What Constitutes A “Real” Fan?

What do these two have in common? Apparently they’re not hardcore enough for “real” aficionados of their subjects.

Allow me to color outside the battle lines everyone’s drawing for a moment.

If you hang around any fandom long enough, you’ll eventually find that people drift into two major camps over time: Those who think the canon of the fandom (be it music, games, movies, sports, politics, etc.) is moving in a good direction as it goes along, and those who think it’s moving in a bad direction. Inevitably, the groups come into conflict over what constitutes a “real” fan, accusations of heresy and excessive orthodoxy start flying, and everyone is left questioning if they even want to be a fan anymore by the time the dust settles.

Lately, it seems like this is all that people are talking about in every hobby I have. Baseball fans are up in arms over pace-of-play proposals, country music fans have been wrestling with Bro-Country, the Metropolitan trend, and now the question of what chart “Old Town Road” belongs on, and now gamers and skirmishing on social media over whether or not Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice needs an easy mode. The particulars of each question may be different, but they all essentially boil down to the same question: What should this thing that we all enjoy look/sound/feel like, and how will this new proposal change it?

Speaking for myself, I’ve always been more of a big-tent proponent for my hobbies, and I’m open to people experimenting and pushing boundaries in search of different experiences. Drawing up arbitrary boundaries and acting as a “gatekeeper” for what makes someone a true fan reeks of exclusivity to me, and can leave you with a smaller overall fanbase if people can’t experience your product or just don’t find something interesting anymore. Broadening your horizons and making it easier for folks to access your product can bring more people into the fold and lead to a more diverse and vibrant community overall.

On the other hand, the arguments from those whose prefer stricter definitions can’t be dismissed either. Not having any rules or guidelines can make it impossible to define what makes something unique or special, and thus make it harder to argue why people should pay attention to whatever you’re doing in the first place. In addition, jarring changes can put off the folks who enjoyed your content in the first place, and the inconsistency can make it less appealing to folks who only like certain types of content. This blog is a great example: Its posts and audience have become primarily music-focused over time, and despite my stubborn insistence that I toss up gaming posts when the mood strikes me, they tend to land with a thud because no one’s reading this for game posts anymore.

So how do the folks in charge grapple with these forces and produce an experience that’s satisfying to the widest group of people? As much as I’ve awkwardly smashed several topics together thus far, let’s tease them back apart and see if we can find some common ground amidst the chaos.

  • Video Games: This seems like the easiest fix, since in theory a game can be adjusted to support whatever sort of experience a player wants. Therefore, games should include an adjustable difficulty scale that lets players pick just how much pushback a game gives them. Having trouble with a particular stage or boss? Turn the dial back a few notches and give it another try. Want to push yourself and maximize your pain? Crank that sucker up to max and have at it.

The argument that games like Sekiro absolutely have to be soul-crushingly hard just doesn’t hold water to me. If you can gear a player experience’s towards their skill level and give them control of how challenging the game is, why shouldn’t you do it? Let’s the “real” gamer crowd take on max difficulty if they want; no one is keeping them from that. Just try to accommodate a wide variety of player competency levels, and let them choose how they want to experience a game.

  • Country Music: This one’s a bit trickier, since you can’t just speed up the tempo or add different instruments to an album track. The term “country” covers a lot of different sounds and topics these days, and some listeners are bound to run into tracks they don’t like with this weak of a filter.

My proposal would be to use sub-genres to provide more of a description of the track itself, and allow listeners to sort their collections based on these keywords. Want more fiddle and steel in your diet? Try “classic” or “traditional” country. Itching for something with a harder edge? “Country-rock” might be your thing. Heck, this whole hyphenating trick might be just what we need: “Country-pop,” “country-R&B,” country-rap,” etc. Something like this empowers the consumer by giving them a bit more information than just calling a song “country,” (and hey, if you’re cool with how the radio sounds right now, stick with the original term), and lets them customize their musical experience.

  • Sportsball: This one is the toughest of all, because some of the changes being thrown around hit at the very foundation of different sports. Baseball’s “no clock” stand is being challenged by younger generations that don’t have three and a half hours to waste, football’s hard-hitting culture is leaving a lot of broken bodies and brains in its wake, and frankly, the less said about NASCAR these days, the better. How do you tweak games that are this ingrained in our consciousness?

Personally, my first piece of advice would be to put player safety on a much higher pedestal than it is today, because the health of the athletes that make these game what they are is paramount. If that’s finding ways to get concussions out of football, hockey, soccer, or whatever sport you play, than do it. If it’s trying to keep pitchers’ arms from falling off or finding more way to prevent deadly crashes on the racetrack, than do it. I know this might be heresy to some hardcore fans, but a sport that devours its own doesn’t seem like a sport worth watching.

If I take my own biases out of the equation, however, the first thing I’d do is collect more data on both the fanbase you have and the fanbase you want. Find out what things people want out of your game, find a way to give it to them, and decide how much you want to sacrifice the devotion of your prior fans in order to bring in new ones. I’d put a lot more muscle behind youth outreach as well: People who gain an appreciation of a sport as children are likely to become lifelong, money-spending consumers of your product, and maybe you’ll eventually cultivate enough “real” fans that further changes will be unnecessary. I’m sure these leagues don’t need me to tell them all this, but hey, it’s free advice if they want it. 😛

Above all, I’d like people to stop feeling like they need to judge other peoples’ level of fandom, and not put people down for being less devoted to the product in question. There are lots of different ways to enjoy a game, or a song, or a friendly competition, and if we can find ways to customize each user’s experience, maybe we can stop trying measure each other’s orthodoxy and just enjoy things for what they are.

One thought on “What Constitutes A “Real” Fan?

  1. First of all, as someone who is mostly relegated to his 3DS for video game entertainment (and a bunch of old downloadable Game Boy/Game Boy Color/NES games for it), I do like and read your gaming posts, and that’s mostly because you’re an excellent writer.

    Second, I think you make a good general argument for country music that I agree with, but I’m not sure it’s always applicable. I know the main focus has likely stemmed from the Lil Nas X debate. The only reason I’ve been so adamant about my disapproval of the subject is for the following reasons:

    1.) X seems to care more about manipulating a broken system “just because he can.”
    2.) The people mostly mad at this are mad because a meme failed to a destory a music genre they don’t like anyway.
    3.) In terms of representation, “yeehaw culture” in general has been more about poking fun at country music and rural culture rather than embracing it outright. It’s like Urban Cowboy circa 2019.

    Otherwise, I do agree. But to play Devil’s advocate, what facet of life doesn’t involve gatekeeping of some kind? Even if it’s unintentional? For example, we both review music. By giving a negative review to a song, that might signal to someone that it’s not “OK” to like something. On the other hand, positive reviews make people “have to” understand the hype.

    My solution? This more “diverse” environment you’re discussing doesn’t really exist. Fans are too opiniated to come together, especially in regards to pop and traditional country.

    Instead, I think we as individuals need to start caring more about what it is we want and voice those opinions (in a respectful way). I do think all areas need to be considered, but I’m not sure it’s easy to find a one-size-fits-all strategy, if that makes sense. Just my two cents though. Good piece!

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