Tanya JacobKpopmap Contributor
Considering the popularity of sports in Korea, one would think that sports dramas would be a prominent part of their entertainment as well. However, the reality is that sports dramas have failed to establish their niche. The most successful sports drama to-date is 1994’s "The Last Match"; no drama in the genre has been able to stand out since. That is not the case with sports films, as many have been able to break through the market. But films are considerably different from dramas; they aren’t hindered by the same problems, not to mention, the dilemma of appealing to the general audience doesn’t pose as huge of a deal as it would for its counterpart.
With romance and makjang dominating the international and domestic pool, it was only until the recent years that other genres began to gain recognition. It’s understandable why a drama about baseball wouldn’t be the first choice for the average Korean drama viewer. So how did "Hot Stove League " manage to become a fan favorite?
"Hot Stove League" is a sports drama centered on the baseball team Dreams and their management. The series begins with the main lead Baek SeungSoo (NamKoong Min) whose unusual resume gets him a job as the general manager of the team. As the drama goes on, Baek SeungSoo faces many obstacles in his mission of transforming the Dreams from the worst team into worthy competitors for the Champions League. Consisting of a cast with an impressive and diverse record, actors NamKoong Min, Park EunBin, Oh JungSe, and Jo HanSun in their portrayal add depth to their characters and plot.
In trying to dissect the appeal of this drama, one question comes to mind: How did it enthrall non-sports fans? The obvious answer would be the underdog effect. In simple terms, the underdog effect takes place in any competitive context where public opinion tends to stand with the lesser advantaged. It is a common trope seen in many sports movies, and while it seems repetitive, honestly, who doesn’t like a story about underdogs? The concept of the underdog has seen differing opinions in psychological studies. Some denote it to its relatability, because people have, at some point in their lives, been in situations where they perceive themselves to be disadvantaged. Studies also consider the fact that people enjoy seeing others less fortunate than them. However, most viewers would also associate it to personal satisfaction; there’s something about rooting for the weaker opponent that allows them to feel a sort of emotional fulfillment. "Hot Stove League", in this sense, uses familiar feelings within the context of a sport to build a rapport with the audience, making it easy to feel invested in the team without knowing anything about the sport. The team Dreams weren’t just the mistreated underdogs but were a team that needed to reignite their passion for baseball. Every character played a role in the revival of the team, depicting a key aspect of any sport: teamwork.
Similarly, the human interest factor also plays a role. The drama reminds of us of what it means to love and invest in something, to work hard and fail despite it. This heart-warming tale of how a baseball team managed to overcome the different obstacles thrown at them is relatable to everyone irrespective of their interest. "Hot Stove League" gains its merit by balancing both, the relatability and the sport itself. It never loses sight of the sport in question, even using terms and techniques familiar to baseball fans. This way the series is able to appease fans and critics alike.
What ultimately makes "Hot Stove League" stand out in its genre is the storytelling. Every episode is crafted to grip viewers, making them anticipate the next move in the power struggle between the management and the parent company of the team. No plot is left unturned, and no character forgotten; even after said character’s subplot, they still have relevance in the advancement of the plot. A prime example is Jo HanSun’s character Lim DongGyu.
Naturally, these factors alone cannot be credited to the drama’s success. The staff both, on and off-screen, have a huge hand in its outcome. And despite having strong competitors from other networks including tvN’s well-received "Crash Landing On You" (available on Netflix), "Hot Stove League" stood strong throughout its run. Which leads us to wonder: could this be a step into reviving entertainment in the sports genre? Guess we’ll have to wait and find out.