Imagination & Analysis in Fantasy Sports
Back in the 1960s, the first versions of fantasy sports were born in a New York hotel. The first leagues were constructed around football. One part-owner of an NFL franchise sat down with friends to imagine the same exact league from the prior year’s season and to replicate that league with freedom and imagination.
This early version of fantasy sports is quite a bit different than the common leagues like Fantasy Premier League for England’s Premier League and DraftKings specials, which is a daily fantasy provider in the US.
These first iterations covered previous seasons so that real stats could be applied. Today, fantasy leagues constitute one of the most popular ways for fans to engage with their favorite sports in an imagined space. Users rely on real-time stats and analysis to inform their moves.
At first, fantasy leagues were a place for US sports fans to geek out with their favorite statistical analysis tools that would predict what was likely to happen going forward in season play. Another reason fantasy leagues were so popular in the US was that they aren’t considered sports betting, which has been historically illegal stateside.
At the turn of the millennium, groups like Yahoo to ESPN began offering fantasy leagues for sports fans. However, it wasn’t until 2012 that numbers began to boom. Within only six years, fantasy sports players nearly doubled, quickly jumping from 8 million users to 15.5 million.
Since then, fantasy sports have spread across the world. Globally, football (soccer) and cricket are the most popular fantasy sports leagues. In the US, American football has a solid hold on the fantasy sports sector.
Most companies also accept real money action on their fantasy leagues. In fact, some sites list sportsbooks and fantasy providers alongside one another in their free bets and special offers sections. FanDuel, for example, is a popular company that offers both sports betting and daily fantasy contests for real money.
Why Do We Play?
But why play a fantasy version of a real game that’s happening live in real-time (usually weekly)? Is it the desire to become part of the game? Or is it the desire to manage and reimagine moves that coaches and players make?
Cruyff Institute offered insight on a recent survey of 183 habitual fantasy league players. Of the participants, 53% said they played for entertainment purposes. In other words, it’s a hobby.
Another 47% said they played in order to beat their friends. This hints that fantasy leagues are another battleground for competition—especially for those who may not be hitting home runs or sinking three-pointers.
In a decidedly different thread, 51% of participants said they played for the love of the game, while another 49% said they played to be more connected. This shows that there’s a strong link between fantasy leagues and passion for the sport itself—not only from a fan standpoint but from a technical and strategic standpoint.
In other words, fans like to stay updated on what’s happening in a real league like the NFL or the Premier League, but they also enjoy applying their own opinions and analysis in a controlled environment that simulates their favorite aspects of the sport.
Despite the fact that the global fantasy sports industry is worth $1.5 billion, 86% of participants said that they played free fantasy sports, with only 14% looking to cash in on their league play.
Playing for Sport or for Cash
What’s the difference between playing fantasy sports for the love of the game or for cash? Why can’t it be both? When it comes to competing in fantasy sports, there are plenty of free options.
ESPN Fantasy, Yahoo Fantasy, Fantasy Premier League, and NFL Fantasy Football are mega-popular platforms that offer users a variety of features without an entry cost or further microtransactions.
With more than 30.5 million total users between the companies listed above, it’s clear most just want to try their hand at statistical analysis and arranging a killer team. This is an important part of the athletic imagination.
While someone engaging in fantasy sports may never step onto the gridiron or skate onto the rink themselves, they can apply their knowledge of the sport into a very real and tangible platform. This format also changes every year, making it exciting and dynamic.
Few teams remain static for more than a season, and few seasons happen without one or more interesting dynamics at play. This includes recent trades and drafts, rule changes, and staff turnover.
Imagination Meets Reality
At the moment, investment in fantasy leagues in the US is booming. Major leagues themselves, like the MLB, NHL, and NBA, are all scrambling to get behind a popular fantasy franchise.
It’s clear the leagues are attempting to cash in on the future billions that are sure to come along with successful fantasy league franchises. But it’s also interesting to consider why leagues like the NFL or the NBA may need to rely on a fantasy counterpart to survive.
Fantasy sports aren’t only a way to exercise knowledge about a sports league. They’re a way to figure out how to apply insight in a meaningful way. Big data companies that focus on sports analytics are already busy with this work day in and day out.
But in a fantasy league, a regular Joe can pore over what’s happening in their favorite league and then selectively apply that knowledge how they see fit. Again, it isn’t about knowing hard stats—it’s about reimagining where they may be relevant in a game that’s already been fleshed out and studied with a fine-tooth comb for (at least) a century.
Every fantasy player is looking for that one reapplied insight. They’re looking to take what experts and friends and competitors are concluding and then find a way to successfully apply those analyses in a unique and successful way.
In other words, there’s quite a bit of innovation happening within the industry. Despite the ample tables of hard data and percentages, fantasy leagues require a concentrated dose of imagination to apply such unbelievable amounts of statistical input and expert analysis.