In 2021, Croatian Budimir Šobat broke the world record when he held his breath underwater for 24 minutes and 37.36 seconds. So it’s always been kind of silly that athletes in Final Fantasy X hold their breath indefinitely to play the full-contact underwater sport of Blitzball. Yet this is also a world where somebody’s dad becomes a magical Godzilla that commits genocides regularly, so there are plenty of reasons to suspend disbelief.
Far from a mere diversion, Blitzball is crucial to the game’s story and has divided fans in the 22 years since FFX’s original release. You either love the himbo water-soccer vibes and engrossing mechanics, or you hate it outright. Three main characters play the sport professionally, and one of them even uses a Blitzball as his weapon in battle. You’re forced to play as part of the main story, whether you want to or not. For those that do want to, you can manage your own team, recruit players from around the world, and play in a league you can manually reset at any time.
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There’s nothing like it in franchise history, yet it’s strangely fitting for the PlayStation 2 era.
FFX director Yoshinori Kitase was inspired by his love of soccer and the podracing scene from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace to design the sport as a hidden mini-game. But his enthusiasm led to it evolving into a defining feature of the game.
“I do feel sorry to have made some fans suffer because of this, but it would be appreciated if you can regard it as a characteristic of games from that era,” he told Game Informer in 2019, noting that he designed most of its elements himself.
Blitzball enthusiasts have long hoped the sport would come to Final Fantasy XIV, the MMORPG that has its own version of the Gold Saucer from Final Fantasy VII along with other minigames inspired by the series. Years ago, FFXIV director Naoki Yoshida said the team hoped to implement it one day, but he confirmed in July 2023 that it wouldn’t be a part of the upcoming Dawntrail expansion: “No Blitzball!” Given the tropical setting of Dawntrail, its inclusion would be pitch-perfect. If not now, when?
Even if it doesn’t come to FFXIV anytime soon, the aquatic sport remains just as unforgettable 22 years later, a risky creative choice akin to making Cloud Strife a professional snowboarder in addition to an enhanced super-soldier.
When Sin dreams, he dreams of Blitzball
One of FFX’s earliest cinematics takes place in the dreamy metropolis of Zanarkand, where protagonist Tidus—a superstar Blitzball pro—plays in a match as a rad heavy metal tune blares. The vibe could not be more different from Final Fantasy IX, where a womanizing monkey boy falls in love with a princess and eventually kills god.
Blitzball is a brutal sport, and the crowds that scream when Tidus swim-tackles an opponent into the bleachers evoke the riotous masses of the Roman Coliseum rather than drunk fans at the Super Bowl. Just as Tidus is about to land his signature trick shot, a massive kaiju called Sin levels much of the city, destroying the Blitzball stadium and sending Tidus falling into the waters below. (Good thing he can hold his breath for a long time!)
Spoilers here, but Tidus’s Zanarkand is the physical manifestation of a city destroyed a thousand years ago. To win a war, a mad ruler used magic to destroy the original Zanarkand and (checks notes) harnessed the dreams of its dead inhabitants to design a new utopia in the middle of the ocean. Those dreams, hilariously enough, involve a lot of Blitzball. There’s not much else to differentiate Dream Zanarkand from other futuristic Final Fantasy cities like FF8’s Esthar or FF13’s Eden. Blitzball is life.
Ostensibly an isekai story where the hero is thrust into a strange new world, FFX follows Tidus as he winds up in “the real world,” and what do you know, Blitzball is even more popular there. This makes life in Spira somewhat easy for Tidus, and he’s quickly recruited to play in the pros by a goofy guy named Wakka. In Spira, Sin regularly levels towns and cities, so everyone lives in a state of constant fear. Blitzball is the one pastime that seems to unite everybody and bring a spark of joy.
The sport does fade into the background later in the game as the plot veers towards the more cosmic threat of Sin’s cycle of annihilation, but for anybody who’s into it, Blitzball can offer countless hours of enjoyment.
A league of its own
Blitzball is played inside a sphere of water congealed by Pyreflies, a magical spirit in the world of Spira that also account for how players are able to swim underwater for so long without breathing. Just like ice hockey, there’s a goalkeeper, two defenders, a midfielder, and two forwards. Beneath that familiar setup lies a slew of complicated mechanics. Every player has unique stat growths and a variety of techniques. That means the optimal lineup changes depending on the overall level of your players and team’s standing.
Team management is easily the most engrossing aspect of Blitzball. You can recruit players from other teams, but the vast majority of potential pros are just free agents you meet around the world. Each comes with contract terms and a salary, so even your budget factors in here. You can pluck monks and shopkeepers from their day jobs to join the Besaid Aurochs.
Your starting goalkeeper, a chubby islander named Keepa, is absolutely atrocious. Yet for some reason, above level 90 he inexplicably becomes the best shooter in the entire league. Details like this make Spira’s NPCs feel like real people in a way that games seldom achieve today, let alone two decades ago.
Particularly memorable is Jumal, a young man who sits on a bench with his wife while his daughter runs around nearby with a balloon. What events in this man’s life led him to being such a solid goalkeeper and defender in Blitzball? We never find out, but these little details have sat with me for years.
Similarly, the character known as Brother (the actual brother to party member Rikku), spends most of his airtime screaming and grunting at Tidus who just sort of shrugs. When you first encounter him very early in the game, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll play such a big role in the story. Yet he eventually pilots your late-game airship and is one hell of a power forward in Blitzball.
Even if you hate Blitzball’s clunky, complex mechanics, you can’t help but love how effectively it makes you see the humanity in every person you meet in Spira. This series staple is well overdue for a modern glow-up.
Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster is available for PlayStation, Xbox, Switch, and PC.
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