Why football is so attractive
The desire for randomness and participation
In our recent Podcast with Manuel Veth and Christoph Bierman, we discussed why randomness in football is perhaps the major factor for its attractiveness. This article will explore the topic deeper and dive fundamentally into the biochemistry of reward. But we will also explore the modern world conditions that create a desire for football.
Before that, however, we have to explore why randomness is so pronounced in football. What are the conditions that make football so random?
Football - the uncontrolled game
Football is played (obviously, as the name implies) with the foot. However, what is less obvious is that kicking a ball with your foot is not necessarily a natural movement like throwing. While throwing something was evolutionarily advantageous, for example in throwing stones collectively in order to protect from lions, kicking something wasn’t necessarily. Hence our brains have more volume dedicated to hand than for foot movement.
The so-called motor homonuclus - basically a brain map for body movement (see figure below)- demonstrates this clearly. The homunculus relates the brain area to a specific movement, thereby correlating neurological power to a specific body part. In the visual representation below, the hand for example is indefinitely larger than the foot. Thus motoric control of the foot is less pronounced than with the hand and other parts.
However, since humans are the most flexible species, due to their large frontal cortex, they can learn more and better than any other species. This, of course, is culturally true but primarily motorically true. We can learn new movements or, more precisely, to move better with certain body parts. Nevertheless, the hand will always be superior to the skill level of the foot regarding accuracy and control just because of its primacy in everyday life. But that did not stop us from inventing the football game.
Less goals, more randomness
Playing football is at least weird from a historical perspective. It is a relatively recent phenomenon and roughly 200 years old. But, more importantly, due to the motor consequences playing the ball with the foot is relatively faulty and prone to error. Controlling the ball with the foot is quite complicated. Consider that one can easily steal a ball away from someone’s foot, but it is much more difficult to steal it from the grasping hand. Even more so passing with the foot is infinitely more difficult than throwing. Therefore football essentially is less controlled, which can be abstractly interpreted as potentially chaotic or more random.
One of the consequences that emerge from the motoric condition is that it is difficult to score a goal but much easier to defend. (I guess this logic is why weak teams usually focus on counterattacks.) As a result, in a football game, not many goals are scored. The average amount of goals per game in the Top 5 Leagues is something around 2.7. (Prior to 1960 it was always higher than 3). The amount of goals per match (for a typical season) is visualized below and follows a Poisson distribution. In roughly 80% of the games, the total amount of goals scored is 4 or fewer. Furthermore, the typical margin to win a game is most frequently just one goal.
Because of the low-scoring nature of the football game, there is a large variation of scored goals. We can clearly see this in the Xg stats in which the expected score rarely matches the true result. Thus luck or randomness is a huge factor in football. The authors of The Numbers Game, therefore, even conclude that the outcome of a game is 50 percent luck or random.
Football is truly the random game.
Addicted to Randmoness
Now that we have at least argued for the dominant existence of randomness in football, we can dive into its appealing character. Why the hell would randomness be an attractive factor?
The main reason is actually biochemically well documented.
The brain is wired to love randomness. Random rewards create addictive behavior. This insight was discovered by the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, who experimented in animal studies with the frequency of rewards. The most effective way to shape habitual behavior is to make the schedule of rewards entirely random. His lab rats and pigeons tapped the button MORE often, when they did not know when the reward was coming. Skinner compared the variability of reward on a random schedule to the operation of a slot machine. When the rewards were predictable, their excitement ceased. It’s as if the rats became “bored” when they knew what will happen.
Reward of course, is biochemically mediated to consciousness via dopamine.
However, “reward” could be an inaccurate term. Dopamine is much more about motivation for action and not dominantly about reward. More precisely, it is released when you anticipate a reward. Why is it that dopamine is released prior to the reward? Because dopamine induces learning. It is the mediator that creates a neural action map so that one can remember what actions led to the reward itself. Once something is learned, it does not cause a dopamine spike anymore because all the relevant information is already extracted and turned into learned behavior (The word in-form-ation is truly precise here). Thus everything predictable becomes “boring” to consciousness.
The world, of course, is largely unpredictable. Because randomness is the default mode of the world, it, therefore, makes sense that random events release dopamine. Animals seek goals and aim for certain targets in a complex unpredictable environment, where randomness is present at every time and any level. Football mimics such natural unpredictability quite well. For a fan, the anticipation of a goal is huge, but the predictability is low. That tension creates a biochemical epiphany (intensity of dopamine release) when a goal is scored.
This epiphany creates our addiction to football.
However I think there is an additional element that football addresses and that has more to to with how humans organize.
The desire to belong
Within the last 5,000 years, human cooperation changed dramatically upon the recognition that it is not just biological proximity that makes us stick, but rather shared and abstract (universal) rules to live by. We can cooperate with strangers when we have a shared morality, which is unique in the animal kingdom. Humans took that logic to its ultimate extreme in modern times: Globalism.
However, the way we evolved to communicate and organize ourselves is a completely different story. Throughout history, humans and all mammals have grouped themselves into tribes. For humans, the amount of cooperative members we can truly “know” is around 150 (Dunbar Number). Thus the tribal spirit is so deeply incorporated in our (and all mammalian) psyche that we cannot easily rationalize it away. It still lives in us, and we must bow to that fact.
The challenge is that the biological necessity for tribalism and modern social organization don’t align well. While back in ancient times nature required every individual of a tribe to tackle the challenges of life, modernity atomizes man. In modern life, you can in principle "survive" without interacting with humans at all. And everyone else can do too, without you. We don’t see how our life matters for the life of others, which was perhaps the great source of meaning in all times of history. This desire to be needed or to belong is still there, but it is not addressed very well. Even worse, contrary to the feeling that we matter, the hyper-connectedness of modern life leaves us with a feeling of not being relevant in the grand scheme of things. (We do, but that debate will lead us astray.)
The great Russian Writer Dostoyevsky had an amazing insight into human nature and what happens when they feel like instruments:
“Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in bliss so that nothing but bubbles would dance on the surface of his bliss, as on a sea...and even then every man, out of sheer ingratitude, sheer libel, would play you some loathsome trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive rationality his fatal fantastic element...simply in order to prove to himself that men still are men and not piano keys.”
-Fyodor Dostoyevski, Notes from Underground
This desire to matter - to participate, to have influence, to belong, to be part, is precisely the tribal vacuum that football fills in the modern world. More than anything, humans want to be important and not be piano keys. Therefore the modern challenge of feeling as a small unimportant social atom creates a deep existential hunger for participation, even if that participation turns out to be destructive, as indicated by Dostoyevsky.
Football speaks to that ancient tribal spirit that wants to belong to a community. Manuel Veth called it the "collective bonfire". Football brings all the elements that the ancient tribes had as well: an enemy to fight against (the opponent team), a soldier-like attitude (die for your clubs until death), and merging individuals into a higher purpose (winning a game/championship). All of that is ritualized in the temple of a stadium. Chants are sung, and no one feels ashamed.
And that is why I love football - I guess.
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What is Goalimpact?
Goalimpact measures the influence of a player on the goal difference.
It is thus objective player rating system and a risk management tool for signing football players.