My favorite fantasy worlds tend to be jam-packed with fascinating nuggets of worldbuilding, details that help to flesh out the setting and give us a better sense of the places and societies in which the story unfolds. Sports and games, in particular, can contribute to our understanding of the culture of a fantasy or sci-fi world, even if they aren’t central to the narrative. These pastimes—whether played for fun or for much higher stakes—bring the structure of competition into magical and futuristic worlds, and hell, I just wanna give them a go!
The Teeth Show — Gentleman Bastards Sequence by Scott Lynch
I’m starting things off with quite possibly the deadliest sport on the list. Sure, I would try it—but only if my safety was guaranteed, which admittedly sort of ruins the point. Never mind that I’m not proficient with any weapons whatsoever (I once had a rather unfortunate accident involving nunchucks; I’ll let you fill in the blanks).
The Berangias sisters of Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora are contrarequiallas—female-only warriors who battle wolf sharks in deadly gladiatorial combat. The twin sisters are the stars of this brutal sport, taking down their vicious shark opponents with remarkable grace and balance. Viewers flock to the spectacle in their lavish yachts, cheering on the competitors with a drunken gusto that would not be out of place at an NFL game. My admitted deficiency when it comes to weapons (and balance, and water while I’m at it) aside, I think it’d be a hell of an adrenaline rush to give it a try, despite the odds of my survival and commensurate glory being intensely low.
Racing — The Salvagers Trilogy by Alex White
Let’s throw another lethal game into the mix with the magic- and technology-fused racing from Alex White’s Salvagers series.
We first meet Nilah Brio in A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe. She’s among the Pan Galactic Racing Federation’s best racers, using her talents for magic and driving to nab victories—and the glory that accompanies them—on the track.
Meanwhile, I’m the guy who feels like he’s cruising the Autobahn when I ride my bike along Chicago’s lake shore path. There are moments in those rides when I crave speed, briefly imagining myself behind the wheel of one of Alex White’s high-tech racers, cruising along the track and zipping past my slower competitors. Then I come back to reality and realize the only ‘challengers’ I’ve managed to pass are an oblivious family of bikers happily enjoying their relaxing ride.
Racing in The Salvagers can prove rather dangerous, so I’d happily forgo the competition for a chance at simply test driving one of the vehicles, riding around the track at maybe half the speed of an actual racing event.
Waterball — Wayfarers Series by Becky Chambers
Of the sports on this list, Waterball is mentioned the fewest times in its source material. Becky Chambers works the game into conversations between characters from time to time, occasionally referencing team loyalties or rivalries.
Waterball happens in a zero-g arena with two teams of six players. Three people per team play at any given time. It’s similar to basketball in that the teams compete to put a ball (made of actual water) into a bucket.
Put me in, coach! Navigating a zero-g environment sounds incredibly fun, if slightly nauseating. The rules are still murky, but the game doesn’t need too many complex rules to be playable. And who knows? Maybe Waterball, or some version of it, is in our distant future once we take to the stars. I’d be happy to be among the first to give it a go.
Pro-Bending — The Legend of Korra
First off, I have to settle the most pressing question: which type of bender would I be?
Earth seems a solid option… I’m a tad stubborn and rigid. But I think fire fits me better—I’d be the Mako of our squad.
When The Legend of Korra originally premiered, I watched the first couple of episodes five times in a day. I was fascinated by this professional sport and how it had been worked into the already-complex world of Avatar: The Last Airbender. In many ways it’s the ultimate fantasy sport. Pro-bending fuses the series’ unique magic system with the culture of the evolving setting. It has simple rules that make the sport easy to understand. Most importantly of all, it looks like so much fun. Never mind the walloping bruises players can suffer from falling into that water—I’m in. I’d be so excited to give pro-bending a go.
Welters — The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman
In the world of Lev Grossman’s trilogy as well as the show based on the books, welters is more akin to chess than it is a full athletic sport, and originated as an alternative to magical dueling. Still, it requires a firm grasp of the series’ magic system and on-the-spot problem-solving, much like any real-life sport would.
The Welters board continues the chess comparisons, containing many squares that help define the strategy of the game. The squares are made of different materials: water, stone, grass, sand, and metal. Players choose a square by throwing a globe onto the board, which indicates the square they’re meant to capture.
Once a square is chosen, players have to capture it according to certain rules, guard it against opponents, or take it from an opposing player (if it’s already captured).
Welters blends magic and strategy to great effect, opening the game up for dizzying displays of creativity and imagination. It’d be a blast to take to the board and see what I could conjure to capture a few squares (knowing there’s a good chance that I’d probably throw the globe into a water square, resulting in an immediate forfeit. Oh well!)
Cole Rush writes words. A lot of them. For the most part, you can find those words at The Quill To Live or on Twitter @ColeRush1. He voraciously reads epic fantasy and science-fiction, seeking out stories of gargantuan proportions and devouring them with a bookwormish fervor. His favorite books are: The Divine Cities Series by Robert Jackson Bennett, The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, and The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.