Column: A whole new Game

On April 6, HBO premiered season four of the hit series Game of Thrones. Sports Editor Mike Smith sees a lot of similarities between fans of the program and sports nuts. Photo courtesy HBO.com

On April 6, HBO premiered season four of the hit series Game of Thrones. Sports Editor Mike Smith sees a lot of similarities between fans of the program and sports nuts. Photo courtesy HBO.com

Before you read any further, I want to give you fair warning. This is not a column about sports. But given the way that people talk about this week’s subject, it’s not far off.

On April 6, just one week after Major League Baseball celebrated its 2014 Opening Day, fans of a different game anxiously awaited their own premiere.

While MLB officials have seen their Opening Day ratings continually speak to an increasing regionalization of fandom, the astonishing international numbers for HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is proof people all around the globe are tuning in to see their favorite clans duke it out to see who will grab a prize more coveted than the Commissioner’s Trophy, The Iron Throne.

Since its debut in 2011, “Game of Thrones,” adapted from the fantasy novel series written by George R.R. Martin, has become one of the most watched and debated cable shows in the world. But the success of the show—and the best-selling novels—far outstrips the fantasy niche.

The show has become part of the cultural conversation, a phenomenon that has attracted viewers who might not necessarily be fans of the whole medieval swords-and-sandals type drama. And maybe it’s the sportswriter in me talking here, but I can’t help but think that a big reason for the show’s success is that people tuning into the show are watching each week, not only to get their fix of violence, political intrigue and witty dialogue; a lot of them are watching the show like sports fans.

While the plot or the series might be too complex to boil down in one column, here’s the basic gist.

In a country divided by civil strife, warring families struggle to ascend to the throne. But what sets this epic apart from other fantasy series is the unclear delineations between the heroes and the bad guys. If you rooted for the baddies in similar franchises—say, the Empire in Star Wars or the forces of Mordor in the Lord of the Rings—that pretty much made you a cretin. But within the gray-shaded morality of Game of Thrones, if you’re rooting for the rich and ruthless Lannisters—who are often positioned as the villains on the show—it doesn’t make you a bad person. It probably just means you’re a Yankees fan.

Any discussion of Game of Thrones—online or otherwise—has a tendency to devolve into the same sort of flame war that you would often get in the world of sports discourse. During the MLB playoffs last year, Cardinals fans, who appointed themselves arbiters of baseball propriety, decried the lack of “professionalism” exhibited by the Dodgers and their talented—and widely despised—outfielder Yasiel Puig, not unlike the devoted fans of House Stark deriding the actions Jaime Lannister, a morally ambiguous character on “Game of Thrones” who scoffs at the old traditions the Starks hold dear.

And just like MLB’s Opening Day, each season premiere of “Game of Thrones fills series fans—at least those who haven’t read the books—with hope this might be the year for their favorites.

Maybe this is the year Daenerys Targaryen takes her dragons back to Westeros to reclaim her usurped throne.

Maybe this is the year the Night’s Watch beats back the advancing horde of wildlings.

Maybe this is the year all the bad stuff stops happening to the Starks.

I read the books, and I wouldn’t count on it, sorry.

With “Game of Thrones” and the baseball season now in full swing, I’ve got a pretty full docket over the next few months. As a fan of both, I’m expecting my fair share of twists, turns, upsets, upstarts and intriguing plotlines to emerge as the narratives drive forward.

“Games of Thrones” should be good too.

If there’s one difference between the two, it would be I’m expecting far fewer public executions during the baseball season this year.

Sometimes, I miss George Steinbrenner.

 

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About Mike Smith

Mike Smith has been with Hometown Media Group since 2007, serving as the company’s Sports Editor. Mike has been commended for his work by the New York Press Association, winning awards in 2008 for “Best Sports Feature” and again in 2009 as part of a team that put together “The Game,” a breakdown of the Harrison-Rye football rivalry, which won for “Best Special Section.” His weekly column, “Live Mike,” offers his unique insights into a broad range of topics in the sports world. He resides in Eastchester, N.Y. and spends most of his free time serving as the player-manager for a competitive men’s baseball team in New York City. Reach Mike at 914-653-1000 x22 or sports@hometwn.com; follow him on Twitter @LiveMike_Sports.