Look into any storyline in life, be it in politics, sports, the movies, or in video games, there is a trend of people loving the underdog side. There’s just something about someone or a team overcoming the odds to defeat their overwhelmingly strong opponents that appeals to the majority of fans. People of the LBGTQ community can have a strong connection to the perceived underdogs, having endured many struggles in the history of the group, and appreciate it when such underdog stories are told through characters that are unique to the gaming scene, such as those in Tomb Raider and Cyberpunk 2077. But, underdogs tend to be a favourite of everyone, even those who haven’t necessarily endured many struggles themselves. In games, the protagonist often comes through an underdog story to eventually come out on top, and even some non-playable characters have great underdog stories that get players to adore them. So, what is it about the underdog that appeals to us, and how has that been used in video games?

Psychology explains our love of the underdog

It’s a phenomenon most commonly seen in sports, where a big team meets a smaller team in a final, and somehow the little club comes out on top despite everything that has happened before. It happens often enough for fans to slightly expect it and yet be completely surprised when an underdog victory is witnessed. Psychological studies into the love of an underdog have never had to give much impetus to the backstory of a team or the dominance of one side: many find that simply labelling one team as the underdog will garner them more supporters. For example, a 1991 study showed that 80 percent of participants would support the underdog over a heavily favoured team despite the participants not being given any other context, as detailed by Refinery 29. Furthermore, a 2007 study found that participants would prefer to see a lower-ranked team win in an Olympic swimming event over a higher-ranked team, even if the higher-ranked team had formerly been the underdog in the scenario before.

By why is this? It may, in fact, come down to jealousy, a desire to rise against oppressors or bring these highly-rated people in society down to a level akin to the average person through defeat. In an analysis of winners performed by Betway, it was found that winners of great accolades – such as a Nobel Peace Prize, an Oscar, Wimbledon, etc.) average an age of 32-years-old, are married, have one child, and are educated to a degree level. The fact that they’re winning great awards in their field on top of having very desirable lives can make any person want to see them knocked down a peg, especially if an underdog team that is more relatable to the average Joe is the one to bring them down. In the 1991 study by Jimmy Frazier and Eldon Snyder entitled ‘The Underdog Concept in Sport’, it was decided that sports spectators are hedonistic animals. This is to say that fans always try to maximise their levels of excitement. As close games deliver more excitement, especially if the matchup is lopsided, a fan of the sport will find themselves backing the underdog because their victory will deliver more unexpected joy than that of the anticipated favourite winning.

In video games, players immerse themselves in the storyline or many storylines surrounding the characters, possibly giving them a greater emotional attachment to the game characters than a fan’s connection to the result of a sports game. Because of this, the underdog story becomes even more powerful, with players engaging in the game to fulfil an underdog story or seeing their favoured non-playable characters rise up and overcome the odds to succeed in their mission.

We love the underdog story regardless of how much it’s used

To bring the maximum amount of excitement and a truly immersive experience, an underdog story has become the tried and trusted method that many game creators opt to base their game on. Many great games do, indeed, go down the all-powerful, super-skilled hero route, but the storytelling in the games featuring an underdog often produce some of our most-loved characters and character arcs of all-time. As mentioned, this isn’t just limited to the playable protagonist and the main storyline as, now and then, we get to see a side character rise against all odds to become greater than they were, earning our in-game adoration.

A prime and quite recent example is the story of Aloy, which takes place in the visually stunning world of Horizon Zero Dawn. She begins as an outcast who fellow children enjoy picking on and bullying. As an outcast, she must train every day to then prove herself in a ceremony that will remove the stigma around her being ‘motherless’. But, during the story, you battle to ultimately save the world that contains all who banished her.

When it comes to underdog stories in video games, Abe stands head and shoulders above most others. The protagonist in Abe’s Oddysee starts as a slave labourer of the Mudokon race, working for the evil Glukkons. After unveiling a Glukkon plot to begin farming Mudokons into meat, Abe springs into action. Unfortunately, Abe is cowardly, clumsy, rather stupid, and very slow, making him one of the most unlikely of heroes and more likely destined to become a Mudokon steak.

As for non-playable characters, in a way, the ultimate is, in fact, a monster: a pocket monster. When Pokémon was first released, those who chose to go fishing were always very disgruntled after catching weak, splash-wielding Magikarps. One after another, these red fish would be caught and defeated as they hold very little value. But, eventually, players clued into the fact that Magikarp evolve into an almighty beast. So, rather than getting a superstar Pikachu, which even has its own spin-off Detective Pikachu! game, players soon started to favour the Magikarp to get Gyarados. If there was ever an underdog story in gaming, it’s the story of a useless flopping fish turning into one of the most powerful and most feared Pokémon of them all.

Throughout the history of video games, creators have tugged at our heartstrings through the use of underdog storylines. Heihachi Mishima from the Tekken series, Aela the Huntress in Skyrim, and Lara Croft in the rebooted Tomb Raider series also boast underdog qualities which makes us adore them in-game. Through using underdogs, we become more connected to the characters and the stories because, quite simply, we are destined to back the underdogs.

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Greg has been writing on and off about games since the late nineties, always with a focus on indie games. He started DIYGames.com in 2000, which was the first gaming site to focus exclusively on indie games. These days he runs Cliqist, and New normative.