Playing the Field: A Reading List

A crash course in how innovations in sports affect the wider world

3 min read

A man sits alone in his seat in an empty sports stadium.
Image credit: r. nial bradshaw // CC BY 2.0
Playing The Field logo depicting a sports field

Compiling a reading list for the Playing the Field section was tricky–after all, sports have long been the subject of some of nonfiction writing’s most elegiac and intelligent prose. But whittle it down we did. Here’s our introduction to issues of innovation and scientific inquiry in sports.


“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play “¦ It is war minus the shooting.”

–George Orwell (“The Sporting Spirit,” 1945)


Start Here

The definitive text on the impact of data analysis on sports. Baseball manager Billy Beane breaks records with his minor league team, built from players other coaches didn’t appreciate.

Regularly cited as one of (if not) the greatest sports book ever written. James explores issues of imperialism, class, race, family, and more throughout the British Empire and his home, Trinidad, through the lens of cricket.

Foster Wallace’s profile of possibly the greatest tennis player of all time is in the hall of fame of sports writing, but his other big tennis profile–about the daily grind for a pro player at the lower end of the sport–is also excellent.


Then Try

A book and a beer and a sandwich.
Image credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões // CC BY 2.0

Shorter Reads


What even is a sport?




When We Were Kings (1996)

The 1996 Oscar winner for best documentary, it’s Leon Gast’s masterful record of the Rumble in the Jungle between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali.

Murderball (2005)

Covers the rivalry between the U.S. and Canadian wheelchair rugby teams in the run-up to the 2004 Paralympic Games. A masterpiece in low-budget filmmaking.

Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)

A documentary about the birth of a new sport–skateboarding–filmed while it happened, during the era of home video. Southern California’s surfers morph into skateboarders, and export their local subculture to the rest of the world.

30 For 30: The Two Escobars (2010)

ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series has many fantastic entries, but for our money this is the best–charting the linked fates of Pablo and Andres Escobar. Though not related, they shared a name and a country. The rise of the Colombian national football team in the 1990s was, in part, funded by Pablo Escobar’s cartel; Andres accidentally scored an own-goal that sent the team out of the 1994 World Cup, and he was murdered soon after in a cartel hit. Soccer as life and death.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

One of the first of what will no doubt become an entire subgenre in its own right, this esports documentary manages to turn the battle for world champion of the 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong into an intense portrait of good versus evil. (This movie is also partly responsible for the surge in popularity of speedrunning in recent years.)


[*Esquire originally commissioned a shortened version of this story, which appeared in the magazine in 1996 under the title “The String Theory.” We’ve linked to it here, since its longer version from the book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again isn’t available online.]

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.