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Life Lessons

If Someone Watched You Watch Sports, What Would They See?

Spectators react as they watch a large screen television showing the Gentlemen's semi-final match between Andy Murray of Great Britain and Roger Federer of Switzerland on day 11 of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 10, 2015 in London, England.
Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

Not that I’ve led an especially dignified life otherwise, but you could find me at my dumbest and lowest this past winter, when I realized eight or nine games into the season that this year’s Michigan men’s basketball team was the real deal. The stakes ratcheted up and my small living room became stage to some embarrassing performances of fandom. It began innocently: muttering “Gotta make your free throws” when someone didn’t, an enthusiastic “Oh, nice, he needed that!” if a player broke free of a shooting slump. I live alone, so the only check on my behavior was my own sense of shame, and that proved hardly a check at all. Soon, I was pacing in front of the TV, hands on waist, like a coach prowling the sideline. Made three pointers sent my hands flaring up into something resembling a gymnast’s salute. By the time Michigan took advantage of a late Ohio State turnover to seal the win one February afternoon, I had walked around my coffee table three or four hundred times. I consider myself a cheery, well-adjusted sports fan—when the team’s season ended in a tournament loss to UCLA, I would shrug it off, think of how lucky I’d been to watch an excellent team in a difficult winter, and go unload the dishwasher—but for 40 minutes each basketball night, I was a wreck.

What I’m saying is you couldn’t pay me to do what a guy named Steve Glynn was doing last week: the same solo agonizing I did all winter, just with another team (the Toronto Maple Leafs) and on a stream for thousands of people to watch. For the Stanley Cup playoffs this year, Sportsnet recruited Glynn, a popular Leafs vlogger, to do game watch-alongs on its YouTube channel; he is notorious enough that when the Leafs found themselves (again!) on the losing end of a first round series on Monday night, like half of Canada was wondering how Steve was doing. I stumbled into Glynn’s operation thanks to this unbelievably captivating splitscreen video featuring him and a Montreal Canadiens fan streaming his own solo Game 6 watch-along for a smaller audience on Twitch. I found it hypnotic to see the same realization dawn on different sets of eyes: Travis Dermott turns the puck over in his own zone in overtime (“Oh no! Oh, Dermott.”) and it gets to Montreal’s Jesperi Kotkaniemi, whose goal forces a Game 7 (“LET’S GO!”). One fan leaps out of his chair; another sinks into it.

Over the course of what would end up being a painful series, Glynn’s videos attracted some commiserators to the chat, a few of them even offering up their own teams to him as alternatives. The vast majority, though, seemed to be there to rubberneck. “Thanks Steve,” one person in the Game 7 chat wrote. “Fun watching you suffer lol.” The most popular comments on his streams were ones that timestamped all the goals, for people who’d like to skip through to the parts with the heights and depths of emotion. You can’t go a swipe of the trackpad through the comments without running into that Simpsons line, “Watch this, Lise. You can actually pinpoint the second when his heart rips in half.” Several times during his streams, Glynn would catch sight of the viewership numbers—they reached 60,000 at one point in Game 7—and look up at the camera in disgust. What, he wanted to know, was wrong with everyone? 

What is wrong with everyone? Is there some explanation less psychopathic-sounding than it’s fun to watch other people writhe in discomfort and neat to see their hopes sink and swell? Is this the thing we learned about in English class, the whole concept of catharsis, that you can better regulate your own emotions by witnessing someone else’s tragedy? I suppose some of Glynn’s appeal is in Leafs-specific schadenfreude; another video of a 2013 Game 7 watch party growing grimmer and grimmer as Boston erases a three-goal deficit in the final 10 minutes has over a million views. But I think there’s something to the idea of vicarious thrill. It’s the time of year when I really long for a team worth agonizing over, and lately I’ve found myself looking for secondhand excitement wherever I can get it. (So far, that’s been in our basketball Slack channel, where resident Nuggets fan Tom Ley is on an hourly basis gushing about Austin Rivers.)

Whatever it is, there’s a reason many of the most enduring images in sports are what they are, little capsules of anxiety or disappointment that become universally known as “Northwestern kid” and “Villanova piccolo girl.” Not even a semester into life as a Michigan fan, I witnessed the birth of our own mascot, his hands atop his head as Jalen Watts-Jackson ran a botched punt in for a game-winning Michigan State touchdown. In the climax of the best sports movie made in the last few years, the protagonist is not the guy playing basketball, but the guy watching the game. What’s actually happening on the field is cool, sure, but nothing beats the drama of a good face.