The author of this guest post is Chad Carlson. Dr. Carlson is an Assistant Professor of Kinesiology at Hope College (MI). He has published numerous articles on the philosophy and history of sport.
In a recent article in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, I argued that Fantasy Football is a parasitic game. In other words, it is a game that derives its existence and value from the actual sport of American football (not to be confused with what the rest of the world calls football). Fantasy Football, therefore, is a second order game. Its unique and unprecedented popularity has in many ways paralleled that of actual football. In fact, without actual football, the fantasy counterpart would fail to exist.
Despite its genetic determination from actual football, Fantasy Football also shares some characteristics with other games. Like “cybersport,” Fantasy Football is governed in cyberspace. However, in “cybersport,” the “athlete” has complete agency over the movements and operations of the game whereas in Fantasy Football, the owner does not.
Like simple sport spectatorship, Fantasy Football shares in that a lot of the fun and enjoyment of the game comes from actually watching the NFL games play out and cheering one way or another. However, whereas Fantasy Football owners have the ability to set their lineups and activate or deactivate their players, fans watching actual football games have no real (legal) ability to manipulate the events on the field to encourage their team to win—outside of cheering really loudly!
Fantasy Football may be most like card games such as poker. In these games, the player (owner) has some agency to make the most of his/her hand (team). However the difference here is in the time at which the player has agency. In poker, the player is dealt a hand theoretically at random. The player has no control over the cards dealt. From there, the card shark is able to make the most of his/her hand. Fantasy Football is the opposite. The owner has the ability to set his/her lineup by inserting, benching, trading, waiving, and picking up players who are in the best position to obtain fantasy points in each week’s games. Yet that’s where the owner’s agency ends. Once the games begin, the owner is at the mercy of “the Fantasy Gods.”
I stand by all of these metaphysical arguments. For as popular as Fantasy Football has become (it has become exceedingly difficult to delineate between the NFL and Fantasy Football—just watch the ticker below an NFL broadcast), it is still a second order game whose value owes its entire existence to actual football. It is no coincidence, then, that Fantasy Football’s popularity has risen alongside the unprecedented increases in popularity of the NFL.
As such, I argued that we should be wary of Fantasy Football’s value. As a second order game it naturally has a second-class status; and as a parasitic game, it has warped our understanding of football.
I argued that although Fantasy Football has played a large role in the continually growing interest in NFL football, the way in which Fantasy Football has promoted this growing interest might not be healthy. Fantasy Football promotes only certain aspects of football—the accrual of individualized statistics by quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, and kickers—to the neglect of other important roles and aspects of the game. Further, the goals of Fantasy Football pervert our viewership of NFL games. Watching NFL games to follow my fantasy team has rid me of any purist viewership of football, and it has turned me into a disloyal and contextual partisan. I cheer not for teams, but for the individual players I drafted from a variety of NFL teams to compose my fantasy roster. Further, I cheer for particular events to occur within NFL games that create situations in which my players can accrue statistics and therefore obtain fantasy points. Thus, I might cheer for a particular team to be stopped for little to no gain on first and second downs in the red zone so that the quarterback might target my tight end or wide receiver in the end zone on third down. Or I might cheer when my running back breaks tackles for a big gain but then find disgust when the exact same team has another long gain the next play if it is a result of a carry by another of that team’s running backs. This type of spectatorship can easily create unhealthy attitudes towards football as an individual rather than team sport. And this attitude goes against the maxims of every football coach in the country who preaches that the strength of football is in the team.
I have been reminded of all of this most recently throughout the first two weeks of the Fantasy Football, er, NFL, season. I am watching the games very closely and I remember which teams win, but my mood changes based not on which teams win but based on whether my fantasy players have done well or not. As such, I am reminded of how Fantasy Football has the ability to alter how we watch and understand the NFL.
However, I have also been reminded of how Fantasy Football can be a very fun and playful way of coming to understand and enjoy professional football. This August, my family decided to start a Fantasy Football league. Most of our league’s members were new to Fantasy Football, and a few in-laws were relatively new American football.
After explanations from us “experts” about such elementary fantasy issues as why one should not draft a team defense in the first round and what a “flex” position entails, and after the resulting snickers from the foreign in-laws about the term “tight end,” we held a draft and are well on our way to conducting a successful Fantasy Football league.
I have been amazed at how well some of the non-football fans in our league have come to understand the pigskin game just by reading and listening to expert advice on Fantasy Football. Media analysis of Fantasy Football has become so complex and detailed that it is difficult to argue that interest in Fantasy ownership necessarily encourages fantasy owners to neglect certain crucial aspects of actual football in attempts to win Fantasy Football games. Much of the production of the playmakers that top the Fantasy Football stat charts comes from healthy and serviceable offensive lines, advantageous defensive matchups, and the wily game plans of offensive coordinators. Understanding these complexities requires more than just a surface-level knowledge of football.
Fantasy Football has also become a way for my family to bond. While we’ve never failed to find activities around which we’ve enjoyed each other’s company, we can now add Fantasy Football to our list. The last few Sundays have been filled with “trash-texting” and needling emails, and I am reminded of how much fun Fantasy Football can be for a family that has great interest in competitive sports but no real long-standing connections to any particular NFL team.
Therefore, I feel the need to temper my thoughts on Fantasy Football’s lack of value. Kept in context, the game can serve as a fun diversion—among many others in this world.
But Fantasy Football is healthiest when kept in metaphysical context. As I write this, I sit at 0-2. My first round loss was to my brother. While he convinced us that he didn’t put much time or effort into his team, I at least took solace in the fact that he knows football and Fantasy Football relatively well. However, my Week 2 loss to my, gulp, mom, has me reaching deep into the ontological stronghold of my memory to keep focus on the fact that Fantasy Football is a game involving a great deal of luck just like poker. My mom is a great athlete, but she doesn’t know football (in fact, she didn’t know what the “Bye” column next to her roster of players meant until after Week 1). This led me to believe that my matchup with her would be as easy as taking candy from a baby.
In actual sports, each player’s agency is far greater. When I’m losing a sporting contest I can try harder or play smarter and often have my efforts rewarded on the scoreboard. If I found myself running neck and neck in a footrace with my mother I could, theoretically, try harder and end up winning as a result.
Fantasy Football is different. It is not a sport. More effort, better skill, or a deeper knowledge of the game will not necessarily result in a better performance. While I see that from one perspective as I lose to my mom, I see it from another angle regarding my dad. Dad came to our draft with a 3” three-ring binder full of draft analysis, printed tips, and notes to himself that he referenced while using all of the 90 seconds allotted to him for each pick he made. He spends a great deal of time studying expert analysis, offering trade options, and hovering over the waiver wires. And as the only former football player in our league, he has the highest expectations for the season.
But as of Monday night, he also sits at 0-2 in our league. The former quarterback (Dad) and the philosopher (that’s, um, me) have nothing to show for their relevant areas of expertise. And this reminds me that Fantasy Football is not an actual sport. It is a game that requires more luck than skill. So my response to the “trash-texts” I’ve received from my mom since my loss to her is: “You’re not better than me. The Fantasy Football gods simply found more favor with you than me.”
Does my loss make me a lesser athlete? Of course not! But does my response to the loss make me a bad sport? Well…