These days, two of the only forces keeping live TV viewing alive are “Game of Thrones” and sports. On a week to week basis, there are few topics that are guaranteed to generate a conversation quicker and provide an easier shorthand for making friends or small talk than how the Yankees are hitting or what’s up with the Lannisters.
While incredibly lucrative contracts are being built on the backs of live sporting events, be it the Olympics or regional deals for sports like baseball and basketball, there’s a reason that these kinds of spectacles get eyeballs. Over the past few years, for people who aren’t big sports fans, “Game of Thrones” has become the analog to generate the same kinds of conversations among those don’t necessarily care about whether Paul George and Russell Westbrook are going to have any on-court chemistry next year.
The relationship between sports and televised drama has always been a two-way street, but few shows have made the bridge between these entities quite as strong as the show that literally put a competition in its title. Winning is as central to the series as the dragons that occasionally swoop overhead, and that’s why millions are still making it a weekly ratings juggernaut.
Through the on-screen visual storytelling and via the apparatuses that promote and keep the show in the cultural conversation, this is a series that naturally pits people against each other. Take perhaps the most iconic quote from the whole series, Cersei’s pronouncement that “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”
The show has transcended the palace intrigue DNA of other shows by making its battle for supremacy literal. This isn’t “House of Cards,” where wars are fought with words and backroom deals. Here, the only path to the crown is through combat, be it fought with swords and shields or giants and wildfire. This season especially, the focus has been on numbers and strength and the resources that any given side of this battle has at its disposal.
Cersei’s floor conquest map is her giant scoreboard, the Iron Throne her championship trophy. She seems to have forgotten that there’s always next year.
“Game of Thrones” is one of the rare shows that offers plenty of different ways to absorb its story. There’s a divide between casual viewers and obsessives that also mirrors the stat revolution that’s fundamentally shifted the way that sports fans see their respective games. a few players, teams and the game itself. Much like the analytics philosophy has infiltrated sports management front offices across every major sport, the theory-based parsing out of details, building coverage and discussion on hypotheticals and staying one step ahead of the people telling the story is changing how and what we prioritize when enjoying this show.
Maybe it’s a coincidence that Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball” became a phenomenon within a year of “Lost” premiering. But these two pieces in their respective worlds were fundamental in shifting the way the casual observer considers the elements of a show that provide the most value. Watercooler parsing of tiny TV details has existed at least as long as “Twin Peaks,” but “Game of Thrones” is the culmination of a post-“Lost,” internet-fueled decade-plus of online conversation, where “solving” a show’s trail of bread crumbs is just as central to understanding the show as divining character motivations.
Obviously, the World Series isn’t going to leak a few days before the players play the game. But the fact that the show breaks ratings records even when episodes leak ahead of airing shows that people want to experience this show in a communal way. There’s value in being able to celebrate the in-show victories along with everyone else. If you’ve been a devoted Targaryen fan since before Dany was struggling in AAA Essos, the true joy of seeing that character thrive isn’t going to come until it’s a matter of public knowledge.
In another way, the divide between book readers and people who have just watch the show is similar to the way that people who watch pro sports and ignore collegiate and minor-league developments. In the world of the books, there are a bevy of characters who are ripe for making their mark on the more familiar narrative that the TV watchers know. Gendry’s re-emergence on the show is just like calling up someone to the major league roster after spending some time toiling away in Flea Bottom, honing his skills.
Becoming immersed in the extensive elaborate mythology of the series, like draft day experts and talent scouts, surely give any viewer of each a better sense of what these characters can bring once they’re added to the fold. For every person worthy of their own pre-season poster, there are hundreds that remain off screen, ready to leap in and make their own contributions. As with Gendry, it’s almost more satisfying to see someone come in from under the radar and make a meaningful impact on how things unfold.
What are sports without villains? Just consider the tease for Season 7’s sixth episode. It looks like a Sunday Night football promo, filled with highlights, touting the meeting of two opposing forces who’ve been destined to collide all season. Building up to a season climax has essentially made the showdown with the White Walkers the “Game of Thrones” playoffs.
It’s a rivalry fostered and promised for weeks. Both sides have prepped for the occasion, acquiring new talent and sacrificing old teammates. Now the stage is set for each individual to prove their worth and see how everyone comes together as a team. (Beric, with his flaming sword and unkillableness, just has a great feel for the game, Jim.)
The concept of a squeaky clean classic athlete pitch man is dwindling with each successive generation. Increased access and growing public scrutiny has seen leagues double down on promoting the on-field game instead of purely making stars. In shaping these characters, “Game of Thrones” has shown that none of their major players are above reproach, either. Each have done unspeakable or unjustifiable things under the guise of self-preservation.
Though neither sports exist without people to play them (yet), the NFL in particular has sought to bolster the brand of the product itself rather than the people who play it. This way, athletes are interchangeable. No one individual can become bigger than the league itself when people are buying into the process as an overall experience.
Ultimately, that’s what “Game of Thrones” has done. It’s built an entire reputation on reminding audiences that no character is safe and that the show is better for not having most of them still around. For every viewer whose interest may wane in the wake of a major character death, there are 10 more fans who see that departure as a reinforcement of what makes this battle worth devouring more than an hour a week to. That’s the nature of team fandom. Players come and go, you root for laundry. This show’s just happen to come from IKEA.