Sunday, September 29, 2013

More Than a Game: The Disruptive Force of Fantasy Football

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By Colin Daileda2013-09-29 16:00:11 UTC

This piece is part of Mashable Spotlight, which presents in-depth looks at the people, concepts and issues shaping our digital world.

ON A SATURDAY IN AUGUST 2010, Craig Heller was about to skip out early on his impromptu engagement party, stranding his fianc e with his extended family in the process. But he had a good reason: his fantasy football league draft. This wasn't just any draft, though. This was for the National Fantasy Football Championship -- there was $100,000 on the line and he wasn't about to miss it, not even for his soon-to-be wife.

Heller played for a lot of cash, but his intensity is something plenty of people might recognize. Fantasy football was part of a niche culture until the game came to the Internet, and, like the web itself, permeated homes, offices and everywhere in between. Now, 33 million Americans play fantasy sports.

Those games, which now make up a multi-billion dollar industry, have changed the way people think about and relate to team sports by driving the conversation away from teams and toward individual athletes, thereby altering the way sports are marketed and discussed by the media.

The average player spends three hours per week managing his or her team, , but spends nearly per week reading or watching something about fantasy sports. A lot of that time comes at work, which is why fantasy football alone costs America an estimated $6.5 billion in productivity per year, according to by outplacement firm Challenger, Grayhe finished with 13 touchdowns and ranked as the fifth best running back for fantasy stats overall, . Jacobs ranked 31st. Heller and Lerner still placed 23rd in the tournament, which would be great, except Lerner claims that had they drafted Lynch instead, they would have won it all. He has yet to forgive his co-owner.

But rather than letting the near miss dissuade them, Lerner and Heller continue to come back every year. They play and talk about fantasy football so much that it's become part of their personas, just as it has for millions of others. And like most people who play, they can't seem to shake the thrill of a game that involves sports and a chance to rag on their friends. The duo has placed as high as seventh in the national tournament, after all, putting them in reach of the fantasy world's best bragging rights.

"I never get tired of telling people I finished seventh in the whole country," Heller says.

THE AVERAGE PLAYER SPENDS around $467 per year on fantasy sports, according to the trade association, contributing to a $15.7 billion market. Football is the most popular -- same as in the physical world -- but plenty of people also play fantasy baseball, basketball, hockey and even golf. Rules vary depending on the sport, but they're all similar; players choose a team of real-life athletes and get points based on their performance in actual games.

devotes entire television segments to analyzing players based on how their statistics translate to fantasy performances. There are websites devoted to analyzing major league sports on a player-by-player basis. Dozens of people on ESPN, Yahoo! Sports, Bleacher Report and other websites make their livings by writing about fantasy athletics.

In addition to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, there's also a , both of which have halls of fame.

Though more and more women are playing fantasy sports, this subsection of the population is still , according to the trade association.

Fantasy sports writers and players have called the industry the original social network. It gives friends an extra reason to call or text, and just about every league has its own chat room or means of communication. But fantasy sports existed long before the Internet, in a time when the truly devoted would stroll out for the morning paper and tally their leagues' stats by hand each week.

Image: Bloomberg via Getty Images

It has disrupted the way people watch sports, and, as a result, has become controversial. Detractors say that no one cares about real teams anymore and that fantasy players value their creations more than their home squads, even rooting for their fantasy players against a team they grew up cheering for.

"My focus is totally different than it used to be," says Bill Berger, a New Yorker and an old-school player who used to tally stats using newspaper boxscores. "I used to be totally focused on the Giants; now it's somewhat on the Giants and mostly on my fantasy players. That's probably sad."

Others, though, feel that embracing fantasy football has made them a better NFL fan.

"I'm a Giants fan, right?" says Mike Dyer, a New Yorker who now lives in Williamsburg, Va. "Now I can have a full-blown conversation with you about the San Diego offensive line, something I didn't used to know anything about, something that I didn't give a shit about. It totally broadens your horizons."

No matter which side a football devotee chooses, though, it's difficult to argue that fantasy football's transcendent rise to popularity isn't ongoing.

"I think the standard fantasy game that everybody loves has reached [a] point where, this is the game we're going to be playing for the next 20 years," says Eric Mack, Bleacher Report's lead fantasy football writer who also writes about fantasy sports at Sports Illustrated.

Even the NFL acknowledges it. NFL Network, the league's TV station, has a segment called "NFL Fantasy Live" that runs for an hour every weekday of the season. The show has its own Twitter account, from which it tweets about injuries and other important fantasy information.

The league also profits from television packages and channels that are geared toward fantasy gurus. Many players would go stir-crazy without NFL Sunday Ticket, a television bundle created by the league that lets fans watch every game and track their athletes in real time. NFL RedZone, a league-owned channel that toggles between every game based on who is closest to scoring, is another fantasy fan favorite.

The NFL's website has its own stable of fantasy writers, and "Fantasy" is the site's first tab. It even lets users set up their own leagues there, with a platform much like ESPN's or Yahoo's. Major League Baseball's site allows the same thing, and advertises its fantasy partnership with Yahoo.

Professional teams aren't blind to the transformation either. The Jacksonville Jaguars have set up a "fantasy football lounge," in their stadium, complete with a host of TVs set to other NFL games, improved Wi-Fi and several iPads for fan use, and the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers have similar plans. The Denver Broncos' website has provided weekly fantasy updates since 2004. The Philadelphia Eagles have even hosted content on their official team website that speculated whether their starting quarterback, Michael Vick, is good enough to start for fantasy teams.

Image: Brian Ach/AP Images for NFL

Perhaps these NFL franchises have realized what many fantasy players already know: Cheering for the home team is fun, but sometimes it's more fun to root for a team of your own making. A sideline or a TV screen has always separated real teams from their fans, and a fan's only attachment to them was yelling from the bleachers or the couch. But those same fans are continually connected to their fantasy teams. Tuesdays bring trades to consider. Thursdays are for poring over stats. Sunday morning is the time to finalize lineups. And a win or loss on Monday is personal.

In a way, many players say, fantasy football has become more real to them than the game itself.

FANTASY FOOTBALL IS SO REAL to Lerner, Heller's partner, that he once tried to rewrite a tiny piece of NFL history for the sake of their digital team.

"We were jumping all over the place on Monday -- we won by half a point," Lerner says. "And then it came out the next day that there was a stat change."

The Cleveland Browns, the fantasy defense of their opponent, had picked up another sack during the night. The team the Browns were playing had recovered their own fumble, but lost yards on the play. Initially, it was nothing more. Now the play had been ruled a sack, which was enough to flip the result of their fantasy match up to a loss.

Lerner disagreed with that assessment, so he called , the official stat provider of the NFL, to make his case that the ruling should be changed back.

"I tried to get them to discredit that sack for the Browns, kind of making the argument that it wasn't really a sack, it was just a fumble that was recovered by the quarterback," Lerner says. "If the running back had recovered it, it would have been a three-yard loss."

"He was totally on my side," Lerner continues. "But I guess he didn't have the authority."

Lerner was so obsessed with making his fantasy team a winner that he tried to alter a team's actual stats. For the sake of their fantasy squads, some players will mess with reality.

MIKE DYER'S 2008 FANTASY SEASON ENDED in 23 minutes. He and his team's co-owner were so mad, shocked and dumbfounded that they named their 2009 squad in honor of the previous year: "23 Minutes."

They had drafted the NFL's reigning Most Valuable Player, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, and barely a quarter into the year, a Chiefs defender barreled into their star's left knee. Brady didn't play the rest of the season, and, with their starting quarterback out, Dyer and his friend might as well not have either.

This is what sometimes happens on Sundays, after lineups are set, and a fantasy owner's team is offered up to the whims of fate.

"There's a lot of luck involved, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise," Dyer says.

To attract as much of that luck as possible, some players, like actual athletes, turn to superstition.

Ram n Valentin wakes up every game-day Sunday in Puerto Rico and goes to church. He comes home, walks into his "war room," and flips on the four TVs that are all on one side of the room -- big screen LCDs stacked in two short columns of two. Then, 10 minutes before the 1 p.m. games start, he hops in the shower, dries off, makes sure to wear something blue, grabs a beer and plops in front of the four flashing screens, where he will remain for the rest of the day. He's been doing this for 17 years.
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