Why we endure the agony and ecstasy of competition

Why we crave the drama and catharsis of sports and awards

We're frequently told in life that there are winners and losers. That success is a zero-sum game, where for any single thing to matter, it must affirm that it is superior to all the other alternatives. The idea is everywhere: sports, politics, reality television. Everything is measured in victories, and happiness means getting the outcome you'd been hoping for. But when a figure like LeBron James suggests after losing an NBA Finals game that it's "just basketball," suddenly the media questions his commitment and motivation. But James is right, it is just a game and trophies are just shiny pieces of metal with fancy inscriptions. But why do we care so much about them and fear when our desired outcome is challenged?

If there's anyone who should be able to defend the draw of competitions and awards, it should be me. Growing up, every sports championship or awards show was just fuel to obsess over. I'd start by cheering on my local Bay Area sports teams or my favorite movies/TV shows of the years, but eventually I'd end up pledging my loyalty to some lesser evil contender for these prizes, obsessing over their chances of victory before soon forgetting about them entirely. Whatever meaning I took in the 2008 Boston Celtics beating the Los Angeles Lakers or Birdman claiming Best Picture in 2015 is long lost to me now. But at the moment it seemed like these victories had to mean something, the Celtics had to complete the epic turnaround from one of the NBA's worst teams to its best, Birdman's victory had to signal the downfall of The Academy for rewarding a horrendously shallow film. This is the dangerous allure of narrative. While the idea may be designed to offer the mundane a sense of meaning, it prevents us from ever putting things in a proper perspective.

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And it doesn't go away. On consecutive nights this week, I sat on my couch staring at my TV and witnessed trophies being handed out. I watched some of the most talented theatrical artists in the world hope to have their efforts rewarded with a Tony Award, before the next night witnessing my hometown Golden State Warriors claim their second NBA championship in three years. And despite my logical understanding of why these events don't matter, it's hard to deny that pleasure of caring about something un-ironically. While you may never share a moment with your favorite athlete or get the chance to advise Rachel Lindsay on which Bachelorette prospect to choose, the idea that you can form connections to strangers over these largely meaningless contests is lovely when treated properly.

Maybe there is a way to nurture the joy of these contests without giving into the destructive impulses; the concept that victory for any other contender or team doesn't mean less happiness for you. It seems hard to imagine, but the more we remove anger and fear from these events, the healthier we may all just become as fans.