Soccer fandom in the Pacific Northwest rivals that of some of Europe's more popular club teams. Though the play on the field might not be the Premier League (yet), there is no doubt that supporters make clubs "their own" and are extraordinarily loyal.
The triumvirate of the Vancouver Whitecaps, Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers is one of the best rivalries, not only in Major League Soccer (MLS), but sports — and it goes back decades to the original, go-go North American Soccer League (NASL) days. These are smart, passionate fans that, even though they are rivals, share a kindred spirit and the Northwest pioneer ethos — to the point that a supporters cup, the Cascadia Cup, is almost as important as winning a larger prize (though no Timbers fan will ever trade last season's MLS Cup championship for anything).
In all three markets, supporters are not just treated as customers or fans, they are treated as true partners and work in close contact with the clubs, helping mold the brand for all involved. What also sets these fans apart is their creativity and, in Portland, the “maker” mentality, like their counterparts in Seattle and Vancouver, is embraced. Tifos created by the Timbers Army - the Timbers' fervent fan base - for example, can be elaborate and massive. The beer they drink is filled with jubilant craft. Even the logs cut (with a chainsaw) by the team’s mascot, Timber Joey, after a goal or clean sheet, have that hand-hewn feel.
To display the strong collaboration between the club and its supporters, this week, the Portland Timbers released a new web-based video game, Set Piece, inspired by the iconography of the Timbers and the fans. The short form is that the game is inspired by Tetris. Taking it one step further, it is an homage to a “Timbers Tetris Chant” that happens at the end of wins in important matches, and is the first game of its kind by any MLS club.
“We're unbelievably fortunate to be in a community like Portland and in the greater Pacific Northwest,” said Cory Dolich, senior vice president, business operations and marketing for the Timbers. “There’s such a focus on the game, there's a tremendous amount of tradition, even though we're only into this six-plus years in MLS, the team obviously has roots that date back forty-plus years, so for us it's always about deepening that engagement and really building on that relationship as much as possible.”
The brief was simple: "Here’s an idea, take it and run with it" and Portland-based independent agency Instrument, from the very beginning, noted the importance of craft in creating the game, which has been played by over 15,000 users so far, two-thirds on mobile devices.
“Early on in the process we had a bunch of different options and we all quickly narrowed in on the visual direction that you see [in the game] as being our favorite, because it was just so fun,” said Stephanie Lanning, senior producer at Instrument. “It felt very unique to the Timbers and to Portland, and it gave us a chance to really leverage all those different, fun Timbers elements and bring in all different locations of Oregon through the backgrounds, so I think the concept came from the Timbers, but then we were able just to really take it, run with it and have a lot of fun.”
The design elements in the game include the aforementioned chainsaw, axes (a prominent part of the Timbers’ fan marketing), logs, a Timbers scarf and roses, a nod to Portland being known as the Rose City. The iconography was all hand-drawn, but one key subtle, yet important and thoughtful component were the UI elements, also done by hand to give the gameplay even more elegance — having the right heft without getting too much in the way.
“We have something with so many illustrated elements and we wanted to make it fun and didn't want that to become too overwhelming,” noted Lanning. “Making everything really clear and clean and playing with the choreography of how that log rolled in without messing up any gameplay or anything like that, was important. We had a lot of fun doing QA on this game — and we were making sure we weren't going to goof anybody up — so scaling when we needed to and elevating the really fun moments that were the most important.”
Another aspect of the game that made it more true and authentic was the audio. Chants, fans, whistle and match play sound was recorded in Providence Park (the Timbers’ home ground). Additionally, Portland-based Marmoset Music contributed the soundtrack and music for the game as well.
“'Authentic’ is a word that can be overused. But for us, it's trying to get to what the core of what the brand and the experience is like. It's vibrant and passionate and, again, great iconography. I think Instrument did a phenomenal job from concept to execution. The game itself is simple, but it still has a lot of depth to it, and that can be a hard kind of formula to execute on all the time,” noted Dolich. “They did a great job at helping to bring it to life, for sure.”
Even though it’s meant for the public and Timbers fans in particular, the Instrument team became quite adept during the game's first days.
“We found out that we have some people who are really good at this game at Instrument, like almost freaky good,” said Lanning.
One master player is Justin Levinsohn, developer on the game, who had the high score in the first few days of its release, only to be supplanted by Eli Sears of Portland State University.
“He really hates hugs,” laughed Lanning. “We have this internal tournament happening at Instrument — if you can beat his score, then he'll hug you and pretend to like it, but no one has even come close.”
Awkward embraces aside, the game is sure to spur a rivalry from the clubs to the north (and elsewhere in MLS), meaning that fans will have a reason to keep inventing alongside their respective teams and pushing the boundaries of fandom.