Fantasy Football - More Than A Game?

'If I take Van Persie out, he's bound to score,' we illogically say. Fantasy football is big business, largely because it becomes an obsession, says Daniel Storey...

Last Updated: 08/08/12 at 10:03 Post Comment

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Fantasy sports are big business, a fact which should not be underestimated. The industry alone is estimated to be worth £3billion, and the Premier League's official game Fantasy Premier League had over two million individual players last season, a year-on-year increase ever since its establishment. Every newspaper, magazine and website seemingly has its own version, with various levels of intricacy and complexity.

The addictiveness of fantasy football cannot be underrated, and its popularity has led to an official 'that time of year' being established. Towards the end of July we begin to scout for our platform of choice, often opting for two or three different games. We make mental notes of new signings that we believe may be under-priced and therefore offer value to the armchair manager. We pick our squad and formation, blending supposed 'guaranteed' performers with the excitement of potential or new signings, often picking between alternative formations. We attempt to impress our mates with weird, wonderful and often lewd team names. We mock the inexperienced that spend half of their budget on the strikers, and pity those uneducated fools that use up their transfer quota like an excited child with an unexpectedly pound found in a pocket.

Then, after the jockeying for position, we embark on an eight-month crusade with a dream of being the best whilst completely accepting that mediocrity is assured. Some put in the hours up front and then allow their commitment to be swayed after an inauspicious start, but these are life's wasters. Rome wasn't built in a day and, more importantly, Van Persie is 'obviously' going to stop scoring soon. Then they'll see.

All this really does belong in the playground. Although financial rewards are available (Michael Shipley collected £25,000 for winning last season's Sky Sports Fantasy League), the vast majority will do it merely for fun. Those that do not suffer from the addiction will never understand the long minutes spent staring at a screen, deliberating the removal of an underperforming striker, illogically reminding yourself that the issue is that "he'll score if I take him out." But do we really understand it all ourselves? And why do so many of us partake in an activity that is essentially folly?

Firstly, success does demand an in-depth knowledge of the game. Simply picking a Premier League Dream Team would be one thing, but the maintenance of a squad demands an appreciation of the form of players, teams and even referees. If Phil Dowd has a Tyne-Wear derby then there will be cards. Can I really risk Cheick Tiote? The fixture calendar must also be considered, because there is nothing worse than a high-value player rested with a European engagement on the horizon. The changing transfer values of players through performance dictates that you can essentially back and lay players in a similar manner to betting exchanges, providing rewards for intelligent selections. In essence, the requirements of the game stimulate our minds whilst also offering enjoyment and interest, an appealing combination. Memory, forward planning, attention to detail and problem-solving are all essential, and whilst this may appear to be over-analysis, all characteristics are crucial in maintaining the infatuation.

Fantasy football also crucially plays on the internal punditry that every football fan possesses. Although in moments of sanity we can see the truth, football fans generally attempt to persuade themselves that they know more than every manager and player (immortalised in moments of "I could have scored that" and "you don't know what you're doing") but also, significantly, more than their peers. Players can take on friends in mini-leagues, all with the simple hope that come May they can lift an imaginary trophy (the Conor Byrne Memorial Cup anyone?). And if it goes wrong then we simply didn't try, of course. Using a routine that requires a considerably smaller time commitment than Football Manager and the like, we can play the role of a manager without any of the hassle and ballache tasks that the job actually includes.

Finally, having a fantasy football team removes the neutrality of watching certain live fixtures. Watching football on television is more exciting the more partisan your feelings are to the events unfolding. As interest in the outcome decreases, so does your interest level, the lack of interest in pre-season friendlies being the illustration of this. Such a principle is one of the cornerstones of the online betting industry (Sky Bet are right, it does matter more when there is money on it), and fantasy football games have played on this opportunity. It is commonplace to observe a celebration in pub after a goal is scored followed by the immortal line "I've got him as my captain." Excitement is an addictive drug, and anything that adds to this through a relatively low administration of effort is likely to be a successful and tempting endeavour.

However, fantasy football has really exploded exponentially with the increase in technology and mobile internet access. Just ten years ago blank team sheets would be cut out of newspapers before being filled in and posted into dedicated departments within newspaper offices. Transfers could be made by telephone or through snail mail, and results were published once a week within the newspapers' sports pages. Whilst the addiction lingered, the slow speed of updates allowed many to lose interest.

But this is the information age. We can see scores being updated live and have an orgy of statistics at the click of a button with to formulate our plan of fantasy success. We can post our scores on social media and brag to our friends. And through smartphones and global access to the internet game developers can create apps, email updates and online forums, all of which allow compulsion to develop rapidly. The positive reinforcement through this constant communication will not us let veer from the path of obsession. We are now part of a culture that simply doesn't like to be doing nothing, so if we can sit on the bus from work, drink our morning coffee or lie in bed at night and swap Van Persie for Rooney or 4-3-3 for 3-5-2 so effortlessly, we'll lap it up.

And the future of fantasy football? Gregg Rosenthal of Fantasy Sports believes that interaction is the key: "I think it is going to become interactive on your TV. You're going to be able to watch your players' stats. Someday you're going to be able to program your TV, and you will see the results of your fantasy football game on your TV, or get highlights from your players and watch those".

Which all seems too much. Until you realise we will probably lap that up as well.

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