Sports video games made me understand fanfiction

I finally saw Challengers this week. It immediately entered my personal echelon of the great modern sports movies (as well as a gripping, thorny romantic drama). The movie does a terrific job of using the existing powerful narrative structures and character archetypes in sports to create a compelling story — the washed-up prospect, the fading star, the phenom who never got her seemingly fated shot at glory.

And as is my way, I purchased the relatively new tennis game TopSpin 2K25 immediately after, returning to my roots as a (very bad) tennis player in my youth. In a surprising turn of events, the way I played TopSpin right after seeing Challengers sort of felt like writing fanfiction — and I realized that, without recognizing it, I’d been engaging with fanfiction in my own way for years.

In the character creator, I decided to make my tennis player one of the three central characters in the movie. Forget the boys — Challengers most compelling star is Zendaya’s Tashi Duncan, a former teenage phenom whose knee blew up during a college match, ending her promising professional career before it started. But what if I could rewrite that narrative? What if her knee injury wasn’t quite so catastrophic, and she had another chance?

Zendaya walks away from the camera on a tennis court in Challengers Image: MGM/Everett Collection

In my version of Tashi Duncan’s career, her knee injury still happens, but a full recovery is possible. My save file starts, in my head, at the beginning of that process, as she enters the tour lowly ranked, regaining her confidence and control over her body as I learn how to play this game. I gave her some kinesiology tape on her right knee and otherwise tried my best to style Tashi like she appears in the movie (I have limited apparel options this early in my career).

Image: MGM and Image: Hangar 13/2K Sports via Polygon

I’m in the early days of my career and having a great time. After a disappointing blowout loss in my first match (as Tashi got used to using her knee again and I got used to TopSpin’s controls and play patterns), I bounced back with an upset victory in the first round of my next tournament. Next up: an opportunity for revenge against the player who beat me in that first match.

I’ve never considered myself someone into fanfiction — I never begrudged anyone who was, I just never understood the appeal. But it all finally clicked while playing as my Tashi Duncan in TopSpin: Sports video games are often just their own form of fanfiction.

Once I came to that realization, my whole history with sports games clicked together. I’ve played so many of them this way. In Football Manager, I always set out with a specific goal, because the game has no natural win condition — maybe it’s to make Norway the premier soccer nation in the world, or to get tiny Boston United promoted to the Premier League. In NCAA Football 14, I created an alternate universe where North Texas was a national powerhouse. In the Out of the Park Baseball and Baseball Mogul franchises, which allow you to start a save file at any point in baseball history, my go-to save files are (1) eliminating baseball’s color barrier from the beginning and playing out careers with Negro League legends like Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell and (2) picking up in 1989 with my beloved Dodgers and seeing if I can avoid their awful slump in the ’90s, when I was a kid attending those games.

Tashi Duncan hits a forehand in TopSpin 2K25 Image: Hangar 13/2K Games via Polygon

One of NBA 2K’s most exciting new features in the past decade has been the addition of its Eras mode, which allows you to replay the NBA’s most significant historical periods. Want to see what would have happened if Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were teammates, not rivals? You can make that happen. Want to see Michael Jordan play his whole career with the Wizards and not just the bitter end? Go for it!

Even how I played these games as a kid fits into this new understanding of these games for me. Instead of my approach now, where I try to come up with a unique narrative or storyline to pursue, I would simply create self-inserts of myself in these games. Maybe I’m a star quarterback in Madden, or a 7-foot-tall center in NBA Live, or a baseball player that could actually hit a baseball — you know, fantasies. (Apologies to my former teammates on the Blair Blazers JV baseball team.) I was adding myself to my favorite stories… It just so happens that those stories aren’t purely fiction.

In turn, this changes my relationship with real sports — I have extra affinity for athletes who were crucial in my save files, and it’s especially fun to watch the real-life development of young players who I saw grow in the fast-paced world of sports video games, where you can speed into the future.

Sports games don’t have the prescribed narratives many other games do. Instead, you create them as you play. Like fanfiction, these games allow you to daydream about how things could be different from real life, or from a fictional story you are drawn to. I can’t actually participate in the professional sports leagues I follow in real life, but at home, I can create and enjoy new narratives adjacent to these worlds, and ones that I am a part of. And I would be lying if I said I haven’t hosted fake press conferences about my team where I am both interviewer and interviewee.

Anyways, back to my save file. Will Tashi Duncan (fingers crossed) eventually take home her own career Grand Slam, instead of having to live vicariously through the career of her clearly-no-longer-into-this husband? Can she reclaim her spot on top of the tennis world? I’m going to find out, and I can’t wait.