What's the Appeal of Fantasy Football?

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Some sports fans love their fantasy league, while others don't see the point. Who's right?

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Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Jake Simpson, (writer, The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Emma Carmichael (writer, Deadspin) talk about fantasy football.


Hey, guys,

College football—that venerable bastion of tradition, school spirit and state-sanctioned cartel economics—appears to be half-dozen conference realignments away from transforming into Unicron. At the U.S. Open, Serena Williams is solidifying her legacy as a (sometimes) all-time tennis great, while Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, and Novak Djokovic continue to play a high-stakes game of rock, paper, scissors. (Sorry, Andys Roddick and Murray!) Still, the biggest sports story of the week involves the annual return of America's favorite athletic pastime.

The National Football League? Nah. I'm talking about fantasy football.

A confession: I'm a fantasy holdout. A refusenik, really. I've never played. Time was, I could make a compelling case against fantasy sports. Only that's passé. So 2004. In the here and now, I'm like the 40-year-old virgin. Or one of those Japanese soldiers that kept fighting WWII, holed up in the jungle on some godforsaken Pacific island, decades after the war ended.

Red State, Blue State, Fatburger versus Five Guys: whatever else divides us, fantasy football unites us. We are one nation of pretend general managers, indivisible, pursuing life, liberty and Davone Bess as a draft-day steal. Fantasy has won the war. In a rout. There are fantasy-themed television shows, memoirs, coast-to-coast tournaments. It all started with Rotisserie baseball? Au contraire. Fantasy football began years earlier, in the 1960s, with a group of guys that included—no, really—a 20-something Oakland Raiders intern named Ron Wolf.

Wolf, the same guy who would go on to win an actual Super Bowl with the actual Green Bay Packers.

I've always felt fantasy was a waste of time. Oddly passive and inert. Less interactive than, say, playing Madden NFL. A way—like so much else in modern life—to turn leisure into work, spinning something I like doing when it suits me (watching and following football) into something I have to do or else (juggling lineups, deeply caring about tweaked hamstrings). I get the general idea: fantasy makes you a more involved fan because you have skin in the game. But maybe I don't want skin in the game. Maybe I enjoy kicking back and letting the little men in plastic helmets on television do the stressing in my life, at least on Sundays.

I don't know. Jake, you play. Is it time for me to take the plunge? On the whole, is the New Fantasy World Order a good thing for sports fans?

–Patrick

Patrick, that first question is a Tim Wakefield rolling knuckler—absolutely you should. Just like skydiving or making nice with your in-laws, everyone should try fantasy sports at least once, and football's the most intuitive. Just start thinking of some ironic team name and drooling over otherwise overlooked players like Bess (who for the uninitiated is a Miami Dolphins wide receiver and poised for a BREAKOUT fantasy year).

As for your second question, well... I've never been a fan of the whole "Is it good?" debate when it comes to fantasy. Chick Fil-A isn't good for you, and neither is wasting an hour a week watching Bachelor Pad. But millions of people do those things because they're physically or mentally enjoyable—in other words, fun. And fantasy sports are fun for two reasons. One is competition—just like athletes, we mere mortals love to compete against each other in all walks of life, and most of the time the act of winning is more important than the prize, like grabbing first place in a company softball league or successfully completing a hot wings challenge. Fantasy sports give us a chance to trash-talk, compete against and (hopefully) beat our buddies over the course of four months every year, and unless you're in Warren Buffett's roto league, it's probably not about the money.

The second reason is simplistic but true: fantasy sports are the casual fan's most effective form of access to the game. As much as I may love the Yankees, I often feel helpless watching them because I am constantly aware that I have no control over the outcome. Ostensibly, there's the same lack of control in fantasy sports—you can start Tom Brady, Ray Rice, and Adrian Peterson, but you can't make them rack up points. But because we manage our teams, because we work the waiver wire and concoct the perfect trade with another team in our league and agonize over which tight end to start come Sunday, it feels like we have control. It's the sense of agency that drives participation in fantasy sports, and damn is it fun.

Hampton, you used to be a fantasy fanatic but you've left the fold. What gives, and what will it take to get you back?

–Jake

Left the fold? You mean the cult, don't you? Or, really, the addiction. Because that's what fantasy became for me—an all-consuming, money-sucking, friendship-destroying addiction. It was just like cocaine is for the drug addict, except that models won't follow scummy dudes into bathroom stalls to talk about this year's wide-out sleepers. Quitting cold turkey before last season was savage, Jake, but I finally got clean. Now you not only want to know when I'll relapse, you want me to get poor Patrick hooked, too? For shame, my friend. For shame.

Okay. Look. Reformed junkies are always the most sanctimonious. I'll admit all that good stuff you wrote about fantasy sports is true—particularly the odd sense of empowerment fans get from faux-ownership. But you left out the bad parts of the fantasy fantasy, and our man Patrick deserves the truth.

Despite playing in two or even three leagues in any given season, there has only been one league that I ever cared about—the one started by guys I've known for almost my whole life. Some of us went to grade school and junior high together. We all went to the same suburban Kansas City high school, and most went on to college at KU. Even after school, we managed to stay close, in large part because the league kept us connected—through the constant online banter, or at our annual draft day weekend/testosterone fest and de facto class reunion every August.

Like any good league, we had our traditions. Chowing Gates and Sons after ever Mr. Irrelevant, for instance. Another custom, though, was bumping up the entry fee a few bucks after each season, and those bumps added up over a decade or so. Lots. Throw in the five-dollar transaction fees for every roster move, and the cost of running a team was closing in on a thousand bucks a season.

The higher the stakes got, the more the league changed, especially when co-owners joined who didn't care so much about the social aspects. It's difficult to convey in this small space just how dementedly competitive it all became, but, well... Things. Got. Ugly. In 2004, for instance, I almost came to blows with another owner—a lifelong friend—because of a dispute over Alge Crumpler. That's not unusual, either. Every serious fantasy player, pardon the oxymoron, has at least one tale of a league squabble that led to a feud, that led to the end of a friendship.

In the end, financially and emotionally, the cost just seemed too high, and waking up to realize that you can recite all 32 starting NFL placekickers from memory will make you think twice about the choices you've made in life.

Some people can drink without a problem. Some people can't. Maybe the same is true of fantasy football. Emma, like Patrick, you say you've never played a fantasy sport. What do you say? Are you ready to take that first sip?

–Hampton

Well, Hampton, you did make it sound so appealing—but I am not really ready for my first sip of fantasy football. That's in part because—as I do every year—I procrastinated and did not get around to signing up and drafting a squad in time for the season. It is also in part because, as Patrick put it, I don't necessarily want "skin in the game." I like watching football on lazy weekend days because it is relaxing, entertaining, and gloriously devoid of personal responsibility. Fantasy would change that for me.

But truthfully, I wish that I was more up for it. I like fantasy sports in theory because they encourage (and require) fans to interact more regularly and spiritedly not only with the sports they follow, but also with one another. When I'm around friends who play league fantasy football, I often feel like I'm hearing a different language. Even your email, Hampton, revealed some terms and truths I never really knew about (the extent of the personal expense was a total shock). Over the years, that dialogue has started to feel like a last frontier of sorts in the sports world. I think I know "how" to talk about sports until I hear these addicted fantasy players discuss their transactions.

But each season I'm intrigued, and feel more and more compelled to join, because in so many ways this (rather young) tradition is transforming how we consume and interact with professional sports. Fantasy sports make experts of us all, and I think there's value in that. I mean, it is sort of remarkable that a significant portion of ESPN's NFL coverage is dedicated to informing viewers how to pick imaginary football players for their imaginary teams. But sports fandom has always been like this: it hinges on a self-produced notion of involvement with a particular arbitrary group of players. Fantasy sports just makes it more interactive. So I know I'll join the wave, just as soon as I make the deadline in time.

–Emma

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Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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