Let’s talk sports. In 2002, the English football club in Wimbledon was purchased and moved to Milton Keynes. The local supporters felt betrayed by having their club taken away, and so founded a new local team, AFC Wimbledon. This team would not be owned by one person capable of taking it away again; instead, it would be jointly owned by its fans. You too can be a part-owner of AFC Wimbledon.
Unlike North American sports leagues, teams can move up and down through the leagues of English football: just because you are a top-tier team this year doesn’t mean you’ll stay there, and just because you’re amateur now doesn’t mean your team can’t become professional. There are nine leagues of football, and the top teams from each year move up to the next league, while the bottom ones are relegated.
So while AFC Wimbledon was forced to start in the 9th league of football, over the past decade they have managed the stunning feat of being promoted five times. As of 2011, they compete in League Two, the fourth tier, and the lowest tier of professional football, marking a huge success for the new team. Being in the professional leagues also means that AFC Wimbledon appears in the FIFA videogame.
AFC Wimbly Womblies
For a couple of years, famed YA author and vlogger John Green hosted a series of Let’s Play videos of him playing FIFA Soccer with a fictional team called the Swindon Town Swoodlypoopers. Last year, he left that team to instead play as a fictional version of AFC Wimbledon, which he calls the AFC Wimbly Womblies.
From his early vlogging days in 2007, Green has had a very close relationship with his audience. “Nerdfighteria” — his fandom — has a history of actively participating in multiple projects such as the charity event Project for Awesome. Most of Green’s work has an interdependence with his audience; he relies on their passion and direction as much as they rely on him.
It’s in part because of this relationship that Green was inspired by the story of AFC Wimbledon and their legacy of being owned by their fans, and decided that rather than simply make money from YouTube ad revenue on his videos, he would instead donate all proceeds from his FIFA videos to the actual AFC Wimbledon team, making himself, and in a way, every single viewer of those videos, a part-owner and supporter of the club. Today, the club’s stadium even has posters and banners designed by Nerdfighteria, and the fandom’s slogan, “DFTBA,” (“Don’t Forget To Be Awesome”) appears on the players’ shorts. DFTBA is an important ethos for Green and Nerdfighteria; it’s a commitment to empathy, to fighting to decrease “worldsuck,” to viewing others complexly and engaging in intelligent, thoughtful discussion. The comments sections of YouTube videos are normally notorious for bile and trolling, but for years Green’s were full of meaningful conversation.What makes Green's FIFA videos more than just playthroughs is the stories he tells about the team. Click To Tweet
As he plays the game and talks over it (with the occasional interruption of “ohgodohgodohgod everything worked out better than expected”) Green gives distinct personalities, backgrounds, and stories to each of his players. He refers to himself as the manager of the team, and references the talks he gave to the players between games. Some of the players are completely fictional, such as his lead strikers, Bald John Green and Other John Green (a married gay couple, “teammates in life and in love”). Many were originally real football players (from FIFA‘s roster) that Green turned into fictional identities.
Each has a nickname based on their actual name (George Francomb becomes “Francombstein”), each has a song sung when they score (“Bald John Green, John Green, he gives it all for the team, upon his mustache we’re keen, Bald John Green”), but most also have carefully detailed backgrounds. When Green brought two new strikers in (Deeney, (“Who? Deeney,”) and Dicko (which constantly leads to “context is everything” jokes)) he took the time over a couple of videos to explain what kinds of people these were. Deeney is an all-night partier, drinker, and has many sexual partners; Dicko is a family man with a college education, a wife, and kids. Seemingly polar opposites come together to form a great striker team.
These stories are constantly developing over the course of Green’s FIFA career. Things that happen in the course of a game help contribute to these character legacies, and ultimately the overarching story of the team. For instance, when Deeney failed to score a number of times over the course of a few games, Green blamed it on him being hungover, and that they were going to have a serious talk about Deeney’s future on the team. In a culminating match a little while later, Deeney scored a much-needed and improbable goal, though, and Green decided to keep him on for now.
The Johns Green, getting older now and starting to think about retirement, recently adopted a baby from Ethiopia (JJ, or “John John Green”); the process, however, took them out of the game for a couple weeks as they went to Ethiopia, leaving Deeney and Dicko to lead the team in their absence.
The old AFC keeper, Seb Brown, who Green constantly reminds viewers is the reason AFC even appears in FIFA ’14 for having saved two penalties against Luton Town to send them into League Two, furthered his legend with the Wimbly Womblies when he again saved two penalties in the final of the FA Cup to win them their first. And so the story grows as Green continues to play; some of the “lore” is purely constructed by Green (such as character backgrounds) but much of it arises as an emergent narrative, stories created by Green in response to what actually takes place in the game, leading to emergent personalities, legacies, in-jokes, and the arc of the team. So much so that the AFC Wimbly Womblies even have fanfiction.It started to feel like the Wimbly Womblies had their own lives outside of Green's narration. Click To Tweet
He is the manager and directs the team, but to the audience, the players have lives beyond that. It doesn’t even feel like Green is directly controlling them in the game.
At the end of the in-game season last June, when the Wimbly Womblies were poised to move from League One up to the Championship League, John Green made a controversial decision. At the time, the team was in the top two teams of the league, which would mean automatic promotion; those teams in the 3rd to 6th place spots would have to go through a final tournament to see which additional team would advance.
Also in League One was the Milton Keynes team — the club that had “stolen” the original Wimbledon team away — who had been made into a major rival to the Wimbly Womblies out of a sense of justice. Nearing the end of the season, while AFC was set to advance automatically, Milton Keynes was close behind; they might also advance if they did well in the tournament.
Green decided then to try to create some narrative tension. He wanted to make sure MK didn’t advance to the Championship League as well, so that AFC wouldn’t have to face them ever again. The only way to do that would be to make sure they lost in the final tournament, by beating them personally. And so Green started purposefully throwing games by scoring own goals to drop AFC’s rank such that they would also have to play in the tournament and could beat MK in order to advance.
It’s important to note here that Green records several games at a time and then posts them on YouTube over the course of a couple weeks. So when he made this decision, he ended up playing several games with this strategy long before any of his audience could respond. But when the first video went up, respond they did.
Green had made some controversial decisions before, when he played as Swindon Town — decisions that hadn’t worked out very well. The audience was concerned, among other things, that this decision would end calamitously: what if he lost? All of the work of the season would be for nought, and their rival team would advance.
It almost seemed as though many in the audience didn’t feel like MK was much of a rival. They cared more about AFC and its players, and their lives. Other audience members noted that throwing games in real life is completely against the rules of the league, and AFC would have gotten thrown out. What Green was doing was decidedly Not Awesome.
What made it perhaps worse, though, was that Green put the idea in the mouths of the players: he explained that the fictional characters had come up with the plan as a way to prevent MK from advancing. This made the whole thing feel even less Awesome: Green was deflecting blame from himself for the idea (saying the players had come to him and he had to respect their wishes). But though the players felt like they did have lives of their own outside of Green’s control, the audience had great respect for them, and this felt more like something Green would do than something the players would.For me it betrayed the entire theme of AFC Wimbly Womblies: the idea of ownership by the fans. Click To Tweet
The fact that no one person owns AFC Wimbledon, that by playing FIFA, Green and his fans were becoming part-owners, that the fans of Green’s channel were made to feel as important as Green in their relationship both to the virtual team and the real one. And then Green made a decision about the future of the team that went completely against what the fans wanted.
Green ended up playing the entire end of season before really seeing the fan reaction; after several episodes were posted, he made an apology video, acknowledging his mistake—in it, he reassured the audience that everything worked out okay, but that it had been a mistake to try it in the first place.
Thank you for reminding me that these are not just pixels; they are pixels that we collectively make kind of real.
I’d be one of the last people to say that the audience is always right; it isn’t. Sometimes they don’t know what they want until they’re given it. Just because they don’t want a character to die doesn’t mean it’s not the stronger narrative choice.
But sometimes, certainly, the creator isn’t always right either. When you’ve established a storytelling style around emergent narrative, trying to construct something outside of that emergence goes against audience expectations and can ruin the experience of the story. The AFC Wimbly Womblies embody an emergent narrative far more than an authored one.
When you have established a trusting and symbiotic relationship with your audience, predicated on a moral ethos such as Awesomeness, it’s vital to carefully consider the audience’s expectations and desires. AFC’s overriding theme is about audience ownership, and Green had failed to communicate effectively with his audience or react to their views.You don't always need to do what your audience says, but you should always at least listen. Click To Tweet
Luckily, everything turned out better than expected. The AFC Wimbly Womblies continue to play and do well, now in the Premier League.
More recently, Green asked his audience how they should approach the end of their latest season: with caution and care to be better prepared for next season, or to take a risk and go for glory. Despite a large part of the audience desiring caution, Green explained that he “borrowed $10 million from the owners of the club in exchange for the promise that they would end in the top four of the Premier League” — this despite the fact that “the owners” of the Wimbly Womblies should be the fans. Did Green not learn his lesson? The reaction hasn’t been as loud, but only time will tell if everything works out. I watch every game with anticipation.
Apology video clip
John Green (2014) “Google Autofill ‘Is it Possible to…” (L-Z) AFC Wimbly Womblies #91″, Hank Games, YouTube 0:00-1:38
“A Change in Strategy” video clip
John Green (2014) “A Change in Strategy: AFC Wimbly Womblies #89”, Hank Games, YouTube 1:42-3:10
“Meet the New Kids” video clip
John green (2015) “Meet the New Kids: AFC Wimbly Womblies #179”, Hank Games, YouTube 0:40-1:12