Are you into fantasy football? Up to seven million play the Premier League’s game alone. I used to play a few years ago, but I stopped because it made me tense, annoyed and angry, even. There were not many highs and too many lows. It started to dominate each football week and being the sort of person who can easily become overly focused on pretty much anything, it started to soak up too much of my time. It even stopped me enjoying games the way I once had because I saw everything through the fantasy football prism. My first thought after every game was how many points it had scored for me.
It’s easy to fall down its rabbit hole, believing that the more research you do, the better your results will be and the higher you will climb. Except one week I was ill and couldn’t update the team as I’d normally do. But that was my biggest points scoring week. Had I not been ill, I’d have fiddled with it again and likely scored less points.
This nagged at me for weeks. What was I doing committing so much time and effort to something when mere luck could score me more points? I knew others who put in much less effort and did better. I was hooked on something which gave me an illusion of control, when in reality I had none. The negatives of that powerlessness were only compounded by the fact that there was nothing to gain by taking part. I would not benefit in any way by playing the game if I finished 13th instead of 989,000th. It was pointless. I couldn’t achieve anything concrete. So why was I so compelled to do it? I still haven’t figured that out but I closed the account and have never bothered with it again. I have never regretted it and never been tempted to go back in.
But new research into fantasy football has emerged in the last week. Nottingham Trent University have published their findings in the journal Human Behaviour and Emerging Technologies. They looked at the mental health of players and found that a mild low mood or greater was reported by 44% of those who spent more than 45 minutes playing, more than 60 minutes researching and more than 120 minutes thinking about fantasy football a day. That is a lot of time to spend on it – more than I played – but their finding corresponds to my experience. It is addictive, or at least, compulsive.
There’s a point when you’ve put so much into it that you have to keep playing to justify the amount of time you’ve already spent.
Of the just under 2,000 people surveyed in 96 countries, 20.8% spent more than 45 minutes a day playing; 34% of heavy users said the game caused them at least mild anxiety (compared with 20% of all players) and 37% said it disrupted their lives, causing what the researchers called ‘functional impairment’. This was considerably more than double the 14% of all players who acknowledged such an effect.
Basically, it starts to dominate your thinking. It starts to exert a kind of control over your life. You worry about it, you fret you’ve made the wrong choices and worry you don’t know who to pick. When match day arrives, you can’t free yourself from the fantasy football mindset. Everything gets processed through that filter.
Obviously, this is a minority of players being affected negatively, but it is a significant minority and, I would suggest, probably affects those people whose mental make-up is vulnerable to obsessing about things more generally. 96% were male and 33 was the average age. Does this strike a chord in your life?
But it doesn’t stop there. The people doing the research found that the involvement of social media added a ‘myriad of complex cognitive and social psychological processes that may negatively impact one’s mental health’.
We already know the negative effects social media can have more generally. Feelings of humiliation or annoyance because a player doesn’t perform or is injured and doesn’t rack up points for some reason is exacerbated by such public forums. They did find some positives to playing, but these tended to be experienced by people who were less dedicated and just took pot luck every week. Those who were more emotionally invested suffered the most.
There are podcasts to support your gaming; 5 Live have one with Ali Bruce-Ball, Statman Dave and Chris Sutton. There are many more. That is a sign how embedded into football culture fantasy football has become.
While not wanting to pathologise the experience of being human – sometimes feeling fed up or annoyed is a natural response to life – it is also important to recognise if you are vulnerable to these sorts of problems. I know I am. Do you know if you are?