Why the fantasy with fantasy sports?
I am a live sports addict. If there is a competition taking place between teams or individuals on the other side of the globe, I’m likely tuned in. Whether it’s cricket, football, hockey, motorsport, rugby, tennis and everything in between, I can get into it. There is one offshoot of sports I haven’t picked up yet though: fantasy sports. So I thought I’d explore the topic for my recent skills share.
Fantasy sports are types of games where players put together imaginary teams made up of real life players of professional sports. These teams then compete against one another based on the selected players’ statistics in actual live games, with these stats converted into points that are compiled and totaled for your team. You play against others and their teams across a full regular professional season, in which everybody manages their team by adding, dropping, trading and selling players to improve their points.
Undoubtedly an American invention, fantasy sports are said to have started post World War II in the 1950s with fantasy golf and fantasy baseball. What is said to be first version of fantasy sports had a pretty simple premise: players would select a team of golfers for a tournament and tally everyone’s strokes for the weekend, and then whoever’s team had the lowest total won. Baseball on the other hand has a lot more statistical data, which makes it perfect for fantasy sports, just watch (and try to follow) Moneyball if you don’t believe me. Teams earn points based on players’ performances in batting, pitching and catching. In its infancy, fantasy sports would be played between friends, family and colleagues, with a nominated league commissioner to tally all the teams’ points and who coordinates and manages the overall league, a bit like a dungeon master in Dungeons & Dragons.
By the mid 90s, fantasy sports had become a mainstay in the United States with local fantasy baseball and football (the American version) leagues across the country. The advent of the internet, though, took it global and enabled players to match up against each other across the world. Perhaps the best indication of fantasy sports adoption globally is the Premier League and its championing of the entertainment form. Launched in the same internet era, England’s premier football league competition has become arguably the most popular sports league in the world. Its viewership and revenue stats make it hard to suggest otherwise. Recently they’ve set up their very own fantasy football game. Whereas previously people would set up their own leagues and games, the Premier League have decided to create their own platform to allow players to play with their friends and/or other players from all over. They’ve even gone so far as to have a dedicated weekly TV programme and podcast. What’s even harder to understand is that the game is entirely free to play. So how then do they make money? Well, that bring us onto the why…
Fantasy sports’ biggest appeal is it is plain old fun. For many, it makes them feel more engaged with their team and players, and gives them the opportunity to put their knowledge to the test, because, in essence, fantasy sports is a game of skill, as it’s based on uncontrolled, real world events. While very few of us can be sports stars, fantasy sports allows you to become the manager and put all those hard hours in front of a screen, whether watching games on the TV or scrolling through endless news articles, it feels like you are putting your knowledge to the test. Most fantasy sports have parameters when it comes to selecting players, namely their value (so you don’t only choose the best players on paper) and their team (so that you can’t just choose the starting eleven from the championship winning side). These points are critical, though, and the main reason why fantasy sports games likes the Premier League’s are free is that it means fantasy sports players take a vested interest in games that they wouldn’t otherwise watch, based on which clubs their fantasy team players play for. Before you might not have had any interest in the result of Burnley versus Norwich, but you’ve now got a Ghanaian wonderkid on the one team’s bench who you are praying comes on to score a hat-trick. Essentially, fantasy sports are an advertisement tool for the real life sports they’re based on.
Money, however, is another important reason for fantasy sports’ popularity. While the Premier League and others might not be making money directly from their fantasy games, participants and other platforms are placing bets on results. Sports, money and betting are all closely linked, and while it shouldn’t affect on-field results, cases like our very own Hansie Cronje would indicate otherwise.
While I’ve toyed with fantasy sports, especially around major tournaments like world cups, I’ve found the investment (both emotional and in some cases financial), as well as added concerns and calculations on what I’ve seen playing out in front of me all too taxing. Although fantasy sports isn’t something I’ve grown to love, its clear that many have become wedded to it.