I've been spending a lot of time listening to, watching and reading about sports lately; the NFL season just started, the baseball post-season is heating up and a very exciting Ashes series just finished (England reclaimed the urn!). I've also been rereading several of the early Harry Potter novels and I've come to a conclusion: J. K. Rowling is not a sports fan of any kind. Her invented sport of the magical world, Quidditch, just isn't realistic at all.
I know, I know, I'm griping about realism in a book about kids
traipsing about a secondary school for wizards. But part of what makes
the series so delightful is the way in which Harry's fantasy world
feels so real. You can really tell that Rowling labours to put polished
edges on so many of the minor details of her imaginary universe, so
it's a shame that she is clueless about sports. To wit:
- The game is essentially two completely separate competitions
happening simultaneously: Firstly, several players fly around on
broomsticks and try to score goals (essentially flying football) worth
10 points each. At the same time one player from each team (the "seeker") is
responsible for finding a tiny, fluttering ball-creature, the golden
snitch. Capturing the snitch ends the game and awards 150 points to the
capturer's team. These two activities are weakly leaked by a third group whose job is to swat balls at opposing players of all shades in order to distract them. I can't really think of any major sport where there are two completely distinct and divisible goals being pursued at the same time. It only serves to make the game incoherent.
- The scoring system is clearly conceived by somebody who just likes big decimal numbers. We can divide all the scoring increments by 10 and not lose any granularity. Real sports have non-unity point values only when it serves to distinguish between types of scoring (touchdown vs. field goal or shots inside or outside the 3-point ring).
- The real damning complaint, though, is that the game is horrendously unbalanced. Rowling paints pictures of teams who are incredibly competitive at this sport, but they all act as if they dont' see the glaring inconsistencies in how the game is scored: the team which captures the snitch always wins. There are only two relevant categories into which the pre-snitch scores falls: a disparity of greater than 150 points or a disparity of less than 150 points (ignoring the potential for a draw, which isn't discussed). If your team is ahead by any amount or behind by less than 150, you grab the snitch and you win. If your team is behind by more than 150, you can't grab the snitch, because the game ends and you lose! Thus the activities of 6 of the 7 players on a team are practically meaningless compared to whether the seeker gets the snitch. There is a slight issue in that league results in which more than one team has the same overall record is decided by score, but this doesn't cover up the fact that the game is insanely unbalanced. A clever team captain would divert all his resources to finding the snitch and put up only a basic defense. Plus, the only exciting thing to ever happen during a game is the finding of the snitch (with the exception of plot devices added by the author) so the whole game is always condensed to a page or two of Harry (who plays seeker) flying around until he grabs the snitch. The fact is, the rest of the game is incredibly boring and meaningless to the outcome!
In fact, I just read a descriptiong of the video-game version of Quidditch, and it seems like they split the two phases of the game into...two sequential, unrelated phases. You play the basic scoring game and then at some point depending on how the game is going the snitch is released and the game completely changes modes for you to chase after the snitch.
Don't get me wrong, all this doesn't take away from the neat-o! aspect
of a game played by kids on brooms. It's just a shame that Rowling
bothers to include so many Quidditch details (Ron's favourite team, the
visit to the Quidditch World Cup at the beginning of Goblet of Fire,
the annual school competitions) but that her conception of sporting is
so misguided. If she were a sports fan (read: a man) then Quidditch
would have a set of rules that actually make it an interesting game to