry together, and in my opinion Sasha and Becky are two of the best wrestlers on the roster, regardless of gender, so this should be fantastic.

SHANE MCMAHON VS THE UNDERTAKER
I realise I’m overwhelmingly in the minority here, but I don’t really care about this one. As I said in the previous match, nothing draws you into a match more than caring who wins, and honestly here, I don’t. I’ve always felt a bit ’emperors new clothes’ when it comes to Shane. He’s done breathtaking dives and that, but as is so often said in wrestling, you should care about the person taking the dive, not the dive itself. The idea of Undertaker having a competitive match with him is baffling to me. That said, if Shane wins, and it puts an end to the era of the heel GM/authority figure on Raw, I’m all for it. Even more so if the prediction I saw that this is how they’ll debut Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows is actually correct. So aye. Shane to win here, probably, unless he doesn’t.

BROCK LESNAR VS DEAN AMBROSE
This is the other match I’m really looking forward to. Brock Lesnar, by virtue of being Brock Lesnar makes near enough any opponent he has an automatic underdog, and Ambrose is built for that. Taking every hit the most powerful man in wrestling can give, before laughing, thumbing his nose at Paul Heyman, and sticking his tongue out and waggling his fingers on the end of his nose at Lesnar, before being suplexed into Row Z or something. And not Row Z at the AT&T Stadium, but wherever they’re hosting Raw. And not the post-WM Raw, but one in like, three weeks. That said, Ambrose is my pick to win, so they can finally make him The Man, when he topples his BFF Roman Reigns, right? Right?

Let me dream, FFS.

TRIPLE H VS ROMAN REIGNS
I’m really trying not to be negative here, but I’m struggling to think of a Wrestlemania main event I’ve cared less about that didn’t contain The Miz or The Rock (nothing against you lads if you’re reading, but *blows massive raspberry*). Again, I’m sure it’ll be a good, physical match, I just don’t care about the outcome. I don’t hate Roman the way a lot do, but nothing about him as a solo act makes me want to get behind him. For me, watching him post-Shield is like watching Chris Cornell slum it in Audioslave after Soundgarden. And as much as I love what he’s done with NXT, I’ve still not forgiven Triple H for 2003. Roman’s obviously going to win, so hopefully if/when he feuds with Ambrose afterwards, I’ll be emotionally invested instead of watching it, knowing it’s good, but not being able to get into it. Though my dream ending for this is for Joe Hendry to make a surprise debut and beat them both. This is doubtful though, as he’s on at ICW just hours before, and thus Joe won’t be able to make it as he’s billing himself as the Local Hero again. Maybe if he still called himself the Global Hero, we’d be in with a shout.

I don’t want to end this on a down note, so I’ll note that I had similar feelings before Wrestlemania 30, and that was bloody terrific, so hopefully I’m wrong again. And as I said, there’s something for everyone this weekend, so I’ll have a splendid Wrestlemania weekend anyway. I hope you do too.

IMPARTIAL JOURNALIST VIEW OF THE REAL MAIN EVENT
Shinsuke Nakamura is going to knee Sami Zayn to pieces. This is because according to my very real journalist sources, Shinsuke Nakamura is the King of Strong Style, whereas Sami Zayn is not.

(Sami, I love you, I love you lots, but you are not the King of Strong Style. Shinsuke Nakamura is)

So there it is. If you want to win Big Cash Money, there are betting websites you can visit where you can put every penny you have on these results. I strongly recommend you do if you want to be filthy stinking rich. Put the HOUSE on them. My name is Adam Wilson. Follow me on Twitter @GingerPimpernel if you so wish. I like wrestling and if you’re reading this, chances are you do too. So let’s talk wrestling and have a laugh.

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Multi-man ladder matches have become a WrestleMania staple, but does the hidden blockbuster story therein expose WWE’s wasteful approach to the show? Credit: WWE (and Snickers, I suppose)

Jacob Kerray (Not on Twitter, but everywhere else. Look him up)
I’ve heard more and more people who haven’t previously voiced any interest mention Mania this month. It makes me think Vince’s grand plan is working. For him not for wrestling fans. I think their attention is still centred on The Rock more than it is any of their current roster, especially judging by their most ubiquitous hype video. Vince doesn’t need to impress us, he has us hooked. We are junkies.

The quality of wrestling since I came back to watching it regularly around 2011 – coincidentally when Rock returned – has in my opinion exponentially increased and the athleticism and stronger style has made for some amazing matches. I can’t, however, think of one storyline they have told properly in terms of planned build and culmination. This isnt to say there hasn’t been good storylines but the good ones have happened by accident when the fans or talent have hijacked the show. I was watching the build to Starrcade with Sting vs Hogan recently, and Sting said with no irony, that ‘It’s best to keep me mouth shut’. The build was all based on either guys reputation and the fans desire to see babyface vs heel. The storyline worked so well and was so simple it made the panto style match seem good.

Can you imagine what Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, AJ Styles, and in fact any of WWE’s current talent – given the consistent level of quality they have – would do with a well considered simply plotted out storyline? With every opportunity they have been given to tell a simple good storyline that doesn’t expose either party they have missed and over exposed someone. Top to bottom of the card I have a problem with every part, highlighted mainly by Kalisto vs Ryback. To give those two a singles match but make the Intercontinental title match with a built-in storyline a 6 man spot fest is indicative of where they are, confused and panicky.

The only hope I see is that it will come out the same as last year. Low expectations leave room to be surprised. If there is not a major storyline shift after this Mania the. I will really feel like a junky sucking at Vince’s dry tits.

 

The Last of Us: Playing In the Darkness and Finding the Light

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The moment where The Last of Us finally grabbed me. Credit:  thelastofus.wikia.com

*Quick note about this article: I played the ‘Remastered’ edition of The Last of Us so some issues I talk about may not apply or apply to the same same degree as they do to the original PS3 edition.*

With it being nearly three years since The Last of Us was first released, writing a review-come-narrative close up of the game is not a particularly original or timely idea. There is already a lot of material written and created about the game, pretty much all of which lavish praise over the game’s story, gameplay, atmosphere, and acting; many calling it amongst the best games ever created. This article will – spoiler alert – echo a lot of that, but less than a week ago I wouldn’t have written that; in fact, up until last week, I was considering doing something I don’t believe I have ever done – give up on the game, leave it uncompleted, and trade it in. In a vain attempt to promote this article on twitter, I posted that “I’ve never quite had a relationship with a game like I have with #TheLastofUs I’ll explain more in my inevitable upcoming review.”

I think that was taken by my followers as awed preamble to another fawning review of the game, but I was actually referring to my own complex connection with and enjoyment of the game. I got The Last of Us for Christmas (2015, for posterity’s sake) after hearing plaudits from critics and more importantly from friends who enjoyed it. I played it for the first time at the start of January and was, frankly, disappointed. I hadn’t given up on it, but I didn’t pick it up again for another month when I played it for a second time after which I liked it fractionally more but was still disappointed, despite, at that point, being around a quarter of the way through the game – specifically, just after escaping the Boston capitol building and adjoining subway tunnel with Ellie but without Tess. Something about my personality makes it very difficult to leave things unfinished, but I was indeed very close to giving up on the game despite it’s reputation. However, just last weekend, I finally picked it up again, in the hope that I could push through it and write about it anyway, hoping to keep writing about video games anyway. As Joel and Ellie escaped Boston for Pittsburgh though, the game finally hooked me, and for the first time I was keen to play the next day, and the next day, and so on until I finally finished the game yesterday night, becoming more and more invested with each turn. This article will partly try to explain that journey, how this game – eventually – provides the best narrative experience I’ve ever had with a game, and one of the best from any media platform, and I’ll also, amongst all of that, provide review technical aspects of the game.

When making a narrative driven game, developers have certain choices to make about their structure, each of which has strengths and weaknesses: linear or multiple possible paths and endings; controlled levels or open world. In recent years, linearity appears to be out-of-favour and almost treated as a laughable choice, with multiple possible endings being seen as something which provides more of a unique experience and higher replayability for the player but by the time you’ve played through a few different endings, the game’s narrative muddies in to something less memorable while a linear game with a single ending allows for the game developers to concentrate and work fully on one story. Of course that comes with it’s own pressures – if the single narrative fails, the whole game fails. While there is no reason it has to follow this way, linear stories favour carefully designed levels to play through to control the experience the player has, stories with multiple endings, such as Fallout games, for instance) favour the open world, allowing the player to create and naturally direct their own experience. The Last of Us favours a linear story told through a series of controlled, carefully designed levels, and through that risk, the story ends up delivering through excellent, natural dialogue writing, some stunning settings and scenarios, natural tensions, carefully considered metaphorical subplots, and all capped off with the best voice acting and emotional facial capture I have ever seen in video games – and again, amongst the best in any entertainment form.

But I nearly didn’t experience most of that, and that is significant.

While I don’t want to dwell on the weaknesses of the game, rather than just repeating all the plaudits, I am interested in exploring the strange journey I had with the game and why it took me so long to get invested in to a game that eventually got me more invested than the vast majority of games I’ve ever played. To help with this, I watched though a YouTube ‘movie’ of the game, in part, to remember what that first quarter was like, and I do think I came up with some answers.

The opening of the game was very well scripted (both in terms of dialogue and scripted game moments) and certainly emotional as we watched Sarah die in Joel’s arms. The game’s writers managed to draw a very likable character in Sarah in just 15 minutes or so of the game’s opening, helped hugely by playing as her and getting immersed in her experience, and set the game up wonderfully. What happens next is incredibly jarring, and though there is good reasoning for this, it failed with me. We jump forward 20 years and are thrown in to an unfamiliar quest with Joel and a new character in Tess which doesn’t cash in on that opening and gave me little reason to care about what they were doing. The jolt was intentional, and served a purpose – we see Joel, reduced to a form of survival mode that relies on showing no weakness and taking what you want to keep yourself safe. He is irritable and lacks an emotional response to anything. This of course paints a picture of the ‘new normal’ setting, helped of course by glimpses of oppressive force and intimidating threats, both human and infected, but the problem is that this scene setting gives us little to invest in. If Joel doesn’t care about his journey himself beyond a sense of personal duty, we don’t know exactly what threat Robert poses and why, and the setting is well drawn but not much of a stand out from similar survival settings, then why would I get invested as a player. That was where my first play session ended. My second ended after meeting Ellie, deciding to undertake the ‘job’, and Tess dying, and while those big events are certainly significant, they hadn’t hooked me yet either; and while Tess on her own is a great character – a strong-willed, strong-minded character, I think she may have been the reason.

Tess LastofUs

Tess is a great character, but perhaps waters down the interactions between and connection to each character in the early sections of the game credit: screencap from  a Video Games Source video on Youtube.

At this stage we haven’t spent much time with Ellie, and while glimpses of her memorable personality are there, they are dulled by her own mistrust, and hidden somewhat by the adults taking charge of the situation. At this stage, though we know Ellie is significant, and even know why, the fact that this duo are consistently discussing the merits of helping her make her still feel like an item in a fetch-quest. When you get in to trouble as Joel, Tess is there to help rather than Ellie. Joel and Ellie have some time alone, but not much, so their interaction is limited otherwise. After Tess dies and Joel decides to go on, he does so more through his love for Tess and the unfortunate fact that he has nothing to go back to. Our journey has the feeling of more of an impetus, but after quite a sizable amount of game time where I found it hard to comprehend and care about what I was actually doing, I was really wondering why I should bother. It was here that my second play finished and I was considering giving up on the game. I knew Ellie’s importance in the story as the potential ‘saviour of humanity’ but she still felt more like a host than a character, and the world I had seen wasn’t really unique or interesting enough to care about saving. For me, it was after the Boston acts that the game patched these gaps for me and started reeling me in. It was there that Ellie really showed herself as a character worth saving in her own right, and not just for a cure, and that she really became part of a cohesive on-screen relationship with Joel that would only continue shifting and blossoming from there as they were plunged in to more life-changing events that they shared, and survived, together. It is only in retrospect that I can appreciate some of the subtleties and qualities of this opening quarter or so, and while it is great that they exist and they have an effect on emotional reactions to the rest of the game, it is and unfortunate failing in some otherwise near perfect storytelling that they exist and that this section of the game is so dry because of them, at least on a first play-through.

I want to stress again that I don’t have an issue with Tess as a character – she is an excellent character in fact, but to reiterate, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was at my play session after she died – in which we met Bill, escaped Boston and moved through Pittsburgh – that I was finally hooked by the game. In fact it was that Pittsburgh section of the game that was crucial to my connection with the game. What is interesting about that is that Pittsburgh is the only place Joel and Ellie visit that doesn’t serve a particular purpose. They start in Boston of course, they travel to Wyoming to find Tommy, they go to the University of Eastern Colorado in pursuit of the Fireflies and end up in the un-named settlement nearby out of need once Joel is injured and later because Ellie is held there by David’s crew, and finally they head to Salt Lake City because that’s where they are directed  to go to find the Firefly doctors they are looking for. Other than Pittsburgh being broadly on the way to Wyoming from Boston, Joel and Ellie never really say why they go there. Perhaps they are looking for supplies, and the fact that the game isn’t full of immersion-killing exposition is one of it’s strengths, but looking back, there wasn’t even a need to go to Pittsburgh. Despite that, it is the part that grabbed me and led me to complete the game with joy. We have seen a lot of spirit and genuinely funny humour (a rarity in gaming) quips from Ellie at this point, especially with Bill, so we are growing to like her and be used to her presence without Tess to share the limelight with, and it is the point of the game where Joel is given a reason to value, respect, and if not start liking, start tolerating Ellie more.

This game is light on down time, even when not surrounded by enemies, it is rare that you feel safe, but eventhough we don’t see much of it, the car journey from Boston to Pittsburgh allows Joel to wind down a bit and talk loosely about music before his time, and falling for Ellie’s gags about the porn magazine. Immediately upon arriving in the city though, it all goes to pieces. They barely survive an ambush during which Joel’s tone seems more genuinely concerned for Ellie than before and from there on, Ellie both saves Joel’s life and then covers for him against a group of hunters. Joel’s initial irritation at Ellie for not following his direction quickly turns to his own brand of quiet respect when he hands her the rifle to cover him. Until now, he has not allowed her to have a gun, but this marks the point where he sees her as more of a partner in the effort and generally values her more. I think it may be no mistake that that is (by process of elimination) the part of the game where the cover art in which she is carrying the rifle comes from – that is how crucial the section of the game is. After meeting Henry and Sam, another clear moment of bonding happens both for the characters and for the player with the characters – when Henry and Sam cut and run from Joel when his escape route from the hunters fails, Ellie jumps down and stays with him, showing faith in Joel and a recognition of the fact that their fates are now linked. After escaping the sewer section comes the only true bit of downtime in the actual gameplay which comes in the small residential street they come across after the sewers. Joel again is noticeably more tolerant and even friendly to Ellie during the many situational conversations and almost glimpses of normality in the homes. It is also helped by the mirroring of Henry and Sam – you’re not beaten around the head with it, but there are of course parallels in their relationships; it’s most clear when Joel is angry at Henry for bailing on them and Henry – plausibly – reasons that Joel would have done the same for Ellie. This helps soften Joel to Henry which in-turn shows that Joel cares for Ellie. I went through the same journey. I was furious at Henry for making Sam abandon us but totally softened after he helped save Joel and Ellie. It never seemed contrived and made the prospect of failing in the journey or losing Ellie something I cared about and quite a lot within the relatively short amount of time of it all happening. Seeing the tragic end of Henry and Sam only served to highlight, again for both characters and player, the stakes involved in the journey and by proxy, the bond Joel and Ellie had formed, mirrored in Henry and Sam.

I’m not going to go through every event of the rest of the game, but I do want to discuss what made the narrative of this game so strong from here on out. In Wyoming, the main narrative crux of the section is Joel trying to pass on the task of transporting Ellie to the Fireflies on to his brother Tommy. Though it is clear that Ellie can handle herself at a pinch, it is still hard to know she’s on her own, and so when she bolts on a horse, not only do feel guilty for upsetting her, but you want to find her as soon as you can to make sure she’s safe. Apart from the way she almost flippantly announces herself when called in the house despite supposedly being mad and upset which was a little jarring, the conversation between her and Joel when he catches up with her was the first time I teared up. It is such an emotional, difficult conversation in which Ellie explains that she is now so invested in Joel that without him, she’d be scared and that if he leaves, it will be another trauma for her, but rather than him apologising or anything, he doubles down, sternly telling her that she is not his daughter, he is not her father, and they are splitting up. It is clear though, to me at least, that this is him aware of his genuine emotional connection he had grown with Ellie scaring him given his history with his daughter, and trying to protect himself from it either because he wants to forget and not sully his past with Sarah, or because he thinks it will make him more vulnerable. You want to make tell Ellie it’s fine and you’ll protect her but can’t control this broken man in Joel, so when he, in his own obtuse way, changes his mind and decides to go on with Ellie while being able to see her visible relief, it is such a relief. Though it’s been increasingly obvious, it is here that Joel matches outwardly the solidarity that Ellie showed by jumping down in to danger to be by his side in Pittsburgh. In the time between this Wyoming section and arriving at the University of East Colorado, it is clear that the bond is more open, and the quiet time during which we explore the university before engaging enemies there, with the extra relaxation of trotting along on the horse that their bond is now clear and mutual.

That break between scenes and game sections like that are another narrative strength the game has. Especially between Fall and Winter, there appears to be a lot left to the imagination which in some ways, may seem like a kop out. In this case though, it makes wise choices with these gaps, allowing us to fill in gaps that would be less satisfying than if we saw them. They also allow time to pass in our mind which adds to a palpable sense of bonding between the characters, even if we never have to see how it occurs. We see enough of it in the game’s situational conversations and shared experiences that we can imagine countless other ways they will bond without having to necessarily see them. The game is very economical and only shows us what we need to see, letting us fill in some of the gaps ourselves.

Lakeside_Resort

One of the most memorable scenes of the game where we are asked to hunt a deer while Joel’s status is unclear. Credit: thelastofus.wikia.com

The Last of Us is always playing with you, either by keeping you on your toes or freaking you out with red herrings, but also with larger narrative twists. At the end of the Fall chapter, Joel is blue, seriously injured, seemingly not breathing and falls off a horse. I was convinced that he was dead, and so cutting to playing as Ellie, with Joel nowhere to be seen, it’s only natural to assume he is dead. The Winter chapter doesn’t hold any events really crucial to the narrative arc, but the shocking events therein and the circumstances of them achieve some very important things. The scenery is so beautiful and the quiet stalking of the deer requires such focus that is juxtaposes the shock and trauma of what you’ve just seen so well that it forces you to reflect on what has happened and the implications of it. Fighting with Ellie is fascinating as she is strong, capable, but still more vulnerable. She is wily and deadly, but needs a more desperate attack to knife people and takes damage more easily. Her physical vulnerabilities are obvious, but it is clear that she is strong and able to look after herself. This section is another one that is sold narratively like the end of the game – it being winter, church bells ringing, fires burning around you, and switching between Ellie and Joel to a crescendo all rings of finale. When we leave Joel with the building Ellie is in in sight, we know he is coming and assume he will save us, but what is brilliant is that Ellie saves herself and kills David before Joel arrives. The whole scene is fantastic, but what it does is put in to sharp focus that Ellie doesn’t need Joel to survive. That isn’t to say his role in her life is undermined – he makes her feel safe, he hasn’t abandoned her, and is precious to her, but when it comes to the ending of the game, the fact that she can look after herself takes away a lot of ambiguity in the choice Joel has to make.

Then the ending finally comes, and it’s confusing, devestating, and perfect. We have the remarkable cut from Ellie bludgeoning David and seeing her bloodied face as Joel consoles her, to her standing solemnly looking at the image of the deer which is both calming but also reminiscent of that memorable Winter section. Ellie is preoccupied, not able to focus on Joel and the final push of the journey; to me, I felt she was weighing up her future and what her role in humanity’s future might be, just as Joel clearly was later when he suggested going back to Tommy’s. The environmental conversations throughout the game provide a lot of depth to the characters and universe, showing Ellie’s disappointment in the world she lives but hope for the future, marked against Joel’s gritty acceptance of it as a place in which to survive. But one here is very foreboding in retrospect, and I think reflects Ellie’s mindset. After seeing a picture of an airplane on the side of a bus, she recounts a dream in which she is on a crashing plane; she makes her way to the cockpit, wanting to save them but can’t because she can’t control the plane. I’m no analyst of dreams, but it seems a fair metaphor for her role in humanity. The lives of many depend on her, and she wants to save them – unfortunately, the control is about to be taken away from her, allowing the plane to crash, or humanity to fail. Ellie is this distant like this until one of the game’s most famous scenes. The game plays with it’s own mechanics brilliantly when you go through the animation to give Ellie a boost and she doesn’t appear, so deep in her own thoughts. This is a brilliant way to show you that something very weighty is going on with Ellie and it is followed up by what I am in the minority in thinking is one of the game’s weakest moments – the Jurassic Park style discovery of the giraffe. Don’t get me wrong, I understand, appreciate, and was moved by the meaning of the scene – that the event shows Ellie the beauty of the world and that whatever she wants, the journey must come to it’s conclusion, it must achieve something. The power, for me, comes – again – from Ashley Johnson’s remarkable performance of the scene, not the actual sight of the giraffe which I thought was a bit laughable. I can believe, of course, that giraffes could still exist, but how did a whole herd wind up in the middle of Salt Lake City? For a video game that shows incredible fidelity to it’s universe, it was a very heavy-handed metaphor which stuck in my craw a little. The meaning was clear though, especially given the way Ellie becomes more comfortable again after the sight and a serenity comes over the play – Ellie is ready to do what she has to do to save the world for humanity, and despite not knowing what that entails, she is not conflicted anymore. While it’s clear she wants to share all of that with Joel, it is also clear that doing her part is her first priority.

This is the height of their bond, and after Ellie has come to terms with her fate of going to the Fireflies, Joel is much more giving of himself, open to talking about his past, and as a player, this change made me more invested in their relationship. It is in this final section where two specific things happen which will always stay with me. The first is when Ellie passes on the picture of Sarah to Joel. Joel rejected this early on but now that he has accepted Ellie as a surrogate daughter (for lack of a better term) it is clear he is starting to heal emotionally. He is ready to get this task out of the way and go on to life a better life with his brother, daughter, and in a place with a new hope. Shortly after, Ellie says a line which for me, for some reason, is most devastating in the context of the whole story, she says something along the lines of ‘after all this is over, how about you teach me how to swim’. Ellie not being able to swim is a fantastic conceit for a few reasons, but one is that it allows this to happen. Both of these moments are very foreboding but also implanted within me as the player some understanding for why Joel would do what he does. Not only would Ellie dying after she has helped him heal emotionally totally destroy him, but he knows that she had hopes for the future too and wasn’t necessarily expecting to die. So when it becomes clear that her fate is to die, moments like that come to mind and make it even more painful.

After getting through the most infested area in the game, and barely surviving an accident in the water in which Ellie is rendered helpless, we go through the rollercoaster of finding out we’ve made it to the very much alive Fireflies and that Ellie is safe before quickly discovering what that means for Ellie’s life. If you’ve connected to the characters as I did, you experience something close to what Joel does – you think of this girl you’ve given you’re life over to, you think about the swimming lessons, and you think about not being able to save another child. You don’t have a choice here, it being a linear game, but it is a role-playing game in which the role-playing is understandable, even if you don’t agree with it, and so you go on your final run to stop Ellie from being operated on.

Game advertisements often spray around platitudes about examining choice and morality, about exploring ‘shades of grey’ but often only achieve this by giving players choices. Despite the fact that it seems near self-evident that choice would explore these dilemmas more effectively, that actually isn’t my experience. In the Fallout series, for example, there are very difficult choices to make at times, but I usually find that the replayability allows me to do multiple playthroughs role-playing as what I deem a ‘good guy’ or a ‘bad guy’ and to me, the ability to play through each style kinda waters down the gravity of these choices – everything is fluid and temporary because you don’t have to stick with that choice if you’ve saved and don’t want to. In a well-written linear story like this, where both points of view are understandable and the reaction of the character you are playing with makes total sense. This is a strength of the writing throughout the game – even when someone does something shocking, it makes total sense in the context, and it was crucial that Joel’s attempts to stop the surgery made sense for the ending to make sense. It seems to be the experience of many players that when they reached the operating room, they wanted to somehow back down. It is telling of the incredible writing and characterisation of Ellie that a character who becomes so beloved is one who you essentially want to die because it is now clear to you that this is right, and what she would want.

But you’re Joel. Joel says at the end and other characters echo it at different points, that everyone finds something to fight for. Joel has lost Tess, he’s left Boston, and all he has is Ellie. Ellie has given him a genuine reason to live, filled a 20 year void in his life, and helped him to start healing. For Joel, and for the player, the shock of the revelation that she has to die, the aggression of the Fireflies, the fact that Ellie never said she wanted to lay down her life necessarily, and the knowledge that this relationship which you have cultivated must come to an end justifies cutting through the Fireflies perhaps, but when left with the scenario right in front of you of stopping the surgery, and after having time to consider it all when getting there, it is something hard to go ahead with. Whether with vigour or with hesitation, you are forced to go ahead and do something it is hard to agree with, and it is the feelings involved with that that really confront you with moral ambiguity. You run down the corridor with Ellie in your arms in a clear, circular mirror of the opening scene with Sarah. Joel couldn’t save Sarah that time, but this time, regardless of any context, Joel will ‘save’ Ellie. He has to. It’s a relief, in a way, because you’re so attached to Ellie, but you also realise what that means in a larger context – that without her consent, Joel has selfishly robbed Ellie of her destiny, of what she has found to fight for. We understand, but in case any question remained about Joel’s betrayal, it is cleared up in the game’s final moments.

End

The memorable, almost heart-breaking ending which we see from Ellie’s perspective during gameplay. Credit: screencap from a SchwartzJesuz video on YouTube

 

In a game filled with memorable, emotional moments both big and small, the game succeeds in making it’s very final moment it’s most powerful. It would be easy to bodge a happy ending from this, but the bravery of the developers to go for an ending that was honest to the setting, the characters, and allowed the player the opportunity to be confused, infuriated, and moved forever. The direction of the scene does something simple but perfect. You play as Ellie. Generally in the game, you play as the person who is guiding the action and (to an extent) looking out for the other character. When you play as Ellie in Winter, she is either protecting Joel or herself, and when you are her again at the end, while there is no combat or challenge, it is important because it makes it clear that Ellie is now the stronger of the two and that Joel is reliant on her. You walk through the woods as Joel gleefully talks about how like his daughter Ellie is and how excited he is to spend the future with her and you see it through the eyes of Ellie, knowing what he has done to her to achieve this. I believe personally, also, that it hints further at Ellie knowing full well that what Joel said happened wasn’t the truth, so to see him speaking like this from her perspective makes us react just as she is reacting, with anger and a tinge of almost pity for this almost childlike character Joel has become.

Then Joel lies to Ellie’s face, and it’s a gut punch. A gut punch followed by another as Ellie responds ‘ok’. The ‘ok’ response deliberately gives the player enough ambiguity to come up with their own meaning of it – whether or not Ellie believes him or not and what it means. To me, I am convinced that Ellie knows Joel is lying but that, despite that, after thinking about it, Ellie realises that she loves Joel now as a father figure, the only person she has left, and that, imperfect as it is, she can live with that. Joel mentions that you need to find something to fight for. His actions preserved his reason to live, but robbed Ellie of hers, and that is the greatest betrayal. Her survival guilt isn’t just because she feels guilty that her friends died and she didn’t, it’s because her friends died, she didn’t, and her survival meant nothing. We see her struggle with that, but accept it, and then we’re left to live with it. It’s perfect.

Video games have an advantage over other storytelling mediums in that they make you the driver in the story, the person controlling the characters, even if their future is pre-determined, and so you are inherently immersed in the game more than a movie, TV show or even book can – that is why they have such promise as a medium. The Last of Us is one of only really a few games which show video games starting to live up to that promise. It’s a shame that the pacing at the start was difficult for me to get through, and it is a weak spot of the game for sure, but especially once you get past that, the dialogue, direction, attention to small details, and set pieces are near-perfect and it creates a story that is among the most memorable and powerful in recent memory, without the asterisk of it being a video game or not.It takes a tired, over-used setting of essentially a pandemic apocalypse, uses many of their well-worn tropes, but delivers them in a way that is so powerful that it feels fresh and memorable.

Playing As the Last of Us
I’m no expert in things like A.I. or user interface or combat, so you’ll have to forgive me for a lack of technical knowledge, but as a gamer, I can comment on what I enjoyed and didn’t, and what I think worked.

I spoke early on about how I struggled to connect with the game early on, and perhaps the teeth skin that kept me interested enough to come back that crucial third time was enjoying the basic combat, and most specifically, the way you have to manage your combat throughout to survive. In most games things maybe start of scarce but as it goes on, you become overpowered both in strengths and also the amount of guns and ammo available. Here, there are maybe half a dozen guns and a few extra weapons, and at any one time, you’ll have a few available to you, and even then the ability to use them is limited. From there, very naturally, you approach combat much more tactically, which is my preference in gameplay. You switch from stealth to some form of first person combat very fluidly, and between the excellent, raw, sound design, the brutal, raw animations, and the imperfect but satisfying gunplay, the combat feels desperate and visceral. It is something you want to avoid if you can, but can be fun, satisfying, and rewarding once you end up in the middle of a battle. Tactical thinking expands to the different sorts of enemies. Again, with enemies in this game, less is more – there are human attackers, infected runners, clickers, and bloaters, and each one has different strengths and weaknesses. Humans are smarter and will flank you, but are less visceral, furious fighters; runners are the smartest of the infected, and can see, but don’t have the intelligence of humans and aren’t as dangerous as the other infected; clickers are the most infamous enemies, and are much more dangerous in that if they get you, they kill you instantly and early on, your guns basically wont work on them and you can only really kill them with shivs which require a much more up-close attack, but they are attracted to fire, so a molotov cocktail can take multiple down even without a lot of accuracy and they can be distracted much easier; bloaters are the toughest enemy, eventhough you only come across a few, they take a lot more damage and have the same instant kill threat, but they are slower, so you can strafe and sprint away to set up enough attacks to eventually bring them down. Dynamic enemies mixed with dynamic, satisfying attacks makes the combat very satisfying for the most part, while the whole aspect of managing your resources throughout places it well in the apocalyptic setting.

A quick issue with the clickers. They are certainly memorable enemies, but I do have an issue with their whole explanation. It is explained that they see by using sonar, but this doesn’t match up with my experience of them. If they saw with sonar, they should have been able to see me in any room they shared with me while clicking, and not be able to see me if I was in a different room. In my experience, clickers seemed to be able to chase me between rooms at times eventhough I should have become invisible once in a new room, and at other times they seemed oblivious, eventhough I should have been visible to them regardless of noise being made. What it played more like was that their hearing was made super acute in lieu of their vision. I adjusted to this, but especially early on, it affected my play-style, leading to some frustrating moments and deaths, and it is a rare lack of care from the developers.

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The crafting interface is a simple, flowing interface which really adds to the urgency of the game. Credit: neogaf.com

A quick note about the interface and crafting as they’ve been said by pretty much everyone who has played it, but the simple interface for your inventory and crafting is wonderful and realistic. Not only do you only have a few kinds of weapons to use, but you can only use two guns at a time – because you only have two hands. Few games put that sort of effort in to their realism, and it only adds to the visceral combat sections. If you run out of ammo with the guns you’re holding or you feel you need to change your weapon, you can, but you need to go in to your backpack and take the time, defenseless to make the switch. It’s a decision, and one you have to get right. Similarly, it would be strange in this setting to not scavenge for materials , and not try to craft things to help you. There isn’t much about to scavenge, and when you do, you have to make yet more choices. The most common example is the best – do you make a health pack or a molotov cocktail? It depends on your style and gambling on what you think might be round the corner. Not only that, but crafting and using these materials, like with changing guns, takes time. Especially using health kits. If you want to use a health kit, you can, but you need to do it from a safe place because it seems, again realistically, to take a fair amount of time to do so, during which you’re defenseless. The way the interface barely interferes with the flow of the gameplay and only adds to the combat experience is to be applauded as a huge strength.

Relatedly, another elephant in the game though is the A.I. The developers certainly had some choices to make with the A.I. because combat, and especially stealth, with a partner raises some issues that, in this game, required a compromise which can be jarring. The enemy A.I. will only engage in combat when they see you personally, so at times, Ellie and others can be running around right in front of enemies and they won’t respond or react, only to enter combat when they see you. The alternatives have their own negatives, but it really jars with the desperate atmosphere of the combat and the realism of the game more generally.

On the plus side, the NPC A.I.s have their strengths, too. I’ve already mentioned how the enemies have different strengths and weaknesses within their A.I., but Ellie especially as a companion has a very strong A.I. She warns you and assists you in battle in a way that makes total sense and actually helps you. Though it plays a smaller part of the relationship in this game, and her level of help is different, it reminds me of your relationship with Quiet in MGSV. When you’re without Quiet after she’s been helpful by your side so consistently, your bond with her becomes undeniable, and that is also the case with Ellie. It’s more subtle, but knowing she’s by your side, doing what she can, plays a part in building the bond between the characters.

The final thing I will mention about the gameplay is the puzzles that occur throughout it. Initially, these were a fun aspect of the gameplay, not super challenging, but always rewarding. At times, admittedly, this would feel repetitive and frustrating, especially at the points where I was struggling to get invested in the game, but they provided much needed quiet time in the game. Another problem I had with the game initially was that before I cared about the story, the constant feeling of fear or paranoia about what could happen made the experience exhausting and one part of the game where I could relax the most was when I was placing a plank or a bin or a ladder. Another reason why the swimming-based puzzles were so important were because they not only made Ellie feel somewhat vulnerable but also played in to the sort of life someone would have after this sort of outbreak, where it would be harder to learn to swim, and finally, because after so many instances of it, it made the powerful dialogue where Ellie talks about learning to swim  make contextual sense and give it more power.

Ok
I’ve discussed a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses of The Last of Us that many reviewers and commenters have discussed, but still seem to have had what seems to have been a minority experience with it, playing it and not really enjoying it twice in two months,and then getting hooked, completing the game within days of my third playthrough, and getting so invested in the incredible story that I’ve written a huge article about it.

There’s no need to rehash what I’ve said before, but apart for the section between starting to play 20 years after the pandemic and Tess dying, the story works incredibly well. I’ve never seen voice acting and animation near the quality of that in this game. The gameplay is a lot of fun, but without the incredible narrative, acting, and direction, it would be a fun but pretty bog standard game. This is an example of how linear games can be the most powerful form of storytelling. Movies or TV shows or books don’t (or very rarely) do this, and we don’t expect it from them, so why I see the benefit of choice in games, the risk of creating a linear story can pay off hugely when done correctly. Only a linear story can create a story this powerful and memorable because that is the only arc the developers have focused on. They haven’t had to write multiple endings, trying to share different kinds of power and emotion. That final conversation is the sort of thing that will never leave me, and i’m glad I haven’t seen an alternative ending to bleed in to that.

I can imagine some cool future sequels, but i’m not sure I want them. I know enough of the characters to understand the potential issues they will come across in their future, but I don’t need to see that. I’m also not sure I need to play it again. If I do, it would just be to experiment with different difficulties and play styles, but I feel satisfied for now and for a long time. The game and it’s story is lodged in my mind forever. That’s amazing given I was so close to not even picking the game up again so far through, but I am so glad I did because as a game player, a movie watcher, and a storyteller myself, it is one of few experiences I’ve had in storytelling media that I’ve loved so much that I’ve just fallen in love, not been able to stop thinking about, and wanted to to write about and see emulated more and more.

 

WrestleMania 30: Daniel Bryan and Letting the Good Times Roll

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Bryan celebrating his iconic moment, and a moment that will stay with me forever. Credit: Bleacher Report

I wasn’t expecting to be writing a new post for a while. I was close to writing an article about the incredible documentary ‘Unforgivable Blackness’ related to Cam Newton’s journey to Superbowl 50, but was beat to the punch by a writer at the Washington Post, so with the excitement of the Superbowl and the slow play-through i’m experiencing with The Last of Us, I thought it would be a while until an idea came to me – perhaps waiting until WrestleMania 32 for inspiration. Tonight though, I find myself writing about WrestleMania 30 instead; an event I will always feel privileged to have attended, but now for an extra somber reason, that reason being that the show’s undoubted star and main draw, Daniel Bryan, has announced his retirement.

This article will be a much more personal reflection on my admiration for Daniel Bryan, and the direction of booking and decision-making in the WWE, all crystallized in this event which is one of the most vivid and treasured in my life. I’m like millions of people, young and old, across the world who grew up watching wrestling, and especially WrestleMania, and it seeming like a different world representing the pinnacle of life. I couldn’t even imagine being at a WrestleMania as a kid growing up in Britain – it was something that other people went to, an alien world I could only dream of. Growing up of course, it seemed more and more like an achievable dream and with more years behind me and a job which paid just enough to afford me the opportunity, I started thinking about the dream of attending WrestleMania.

This article will focus a lot on Daniel Bryan, but he is only one half of this story as the real draw for my attending WrestleMania – this WrestleMania – was The Undertaker. Even as an adult fan exposed to the light and dark of the business, The Undertaker still seemed other-worldly to me. He was never my favourite wrestler and I never really liked hearing him speak, but he made my hair stand up on end. All the platitudes about him are true, or at least nearly all. He is a phenom, he is the greatest character of all time, he is WrestleMania. With WrestleMania 30 coming up though, he was clearly slowing up and it seemed to me that he could retire at any time; the window to see the ultimate wrestling spectacle I could imagine – The Undertaker at WrestleMania – was closing. The decision to go cost me the most money I’ve ever spent at once and quite possibly a relationship, but especially now, learning of Daniel Bryan’s untimely retirement, I have absolutely no regrets.

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The reason I was at WrestleMania 30, The Undertaker makes his chilling entrance. Credit: sparxentertainment.com

As I look back at this event, it seems to me that it symbolises in it’s two most memorable stories, two approaches to booking and making wrestling shows that can coexist (as they did in New Orleans), but only when there is a sincerity and organic process behind them – an ideal which was already eroding in WWE long before WrestleMania 30, and which feels yet further abandoned just two years later in the build up to WrestleMania 32. Starting with The Undertaker, he is perhaps the perfect realisation of an aspect of wrestling which will never truly go away, and that is the larger-than-life, gigantic characters. ‘Taker is certainly the last of a specific generation of over the top, cartoonish versions of this, but the distinguishing factor of such gigantic figures is still attainable, and indeed is still attained by characters like John Cena, The Rock, and Bray Wyatt. These are characters that, in some form, seem like an ‘other’ being, characters who exist almost outside of the rest of the ‘universe’, yet still affecting everything in it. Unfortunately for WWE, and all promoters, this isn’t something you can simply book a wrestler with – they have to exude it. With Rock and Cena, it’s a ‘star’ power – they’re like superheroes, acting as deux ex machinas above the action, impenetrable and constant. Despite the lack of material he’s given, Bray Wyatt, to his credit, has retained this quality. Though he frequently loses, his ability to command your attention, and his extra bit of venom both in and out of the ring, makes his arrival on any stage noteworthy and potentially chilling. Then you have the Undertaker, a wrestler who barely seems human, even when his own mortality is plainly obvious. A man who has been wrestling for longer than a huge chunk of the audience has been alive, a spirit with powers beyond that of any other, who held a streak unfathomable even in a sideshow where the results are predetermined, and man who’s entrance you could watch dozens of times and still get goosebumps because decades of destruction have trained us to know that when The Undertaker glides to the ring, something significant, and by virtue of the man, historic, is about to take place.The Undertaker is wrestling in it’s purest form: accepting a universe, ignoring the different realities behind the man and the ‘story’, and watching a force fight for something, good or evil.

I had fantasized my entire life about it, and then standing in the Superdome in New Orleans, a house of voodoo, glory, and suffering, I heard the gong, and I fought back the tears. Outside of his matches, it was possible to view Taker a bit more bluntly. I knew he wouldn’t lose, not that I wanted him to, and seeing The Streak itself was the privilege. Of course, the secret to The Streak was the years of genuine history behind it which made it so precious. Away from the match you didn’t believe he would lose it, but every year the character was put in to situations where we believed he could lose; we’d gasp at near falls, hearts racing having been given a taste of the end of The Streak without actually losing it. But then I watched as it ended. I’ve never felt anything quite like it – the exaggerated reaction shots after the three count weren’t anomalies, they were the norm, it was me. I was shocked, even a little angry but stunned in to silence; and then I realised, later, that the only thing that afforded more privilege than seeing The Streak, was seeing The Streak end. That feeling can’t be manufactured. You can’t take two people at random, say they are suddenly important, and expect it to feel important. It was wrestling at it’s purest and it worked because it had the right players involved, and over 20 years of history behind it.

Before there was a ‘Divas Revolution’, there were things like the ‘Vickie Guerrero Invitational’, a throwaway excuse to get all the divas WrestleMania airtime. It’s was a sorry use of talent, but on this occasion, the sort of conceit that was necessary. I feel sorry for the women involved because the audience was somewhere between dead and angry throughout the match. It provided an opportunity with basically no consequences to consider to reflect on the history witnessed and start to come to terms with it, because following it was the main event, and a magical moment in the career of a magnificent wrestler.

The term ‘wrestler’ feels inseparable from Daniel Bryan. He shares some traits with the big characters mentioned earlier, but above any of that, the main trait he is defined by is his humanity. I don’t think there has ever been a more relatable guy who is so easy to like and root for. He’s not super, he’s not a phenom, he’s like us, but he’s just also the best wrestler. That last bit is crucial to what makes him significant, and what made him significant that night in New Orleans. He wasn’t just a guy the WWE picked to be ‘the best wrestler’, he was the best wrestler, and that formed his whole story there. I’m not sure exactly to what level this was true (WWE did sign him after all), but it was clear that the WWE didn’t see Bryan as a WrestleMania headliner and that, to an extent, they had little interest in pulling the trigger on him because he didn’t fit their historic requirements, the requirements that fit, funnily enough, characters like The Undertaker. As mentioned before, I bought my ticket to ‘Mania to see The Undertaker, but as it approached, I was struggling to be excited about the main event. Batista had been brought back and quite obviously handed the Royal Rumble and a spot in the WrestleMania main event. It was a transparent booking decision and left many fans feeling flat, and many feeling downright angry. The scornful response to Batista’s Rumble win started a trend that has continued ever since, and that I will discuss more later, but it was a direct response to an ever-increasing scrutiny of WWE booking which had been accelerated with CM Punk’s ‘Pipebomb’, was dancing the knife-edge between reality and story, and finally topped over when the most popular guy on the roster was being overlooked by a returning star we were being told to be thankful for.

That reaction at the Rumble was unprecedented though, and again, though I don’t know how resistant WWE were to Bryan being made the face of WrestleMania that year, they were all but forced to alter their plans to avoid a flop with their first WWE Network WrestleMania. In retrospect, as soon as Bryan was handed the stipulation setting a path for him to possibly win the title, it perhaps should have been obvious that WWE would follow through with it. It didn’t feel that way at the time though. To me it seemed like the WWE, both in story and in reality had it in them to give us the Bryan bait and switch to try and placate fans while still getting to the same result. The desire for Bryan to succeed was obvious in the furious ‘Yessing’ throughout the build up to and matches at WrestleMania 30; for the years he had spent in WWE to that point, spinning very ordinary yarn in to gold both as a wrestler and as a personality at the centre of mid-level storylines, he had shown a mainstream audience what made him an ‘indy darling’ and they were ready and hungry for him to achieve that ‘WrestleMania Moment’ to validate it. So we watched the predetermined wrestling take place before us, hoping ‘our guy’ could finally get his moment at the expense of the established norms of Randy and Batista. This too, was wrestling in it’s purest form.

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The Rock is stunned by the hateful reaction Roman Reigns got after his 2015 Royal Rumble win. Credit: justyouraveragefan.sportsblog.com

Though this was more obviously tied to backstage booking, it never felt just like a booking decision, it felt like the culmination of a journey, and even if we felt it was WWE finally getting behind Bryan, it was because they were forced to, and not that they were the ones presenting Bryan. Bryan’s mixture of years of toil, natural and overwhelming likability, and his obvious passion for what we were passionate about made this all possible, and while WWE helped frame a perfectly-told culmination of it, it was part of an organic process where Daniel Bryan was the only person who could close that show covered in confetti. Like with the huge, larger-than-life characters, WWE couldn’t just have picked anyone and made them Daniel Bryan, they needed Daniel Bryan to tell an incredible story. That story filled an almost palpable void left by the end of The Streak, and the Yessing after Bryan’s win was one forged from relief as well as joy. Though Bryan and Undertaker are two very different characters, what makes them work is the same as what means they can coexist in the same universe – if you tell a story naturally, letting the performers exude what makes them work, almost whatever you do with them will work, because we’ll trust it, we’ll go with it, and we’ll let the good times roll.

As clean (though slightly contrived) as that end would be, unfortunately, it leads to a second and more negative point about how WWE continue to make booking decisions in the main. While WrestleMania 30 became an instant classic because of WWE’s acceptance of Bryan’s earned place at the top, it resulted in them becoming even more obsessed with booking to manipulate the audience. It may be that this is just what they’ve always done, including with Bryan, and that they are as smart as their success suggests, but in the two Rumbles following WrestleMania 30, it seems like WWE have failed quite badly in creating similar organic journeys, and at the centre of it all is the beleaguered new face of WWE, Roman Reigns. There is nothing new about what i’m about to say so I won’t dwell on it, but Roman Reigns is nearly everything you could want from a megastar, right down to his blood, but he lacks one thing, the validating journey to the top.

In The Shield he became incredibly popular, partly due to how cool The Shield was, but also on merit as an athletic powerhouse punctuating their beat-downs. It was a good first step on his way to stardom, but then when The Shield broke up, he was simply plugged in, without much delay, as a top star. Perhaps in the past this could have worked, but in this era where booking is scrutinised, Reigns has become stuck somewhere between the two types of star earlier described – a near unstoppable superhero (right down to the Superman Punch), and a trod upon everyman. The problem is that while he has the look, size, and athleticism to be larger-than-life, he lacks the charisma and personality to command respect and attention against other interesting characters, and he certainly lacks the organic journey to validate him as an anti-authority firebrand. Most infamously, at the 2015 Royal Rumble, he was booked like a superhero but couldn’t pull it off, and with that as the case, it came across as an almost cold business decision by WWE, just as it had with Batista the year before and he received just as much ire, even with the support of The Rock. In retrospect, the appearance of The Rock probably made things worse as not only did Roman compare unfavourably to a successful (among the most successful) superhero archetypes, but it also smacked of him getting validation through nepotism – something which goes against the organic hero archetype. It seemed like Roman was on a straight path the WWE Championship, and as the audience reacted with ire similar to that suffered by Batista, it transpired that Seth Rollins left WrestleMania 31 as WWE Champion instead. Whether that was the plan all along, or whether it was a second amended WrestleMania main event in a row, it highlighted the Royal Rumble as a booking decision rather than a special part of the Road to WrestleMania. Eventhough it has always, of course, been a booking decision, it has never felt so palpably so until these latest years.

Even this year at the 2016 Royal Rumble, the spectre of Reigns and how to book him overtook the whole thing. The booing started as soon as Reigns entered, and the fans became truly invested when he was eliminated. Though Triple H has gained a lot of good will with great recent matches and his nurturing of NXT, it is still hard to believe fans accepting a Triple H win and WWE Championship reign in 2016 in any other context than it was him instead of Reigns. Perhaps the only way for WWE to avoid this in future years is to exclude Reigns from the Rumble match and have him in regular matches instead for a couple of years to disassociate him from it’s recent history of frustrating booking.

The problem is wider though. Even if WWE are masterminding these booking controversies to get their stars over, it isn’t a sustainable model, and in what I fear is the more likely scenario, they’re trying to replicate previous successes without the right people or organic journeys. It’s not that Roman can’t be a star or tell stories, but he needs to tell his story, not Steve Austin’s of Daniel Bryan’s or whatever vague roguery he is going for here. I don’t know what that is, but I do know he’s an incredible and marketable athlete and with some significant, organic storylines behind him in which he can develop a layer or two, he could be what WWE so desperately are begging him to be too early – a superstar. In the mean time, they are spoilt for choice with people who could be stars if they let them embrace their creative side and what makes them worse. Let Bray Wyatt talk dark and specifically about what he’s doing and go wild with it, for instance, let Sasha Banks talk about being The Boss, let Kevin Owens loose away from just his (great) in-ring rants, and perhaps most obviously, let Cody Rhodes do whatever he wants, either as Stardust or as Cody. Rhodes is a sad example of WWE smothering talent with their narrow view of booking. These are examples, but it goes for everyone. Give them something to do, let them express it, and watch the talented ones rise to the top as either a phenom or organic hero.

Just to refocus finally on Bryan, that night was one of the most special nights of my life and he will always have a huge part in my heart for that, as well as for the rest of his career. It’s a shame that it was also really a short stint in the position he deserved before starting on his injury-related spiral to today, but it’s an accomplishment – one of many – that can never be taken from him. He is so popular because of how down to earth, passionate, funny, and quietly confident he is, and it is for that reason that his retirement has led to such upset and tributes. The notorious line in wrestling is that you can make friends, or you can make money, but with Bryan, no one has a single cross word to say about him. That’s a sign of the man he is, and though I harbor fantasies about him staying involved in wrestling in some way, I am glad he’ll be able to choose his destiny rather than run himself further in to the ground, whether it be my dream of him being an entertaining, neutral GM like Mick Foley, or him settling down with Brie and watching as a fan. Whatever he does, he deserves our thanks, and has left an indelible mark on an iconic night in wrestling history.

 

 

A False Economy: A British Fan’s View of the Rams’ Move to L.A.

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For St Louis Rams fans, the business of sport has robbed them of their team. Credit to wina.com

The prospect of an NFL team or possibly more than one NFL team moving the L.A. market has been perhaps the most intriguing story hanging over the NFL for the past year and beyond. Any team moving city provides a huge cultural change to the cities involved, but the story has had even more variables involved and potential impact because it has involved four cities: L.A., St. Louis, San Diego, and Oakland. As it stands, St. Louis will be losing the Rams team back to L.A. as soon as the 2016-17 season. As impactful as it is though, it is a part of North American sports culture; but as the reach of the NFL grows world-wide, I have considered how it appears to the burgeoning market of British fans of the sport.

I have many friends who have bought in to the NFL as a concept and sport, and many others who dismiss it out of hand, and anecdotally, I think the split can be boiled down to few fundamental aspect of NFL culture meshing with British sports culture. For those who can accept and even see the benefits of the regular commercial breaks, the short season, and the ability for teams to move markets, they can access and enjoy magic of the sport; but there are many for whom those aspects of the sport are alien, and further, something to be scoffed at and allowing them to dismiss the sport at face value. In North America though, it appears that the moving of a sports franchise is a familiar though potentially unfortunate part of the accepted business of American football. This is something that will likely never change give the huge financial investments and incentives surrounding hosting and moving American football teams, and unfortunately, though I understand and accept the trend as part of NFL culture, it is an aspect of the game that will likely limit the growth of the game internationally.

Part of the reason this aspect of North American sports culture is so alien to potential British fans, I believe, is the sheer amount of soccer teams in the UK, and more specifically, the fact that practically every city, town, and village has at least one football team, be it a multi-million pound conglomerate, or a fan owned, volunteer ran village team. A local soccer team is practically a birth-right, and each team has the right to compete for any honour in the country. Even if it’s just in theory, and teams in the depths of the non-league levels won’t win major competitions, the fact remains that they have a shot at silverware, however unlikely. That is the magic of soccer and emblematic of its universality.

Perhaps that is why such a move has only happened once in soccer in Britain, and that was with the historic and successful team of Wimbledon FC. Founded in 1899, they were whisked from their fanbase in Wimbledon, London relatively suddenly in 2004, to be moved to the new modernist city of Milton Keynes which was devised in the late 1960s. I was young when this happened, but it is a very vivid memory to me because of how roundly unpopular it was, even to fans with no interest in the team originally. Wimbledon FC had had a strong recent history in the top flight of the English football league, even winning the FA Cup in 1988, and their dark blue and yellow jerseys were truly unique and somewhat iconic in the British game, so the idea of a team with that much history being transplanted to an American-style modern city seemed at odds with the spirit of the game and of the idea that the fans had a right to the team. In retrospect, it means that the people who now dwell in Milton Keynes have a team to be born in to and people from Wimbledon have the burgeoning AFC Wimbledon – a team which was founded to protect their former team’s legacy, almost like a protest team – to support. Nonetheless, eventhough Wimbledon’s move to Milton Keynes was now over ten years ago, the new ‘MK Dons’ are still viewed with a degree of villainy in the country.

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For St Louis Rams fans, the business of sport has robbed them of their team. Credit to wina.com

As with most things, though I understand the British sporting culture and have argued sincerely about the magic of every city, town, and village practically having a permanent team, there is a plus-side, of sorts, of the Los Angeles move specifically. While I strongly sympathise with the city of St. Louis, it is certainly great to see the return of the Rams to L.A., be it from the point of view of a fan who remembers them, or in my case, the point of view of someone aware of their history. My only experience to date of anything like this was the creation of the Houston Texans in 1999, and even then it was the creation of an expansion team rather than the moving of a franchise. The Texans were born when I was only 10 years old and when I was only just discovering the sport. As a British fan I found it strange but also somewhat thrilling to see the creation of a new team. I must admit that some of my uneasiness related to a team’s roots and history being shifted again are overcome by the thrill of seeing a team that is both old and new enter the league, especially when it’s a team with a successful, near-50 year history. Despite the misgivings around it, on its own, having the L.A. Rams back in the league is great.

While the Rams do feel like they should be in Los Angeles due to their history, it is certainly a little irking that the move is so clearly money and business-driven rather than being driven by demand. There is a reason that several teams have left the city before and it’s because the fan-base has historically been fickle, supporting them well enough in the good times but falling away during periods of struggle. The city is historically a basketball and to a slightly lesser extent, an ice hockey and baseball city with the Lakers, Clippers, Kings, and Dodgers. Those teams have a strong fan-base and it’s hard to tell whether the current L.A. Rams will pick up a fan-base.  Meanwhile, Rams owner Stan Kroenke has gone from championship corralling hero to turncoat villain, all to move to the glitz and potential financial jackpot of the L.A. television and media market. There is a larger point to be made elsewhere about the culture of venture capitalist owners demanding hundreds of millions of dollars from local government to take on the responsibility of their stadiums, but the fact that Kroenke left St Louis after seemingly ignoring a generous package from the city to stay because he didn’t feel the team was profitable enough there despite a resilient cohort of fans is what really leaves a shadow over this deal for many from both inside and especially outside of North America.

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For St Louis Rams fans, the business of sport has robbed them of their team. Credit to wina.com

As part of the announcement that the Rams would move to Los Angeles, there was the extra revelation that the San Diego Chargers could join the Rams in L.A. by the start of the 2017-18 season, and this is the part of the NFL’s agreement which is really troubling. Apart from having a friend from San Diego who supports the Chargers, I don’t know much about the team, but whatever the following or economic potential of the team currently in San Diego, I don’t see how them moving to L.A. as a little brother team to the Rams can help their prospects. While the Chargers played their inaugural season in Los Angeles, they have very little history there having been in San Diego ever since. When compared to the Rams, there is no competition with regards to their place in L.A. culture, and especially as the Rams will have a year’s head start, it’s hard to imagine many L.A. fans from a historically limited pool of fans, being moved to support the Chargers. Even if it’s true that they have a historic fan base in LA, it’s hard to imagine it’s enough to sustain a team. Even worse, with them due to share the stadium with the Rams if they move, the Rams and Chargers won’t have any natural geographical boundaries to delineate fan-bases either, so not only will each team – at least initially – be somewhat inter-changeable, but the two teams will be in direct competition. That will make, hopefully, for a natural rivalry on the field when the teams play each other, but also puts the potential for especially the Chargers to have a fan base on very uncertain ground. While the Rams move might upset a lot of people, the Chargers move could be very bad for the team and make for a very dormant spectacle from the team and for the league.

So, from a British point of view, the idea of moving a team to another city is pretty problematic, but one that will ultimately be accepted by those who already enjoy the sport. The case of the Rams is complicated as they have a longer history overall in Los Angeles anyway – a fact which makes an unsavoury move a little more palatable. Saying that, as the popularity of the sport has exploded in the UK over the last 15 years or so, most British-based Ram fans only know the team as the ‘Greatest Show On Turf’ from St. Louis, and it will be interesting to see how the demographics of LA/St Louis fans shift around. Will St Louis fans support the LA Rams or will they look to a new team? Will fans who remember the original Rams or maybe brand new fans take up the Rams? It remains to be seen. Unfortunately, there is one thing I am sure of: no matter how accepted this sort of phenomena is among UK fans, it is the sort of shenanigans that will create a natural ceiling to the popularity of the sport in Britain – a baffling aspect of the sport which will dissuade people who might otherwise be interested from getting in to the sport, seeing it less as a tactical, athletic battle, and more of a crass, fickle, capitalist showcase.