Playing the Field

A Brief History of Ludicrous Sci-Fi Sports (and Their Chances of Becoming Reality)

From "The Prisoner" to "The Running Man," sci-fi writers can't help but try to invent weird new games

8 min read

Two people in space suits float in a glass spaceship, surrounded by weird floating metal diamond things.
The Battle Room from Ender’s Game. Image credit: Summit Entertainment
Playing The Field logo depicting a sports field

Science fiction is a wonky guide to the future. To be fair, it’s not generally intended to be totally accurate and predictive–but who wants to be fair?

We’ve looked at seven different predictions of future sports for serious clues as to how close, exactly, they are to coming true. Who knows? There might even be lessons we can take when it comes to the sports we’re still playing today.


American football in Rule 18, 1938

The plot: In Clifford Simak’s novelette Rule 18, the desperate coach of Earth’s football team travels back in time to recruit players from throughout the ages. His aim: to beat Mars in the Solar System’s interplanetary football match.

The game: Well, it’s standard gridiron football, but it’s specified that Mars’s players must be tenth-generation Martian, and Earth’s players must be tenth-generation Earthlings. Nobody bothered to ban time travel.

A group of people wearing athletic costumes and shouting through bullhorns.
An illustration of a game in “Rule 18,” from the July 1938 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. Image credit: Charles Schneeman

The reality: Time travel is still looking unlikely, but there’s a much easier way to summon up past masters of sport–cloning. And that’s looking pretty plausible.

In fact, champion racehorses in endurance racing have already been cloned (clones are banned from many other forms of horseracing). They’ve been cloned not in order to race, but in order to breed. This began way back in 2005, when champion racehorse Pieraz was cloned–the catchily-named Pieraz-cryozootech-stallion.

Piera2, as we can imagine his friends call him, has the same official pedigree as Pieraz–but unlike Pieraz he also still has his testicles, allowing him to pass on those swift-footed genes. Elsewhere, dressage star Jazz has two clones, because he was just so good at siring star horses that he couldn’t fulfill demand on his own. Now all three Jazzes live together on a farm, siring away.

It’s less likely that we’ll want to clone humans for procreation purposes any time soon–it’s not like we currently encourage Olympic athletes to get involved in as many pregnancies as possible just to ensure a good gold medal crop come 2040.

But cloning a human athlete and training the clone to excel from a young age? Sure, sooner or later. Again, it’s happened with horses already. Polo is much less strict about the provenance of its horses than most equine sports, and dozens of champion polo horses have been recreated over the last few years. Some of them are already competing. Human cloning is banned in a lot of countries, but not all of them, and big sports are worth so much money. Maybe there’s already a tiny secret toddling footballer or tennis star-in-waiting somewhere, sleeping while a mobile of balls rotates gently above its head.


Kosho in The Prisoner, 1967

The plot: Patrick McGoohan is trapped in a mysterious village, probably because he used to be a spy in a different television show (he is DEFINITELY NO LONGER THE SAME CHARACTER as he was in that show, though, because of intellectual property issues). One of the things you can do in this village–when you’re not being chased by giant white spheres or having your memories reprogrammed–is to play Kosho.

The sport: Kosho is played on a purpose-built indoor court with sloped walls, two trampolines, and a ditch filled with water. Two players try to push each other into the water. The first person to achieve this wins.

The reality: New sports that need a purpose-built arena are always operating at a disadvantage. Almost all the sports that came to public attention after around 1890 were sports that worked well in existing spaces, so people could try them out and start having fun without having to invest in a special room: basketball, volleyball, Ultimate, national-level Kabbadi, parkour.

And even if someone was going to build a court just for your new sport, they probably wouldn’t put a trampoline in it. Not many architectural decisions combine “expensive” with “useless for any other purpose” like “small room with strategically placed bouncy bits embedded in the floor.” So sports like Slamball–basketball but with trampolines–or Bossaball–volleyball but with trampolines–have yet to spread far.


Futuresport in Futuresport, 1998

The plot: It’s 2025, and in a grim future world, only one sport matters: Futuresport. Due to plot, Dean Cain must lead his Futuresport team to victory against a rival team fielded by a terrorist organization called the Hawaiian Liberation Army. Only his victory will prevent a war.

The sport: Futuresport is a pretty standard sport: Two teams, and you’re trying to get a ball into a goal. But also it’s played on hoverboards, and also you can hit each other with sticks, and also the ball is specially programmed so if you hold it for more than five seconds it gives you an electric shock.

The reality: You know what, this isn’t looking too far-fetched. We don’t have any sports where the balls are set up to shock people, but we’re definitely beginning to get programmable balls that can respond to their environment and change the state of the game. There are data-tracking experiments like the Wilson X basketball, which tells you how your training is going (though it doesn’t yet punish you if you do badly). And there’s even customizable sports equipment like Hackaball (unreleased as yet), which will let you program a ball to change color, vibrate, or make noises depending on what else is going on in the game. That could be how often it’s been caught, how long the game’s been going, even whether it’s been thrown lately.

It seems reasonable to imagine that balls will continue to get better at responding to their environment, and that eventually a sport or two might depend on that capability”¦


Rollberball in Rollerball, 1975

The plot: It’s 2018, and in a grim future world, only one sport matters: Rollerball. War has been replaced by exciting games of Rollerball, in which corporation-owned teams distract the masses from their empty lives and reinforce the futility of individual achievement.

The sport: In a dramatic banked arena, violent rollerskate-clad teams vie to throw a steel ball into magnetic goals. Also the ball enters play by being shot from a cannon; also several of the players are on motorbikes.

The reality: 2018! Only two years away. And yet sports have still to thoroughly integrate the some-would-say-incompatible skills of rollerskating and motorcycling. Also: sports have not entirely replaced warfare. Still, Roller Derby–which was watched by millions in the 1940s but had pretty much died out by the time Rollerball came out in 1975–is back. So that’s something.

And current Roller Derby–unlike Rollerball, which on top of being fictional is pretty male-dominated–is mostly played by women, which is itself an interesting predictor for the future. A 2015 SportEngland report suggested that the number of people taking part in sports was increasing–almost 16 million participants in the year 2014/15, as opposed to 14 million-ish in 2005/06. And that increase came disproportionately among women–who in the United Kingdom are still less likely to play sport than men, but less so every time someone counts.


The Running Man in The Running Man, 1987

The plot: It’s 2017, and in a grim future world, quite a lot of sports matter but they’re all about criminals fighting for their life on television. Democracy has collapsed, after all, and the masses need something to distract them from their empty lives.

The sport: In an enormous arena, runners desperately try to evade people who will kill them.

The reality: A lot of science fiction presents a future in which a game or sport is played”¦ TO THE DEATH. The Hunger Games, Battle Royale, Series 7: The Contenders, Painball in Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. The basic structure always revolves around a mandatory sport (often for criminals, sometimes for randomly selected members of the population). This mandatory sport is always played to the death, and is televised to help keep the general population under control.

In The Running Man, televised games to the death are predicted for 2017: next year. So how’s it looking? Are spectator sports actually getting deadly?

Well, injuries in rugby are getting more severe, and concussions have increased over the last few years–sometimes attributed to the increase in size of rugby players. Deaths in cycling have increased, too, partly because of the technology: Faster bikes mean worse crashes. But it’s never intentional. When someone dies playing a sport, that’s generally a bad thing, not the sport operating as planned.

So the to the death part of mandatory sports to the death isn’t looking likely. But the mandatory sports bit? Much more plausible. There are already insurance companies who will charge less if you go to the gym (and which will give you a Fitbit to help you keep track, or to help them check up on you). And there are plenty of jobs with mandatory exercise. Chinese radio broadcasts regular calisthenics instructions, and for employees in many companies, daily participation is mandatory. U.S. Amazon warehouse employees stretch collectively–and compulsorily–twice a day.


Zero gravity squash in “The Leisure Hive” episode of Doctor Who, 1980

The plot: The Fourth Doctor visits a planet whose surface is uninhabitable–but it’s OK, the people still have fun! A Tachyon Recreation Generator in a struggling leisure center provides them with all the games they could possibly want to play.

The sport: At one point, doctor and assistant drift past an ongoing game of zero-gravity squash, which is pretty much what it sounds like: squash played without gravity in an octagonal room.

The reality: Pffft. If we get zero gravity, we’re not going to waste time playing squash in a slightly weird-shaped room. We’re going to entirely reinvent every single thing about sports.

Already, despite humanity’s limited access to zero gravity (and the tiny cramped conditions at the International Space Station), we’ve seen an astronaut hit a golf ball that will travel for a million miles. We’ve seen people filling big water bags and then “tossing them kind of like a medicine ball”–they “realized that you could toss and catch and then go for a ride on this big thing as it takes you away.” When we can have moving balls 10 times bigger than ourselves and kick­ them across actual space, octagonal squash just isn’t going to cut it.


The Battle Room in Ender’s Game (book 1985, movie 2013)

The plot: A load of children and teenagers are cruelly trained to fight evil aliens who are out to destroy Earth (or, spoiler, are they?). One boy in particular–a special child who is very good at games and might not have any friends but that doesn’t matter because he’s so clever and so good at games and isn’t that more important actually–is super clever and special and clever and special.

The game: There are a lot of games in Ender’s Game, all aimed at military training. Most of them are video games, but one is a full-on sport: a team game in the zero-gravity Battle Room where two sides face off against each other, wearing suits that freeze up and stop the player from moving when they’re hit with a blast from a “gun.” The game’s intended to train the children to work with each other, and to think strategically.

The reality: Games and sports as military training are pretty big. For example, there’s the Aeronautical Pentathlon, which is like a normal pentathlon except it “embodies appropriate basic physical education and training methods for air force soldiers” (according to the International Military Sports Council). In practice this means that you navigate a plane, fence, shoot, swim, mess around with a ball, do an obstacle race, and then do some orienteering. (Yes, that’s seven activities, not five–another difference from the traditional pentathlon, there.)

There’s also a naval pentathlon, a military pentathlon, and–as of 2014–a tank biathlon, because two is apparently the limit of meaningfully distinct activities you can carry out in a tank.

Video games for military training–also detailed throughout Ender’s Game–are, if anything, even bigger. There’s games like Tactical Iraqi, designed to teach soldiers Arabic–and then at the other end of the scale there’s Virtual Battlespace 3, a “flexible simulation training solution for scenario training, mission rehearsal, and more” which “allows trainees to practice field tactics many times over without expending live ammunition, without costly travel time, and without risk of injury to soldiers or damage to expensive equipment.”

And it looks like the games aren’t going away. Corey Mead, an academic who wrote a recent book on games in the military, is interviewed by NPR here and says “the Pentagon has a tendency when they’re faced with new problems to throw a game at it.”


Holodeck games in Star Trek (various episodes)

The plot: Oh you know, it’s the future, there are spaceships and so forth, there are aliens, a surprising number of people are fundamentally decent at heart, etc., etc.

The sport: There are a lot of sports in Star Trek, but most of them are either very poorly defined, martial arts, very poorly defined martial arts, or Dom-jot, which is like billiards if billiards was worse.

And a lot of these sports–ranging from almost-forgotten niche history sport baseball to frantic squash-alike Velocity–are played on the holodeck.

The reality: Virtual reality isn’t yet meaningfully fit for sport. You can ride a bike through VR games, or walk, or row, but there’s no evidence that that’s reliably more fun than just watching a television show while you’re on the treadmill. And more importantly, sweat is a lot more difficult to deal with when you’re wearing a weird headset.

The two key things about the Star Trek holodeck are that you can have lots of people take part at once, and that you don’t have to wear weird things on your head. Until we get there with VR, it’s not going to be great for sport.


So, what’s our conclusion?

We’re probably going to keep playing sports in real places for a while yet; they probably won’t be to the death; and if you’re really, really good at sports, make sure to take good care of all your loose skin cells.

Playing The Field logo depicting a sports field

How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Playing the Field section, which examines how innovations in sports affect the wider world. Click the logo to read more.