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Fantasy football is not a casual game

I never played fantasy sports before. I’m not a big enough sports fan to warrant the effort but I agreed to play fantasy football this year with a small group of guys from work. I saw the opportunity as a way to explore what makes fantasy football fun and interesting in hopes of using that knowledge to improve my own fantasy game.

Paying attention

I approached fantasy football as a casual gamer. I don’t pay much attention to pro football outside of the few headlines I see on ESPN. I don’t have any allegiance to any one team or player. In short, I just wanted to play “the game” of fantasy football and after only a few weeks I’ve discovered that you cannot be a casual fan and have fun. That might sound like a big duh but I wanted to see if it was possible to have fun being someone with only casual interest in the sport.

In fantasy football you’re playing the roll of a team manager, creating your team out of real world NFL players. The points you earn correspond to how well the players on your team do in real life football games each week. I use this basic concept in my Hot Wheels fantasy league but that’s also where I stop. Frankly, racing toy cars just doesn’t lend itself to a lot of micromanagement but fantasy football is just the opposite.

I’m playing fantasy football through ESPN’s web site and their interface for the game gives you all sorts of information about the teams and players. It tells you how many points each player is expected to earn each week and also the chances that they’ll be playing at all. This is all helpful, I suspect, but even with all that information you still need to read the news and stay up-to-date on NFL happenings. I thought I could take a set-and-forget approach to playing but you can’t even do that because the NFL schedule includes bye weeks and if you have a player that isn’t playing that week, you’ll lose out on points. And then there’s strategies around who’s playing who…which defenses vs offenses are better (or worse). I saw very quickly how fantasy football can take over all your play time in just number crunching alone. Ugh. It was a little too involved for my tastes.

Leave your emotions at the door

Approaching fantasy football as a casual fan and casual game just doesn’t work. The game itself gives you a lot of information to start so the barrier to entry is really pretty low but you quickly find out those tools just aren’t enough. But I now really understand the genius that is fantasy sports games. Sure, you play with your friends and have a good time trash talking but the sheer amount of content you have to digest in order to be “good” is the real fascinating part. Television, radio, paper, online…if you want to be good you need to take it all in, and as a content provider (say, ESPN), you couldn’t find a better way to draw in customers. This is gamification that actually works. The game isn’t building your team and watching them fight, it’s the research. Can research really be fun?

Apparently, yes, yes it can. It can also be addicting, as I learned after talking some some co-workers that I was playing with. I found out that being an actual football fan makes the game even “worse” because it turns the game into a battle against yourself. The one case I got was the fact that my friend was a Steelers fan, so he wanted the Steelers to win. But in fantasy football he was asked to cheer for teams that were playing against the Steelers. In order to win his fantasy league he had to accept that the Steelers needed lose. Darth Vader didn’t have that much internal conflict.

Information overload

After hearing that I thought maybe I’d have an edge in the game because I didn’t care which teams won or lost each week, I was just going after points. Alas, playing fantasy football like you play Pac-Man just doesn’t work. I might have been free of emotional baggage but my lack of interest in the sport overall doesn’t help build a platform of success. There are just too many variables in football (or any real sport) to make the fantasy version tolerable. Minding two or three attributes is one thing but keeping track of dozens upon dozens of variables is just too much. I don’t know how anyone keeps up with it.

I’m going to finish playing fantasy football this season just so I can go through the entire process, trying different methods of lazy strategy over the next 13 weeks. I’m sure there is a balance in there somewhere that lets my level of casual fandom work and still have some fun. I’m not there yet but it’s in there somewhere. It’s gotta be. Although, if nothing else, the experience so far makes me feel a lot better about my own fantasy league game. I thought maybe my game needed more depth to keep things fun but it might just be the opposite.