3 Examples of Ancient Civilizations Who Took Sports a Little Too Seriously

The allure and demand for sporting entertainment can be traced to ancient human civilizations.

Today we act like we’re so much different than earlier humans, and to some degree that’s true. Scientific and technological advances have definitely changed the way we look at one another and how we view the Universe we’re in.

But when you get down to the core of human behavior and thought, we’re no different than the humans that lived before us.

You can blatantly see this in the way we fulfill our needs with music, socialization, and entertainment.

Sports are one of the most recognizable ways we humans entertain ourselves. Some think we take sports a little too seriously nowadays. Burning jerseys is fairly common, and Vancouver even saw some of their fan base riot in the streets after a playoff elimination.

But I am afraid that our ancient ancestors beat us at taking sports a little too seriously.

Mesoamerican Ballgame

Imagine this: you are in what is now Mexico and Central America some 3,000 years ago, in a long and narrow piece of land with sloped walls surrounding you. You’re on a team of 2-4, opposing another team. There’s a ball and possibly a hoop some six meters in the air attached to one of the sloping walls.

What is it you’re doing? You, my friend, are about to play what is called Mesoamerican ballgame.

The Mesoamerican ballgame was played by virtually every ancient civilization in Central America and even made its way to Arizona. The rules of the game aren’t fully understood, but what we do know is the game involved two teams of 2-4 people and a hard ball that was passed mainly by the player’s body.

What strikes me as interesting is this game was not always used for pure entertainment. There is evidence that suggests the ballgame was used to settle disputes within the society and even as a method to decide the winner of a conflict between two other civilizations instead of going to war.

The Mayans took it a step further and beheaded the losers, or sometimes just the captain of the losing team.

Talk about taking a sport seriously.


I am sure most of you are aware about Ancient Rome’s gladiator fights and the citizens’ enjoyment of seeing people fight to the death, but the game of Naumachia tops any other game played in the Roman Colosseum.

Naumachia was basically a reenactment of war battles. Doesn’t seem too crazy, right? We reenact battles all the time for the public’s viewing pleasure.

But the Roman definition of reenactment was to literally redo ancient battles with real ships, real guns, and real deaths.

Could you imagine the United States government putting on a full scale reenactment of the Vietnam War or the American Revolution?

Or, God forbid, World War II?

The more and more I think about it, the more it sounds absurd and counter-productive, but I guess I shouldn’t underestimate the power of entertainment and sport as a way to keep the masses happy.

Any country or empire that kills its own people (even if they are slaves) for sport definitely takes that sport a little too seriously.

Fisherman’s Joust

Not to be outdone by Rome, Ancient Egypt created a simple yet brutal game that included teams of fisherman whose goal was to knock the other fishermen of their boat by any means necessary.

It seems harmless enough, but when killing your opponents is encouraged it adds a level of crazy to the game.

Despite Egyptian civilization being heavily reliant on the Nile, many could not swim. This added a whole new level of “excitement” to the game as most people who fell into the water ended up drowning. There’s even records of some men being eaten by crocodiles.

I guess the Egyptians found normal fishing just a tad bit boring.

About Tyler Juranovich

Tyler Juranovich is an Indiana native, a Ball State student, and a senior writer for MSF, where he's been writing about Chicago sports since 2009. His favorite teams are the Chicago Blackhawks and Bears. He's also a lover of reading, music, and movies. Follow him on Twitter (@tylerjuranovich) or email him at tyler.juranovich@gmail.com

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