One by one, general managers take turns walking on stage up to the podium and announcing their first round selections into the microphone. Sometimes they select the player best suited to their team's positional needs, and sometimes they draft the best guy available. The scene is extremely reminiscent of the annual April NFL draft. But it's not.
This is a fantasy sports draft that Chris Liss, managing editor of Rotowire.com, observed for his yet-to-be released documentary "Sundays are for Football." The 16 team league called the Hollyweird League requires a $600 buy-in per player. Team owners even flew their families in for the draft. And obviously, they made the draft as realistic as possible right down to the stage. The only part missing was the players themselves.
Modern fantasy sports started as a rudimentary concept in 1980, a game developed on pen and paper by sportswriter Daniel Okrent. The premise developed by Okrent remains simple, a group of people join a "league" and draft their own teams based on the rosters of real professional teams. Owners must fill out their rosters position by position just like their real counterparts. Then the competition begins.
Though there are a few different ways of scoring, the general idea is that teams score points based on the production of real life players. For every home run Albert Pujols hits on a given day, his fantasy owner gets a certain number of points. There are a variety of different statistical categories and values, but based on the real statistics, teams are allocated points. The object is to accumulate more points than opponents.
Though fantasy players have no control over the production of real players, the game is based on owners constantly tinkering with their rosters to get more talented players or guys that will help in a specific statistical category that their roster is lacking.
Fantasy sports grew from the unique hobby of a few to a universal craze due to the growth of the internet. It's difficult to get an exact measurement, but current estimates by the Fantasy Sports Trade Association suggest that upwards of 20 million Americans currently play.
Besides making scoring easier, the internet has also helped players get more involved because of the wealth of information readily available, according to Jeff Erickson, editor of Rotowire.com. Searchable databases and endless statistics connect fans to sports like never before. "I can't really imagine playing fantasy without the internet," Syracuse University sophomore David Baer says. "Keeping track of stats on paper sounds impossible, but with the internet we can learn all there is to know about players and ESPN even updates fantasy scores live so you can track your team in real time."
According to Liss, the public's fascination with fantasy sports is based on companionship, competitiveness, and sports knowledge. "People know so much about sports that they need a way to compete," he says. "Fantasy sports are a way to measure yourself against others. At the bars talking about it no one cares, it's not satisfying. But with this, there are real winners and losers. You can prove you're better and back it up. And if there's some decent money involved, it's even better."
Understandably, the concept of managing one's own team and making personnel decisions in an attempt to field the best team is extremely appealing to sports fans. "Fantasy sports are about value," says Matt Felong, a senior at Syracuse University. "You're always trying to acquire undervalued players in exchange for overvalued name players. Real general managers try to do the same thing; they constantly look for talent that has yet to blossom."
Felong says that one of the most satisfying parts of fantasy sports is "showing opponents and friends that your sports knowledge is superior. The best way is by drafting a player that no one expects to do well but then he ends up having a great season. Or when a friend and I both want the same player and I end up getting him and he has a great year."
Males bond through fantasy largely based off of the competitiveness. But the relationships that develop through fantasy are surprising. Many people report playing golf and poker with fantasy buddies and talking about trades on the phone with league members for hours on end. Liss participates in Yahoo's "Friends and Family League" and says that he spends more time talking to one of the league's new members, a guy he doesn't know, than his own brother.
Erickson participates in one of the country's most prestigious leagues, Tout Wars, and says that through the league members' families have even come to like each other with all their contact through fantasy. "Men know so much about sports," said Liss. "I mean I can name every player on every major league roster from the last five years. But how do we apply our knowledge? In the past we just debated at the bar or tried in vain to tell our wives what we know. If you knew this much about physics you'd probably invent something. The time fantasy sports players spend reviewing statistics and data is indeed often over the top.
Many fantasy sports players admit that they have an unhealthy addiction to the game. "Fantasy sports suck," says Brian Beer a senior at the University of Colorado. "They are like a drug. I love them, but get addicted and way to into them, and end up wasting so much time. I'll never stop playing fantasy football with my friends just because it's a great way to keep the trash-talk and funny stories going. But I end up scouring the waiver wires for 20 hours a week, scrutinizing over trades that don't matter, and watching my teams woefully underperform on Sundays. I like the competition -- it's what keeps me coming back. Like any drug, it's way easier to keep going than to quit, until the drug starts seriously killing your life. So maybe if fantasy football ruins my life when I have a family, I'll have to consider quitting."
Some players even catch themselves rooting for their fantasy teams over their real life counterparts. "Fantasy sports destroy the sanctity of real sports to me," Beer says. "The New York Giants are my number one priority, but if they lose and my fantasy team has a good day, I don't feel as bad, and that's awful. Fantasy should in no way compensate for my love of my teams, and it does."
Though some people believe that fantasy sports is a dorky hobby, Liss thinks that as fantasy has become more mainstream the stereotype has started to disappear. And besides, he says, there's nothing wrong with having a weird hobby. "Tom Brady throws a ball covered in pigskin to men wearing tights in a game with really crazy random rules. I mean the suits those guys wear are ridiculous. But its entertainment and I think it's great to be really into something."
One aspect of fantasy that hasn't really been tapped yet is the potential for marketing. "There are five million men with similar demographics on Yahoo all looking at the same thing," Liss says. "The group is so targeted, it's just begging for advertisers." Though advertisers haven't figured out how to maximize fantasy sports' potential, wide scale advertising is one of the likely next steps for the industry.
Besides advertising, it's hard to predict the future of fantasy sports. Erickson says he's interested in getting more diversity involved in the game through women and minorities. But how big fantasy can get is unclear.
The acceptance by professional leagues of the rampant interest in fantasy sports has resulted in more attention and access, but it's still difficult to predict the direction of the internet phenomena. The principles of the game will likely remain intact, but as technology changes, the line between fantasy and reality will become even more blurred. But for now, fantasy players seem unconcerned with the technicalities of the future. For them, the game is simply a means to connect with friends and demonstrate superior sports knowledge, and maybe that's all it will ever be.
"Fantasy sports have been a great way to stay in touch with friends from home once I got to college," Felong says. "I think that will be even more true once I graduate because college friends will relocate all over the country. I know a lot of graduates still play in fantasy leagues with friends from college and many of them meet annually to have the draft at a popular vacation spot, such as Las Vegas or in Florida."
The idea of fake drafts and stages may be mocked by fans who find no thrill beyond watching the real deal. But for sports fans who need more, fantasy sports offer a whole new dimension of camaraderie and fun. Instead of observing from afar, fans can actually take control. For these fans, fantasy sports can make the dream a reality.