“Home Game” has something special going for it. The docu-series presents sports from around the globe. They’re each unique to a particular place and tradition. If you’re in the U.S. or Europe, you’ll have heard of a few of them: the Highland Games and Roller Derby are both profiled. A number of them may be unfamiliar. Take Kok Boru, for instance. It’s like rugby, but on horseback, and the ball is a dead goat.
As a docu-series, “Home Game” shines when it’s discussing why these sports have survived and how they’re evolving. In the U.S., any sport that becomes popular is quickly devoured by capitalism. We understand that any sport has the ability to create change and impact our social perspective, but we also understand that this will most often be dictated by money.
Colin Kaepernick kneeling through the national anthem at football games mattered the moment he did it, but the biggest step in its normalization in white society may have been Nike signing him to a marketing contract. That doesn’t take away from anything he did, or the pressure he and other players continue to apply to the National Football League and society at large – but the unfortunate truth is that normalization of social change in the U.S. through sports is deeply tied to marketing.
“Home Game” offers something very different, and often forgotten. Sports themselves – and not just the marketing – can be a way of standing up to colonizing forces, or of protecting elements of a culture so that they can’t be assimilated.
“Home Game” doesn’t always focus on this aspect, but it does so more often than not. Sports documentaries are hardly rare these days, but ones that focus on their subjects through a socially aware, inclusive lens – and that often come to their sports primarily through that lens – these aren’t as common.
Take one early episode. In “Freediving”, a competitor enters to spur pride in his indigenous community. The Sama are looked down on in the Philippines. They’re considered thieves, despite being the original inhabitants who’ve had their land – and nearly their way of life – stolen from them. Imam Eldio Gulisan enters the competition in order to remind his Sama community to feel pride, to legitimize his people in the eyes of others, and also to keep freediving alive in his culture.
While he lacks the years of more codified training other divers have, he maintains a tradition of spear hunting underwater. This demands deep dives and long periods of holding his breath – perfect for a freediving competition. His entering the competition is an act of trying to keep a key aspect of his culture alive, and pass it down as something viable to the next generation.
“Home Game” is most powerful when it introduces you to the competitors that episode has chosen to follow. Each episode focuses on a different sport – it translates the rules quickly, so it can get on to the more important job of translating the different motivations people have for participating. We see the everyday lives of these athletes, their day jobs, and what they sacrifice to take part in sports that are rarely professional or paid. They incur injuries and risk death…for what? Sometimes it’s personal pride, or the pride of their city. Sometimes it’s their means of escape from a life that hasn’t offered many opportunities. And sometimes it’s because that sport offers a conduit to keep a key aspect of their culture strong.
There are episodes about evolving a culture, too. “Roller Derby” and “Pehlwani” translate how sports can be a front in feminism. Pehlwani is a traditional Indian style of wrestling, and growing acceptance that women compete in it – often against men – is spearheading both cultural and religious reform.
The series finds a pretty good balance of discussing the change this inclusivity spurs without losing the ground-level view of what that means in athletes’ own words. Ultimately, the athletes know they’re making a difference, and they also just really want to compete. Sometimes they have to make that difference in order to compete in the first place. Sometimes they compete in order to make that difference.
“Home Game” leans into telling these stories through the perspective of each athlete, rather than trying a top-down approach. While not providing a full picture, it does supply an emotionally resonant one that squarely sides with the athletes and their fights for inclusion and equality.
The series is smart about following both experienced and newer competitors, to show steps along the way of expertise. Sometimes we forget how difficult it is to step into a sport. For instance, free diver Wei Zosa is going for a personal best of 37 meters. That doesn’t sound all that far, does it? That might be the distance of walking a couple houses down the street. Then the narrator reminds us that it’s the height of a 12-story building. Suddenly it seems immense.
This also shows us just how wide a world the idea of sports encompasses. The first episode, “Calcio Storico”, focuses on an Italian sport that mixes concepts of rugby and bareknuckle boxing. Adrenaline is key to facing down opponents and ignoring the pain of severe injuries. An athlete couldn’t last long in a competition without adrenaline powering them through.
In “Freediving”, the athletes remind you that any adrenaline will immediately sabotage you. To have a chance of competing, you need to stay absolutely calm. Adrenaline makes you use your oxygen up far too fast, undermining your dive and endangering your life. An athlete can’t free dive if they can’t control their calm and deny that adrenaline spike.
“Home Game” is wise to avoid choosing favorites. It profiles athletes on both sides of a match, usually before some form of championship or record-setting attempt. It gives a little background on each team or athlete, how they’ve done that season, and what the match means to them. As a docu-series, it’s much more invested in the athletes themselves than their teams. This works because it makes us want to see particular people do well in a final match. I often found myself rooting for athletes on both teams.
In each half-hour episode, there’s a good sense of rising tension and genuine excitement for the outcome. Many episodes mirror what a good sports movie will do in leading up to that final, meaningful match.
The series isn’t perfect. The strongest moments are in the show’s interviews, cut together with training and gameplay. Yet when home life is shown, some conversations are presented verite style – these can occasionally feel a bit staged. Even if they aren’t, athletes and their families may feel awkward around cameras and not behave as naturally as these scenes would ask.
You can see “Home Game” figure out its strengths as the 8 half-hour episodes progress, leaning further into the interviews so that athletes can describe their lives, priorities, and motivations in their own words. The verite bits become much more selective, or focus more on presenting training regimens later in the series.
Episodes have a pretty wide range in quality, but they’re all worth watching. The “Highland Games” episode comes off as the worst, but it’s not bad. It feels OK and pleasant, but it lacks the heart-in-mouth moments of the “Calcio Storico”, “Freediving”, or “Kok Boru” episodes.
The show is at times a beautiful and gracious celebration of cultures. There are very touching moments about the meaning of all these sports to their communities. While the sports here may be new to many viewers, that feeling of investment and belief is universal. Sharing it with others, and understanding how others feel it given what’s happening on the field in front of them, is remarkable.
I never thought I’d get wrapped up in water buffalo drag racing across flooded rice fields in “Makepung Lampit”, but the magic of “Home Game” is that by the end of a half hour, I’m right there with the fans in that rush of excitement. What makes “Home Game” special is that by the end of that episode, I don’t just see it as a sport – I see it as an expression of safeguarding cultural elements in the face of colonialism. I see it as a place where a woman can beat men while other men cheer for her. For all the resourcing, marketing, and media that we put into Western professional sports, we still can’t even manage that.
There’s a great deal to learn when looking at the sports other cultures value. “Home Game” approaches each with respect, and a desire to share the sport and what’s fascinating about it. It’s not a perfect series, but it is a unique and needed one. It’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch, and it reminds you that enjoying sports can feel different and mean more when all the marketing, fantasy leagues, and constant speculative coverage are stripped away.
You can watch “Home Game” on Netflix.
If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.