The creation of fantasy sports leagues has allowed avid fans to become armchair coaches. But at what point is love of the game sacrificed to ruthless analysis and numbers on a page? By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
The reality of fantasy leagues
NBA draft day had come around again. Our fantasy league’s commissioner had skilfully corralled the 16 coaches, spread across several time zones, and patiently explained the rule changes for the new season. For those unfamiliar with or indifferent to fantasy sports, allow me to impress upon you the nobility of the commissioner: to properly acquit this role, you require not merely a love for the sport in question, but equanimity, fastidiousness and a talent for administration.
Having finished second-last the previous season, I was determined to create a roster with vastly greater depth than the one I’d previously inherited through an auto-draft. “Depth” was my byword: not again for this coach would injured starters be replaced with aged journeymen only good for junk minutes. No, talent would be judiciously spread throughout the roster.
To this end, there wasn’t that much research, and no more planning, I suppose, than the United States had committed to its invasion of Iraq. Perhaps “research” is misleading: my preparation for this season hinged largely upon idly asking myself several questions.
To start: wither Ben Simmons? My attitude to this man swings wildly from sympathy to derision. Since losing the faith of his Philadelphia teammates and earning the hysterical contempt of his adopted city, the sad tagline for Simmons’ career has been squandered promise. At Brooklyn, the Australian has been haunted by injury, indifferent form and the condescension of pundits, and it has now become ritualistic to examine his preseason performances and express hope – earnestly or sarcastically, depending on who you are – for the full recovery of his talents.
Simmons begins this season at Brooklyn with a wildly different team than began the previous one: gone are the hyper-stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and he now has, as so many commentators like to say, the keys to the Brooklyn car. But does he have the confidence to drive it?
There were other questions: what was a sensible price for Ja Morant, the talented but shamelessly errant Memphis star currently suspended for 25 matches for his habit of flashing guns in public? Would James Harden, currently refusing to play for the 76ers, find refuge in another team – or more strip clubs?
These were some of my idle questions, but my preparation wasn’t all so senseless: I’d also made a list of names curated for their spread of talent, positions and estimated price. But none of it mattered, because all of my preparation was quickly sacrificed to the cheap endorphins of wild auction bids. Dear reader, my first NBA draft was corrupted by a very particular character flaw.
Here, again, was the temporary but costly foolishness that befell me when I first began using eBay some years ago, when most goods were subject to auction. The obvious and rational strategy is to fix your maximum bid and then walk away. But not me. I developed a form of white-line fever, and it was never more feverish than when I once bid on a baseball signed by Jimmy Carter.
What began as a very modest pledge quickly snowballed into many hundreds of dollars as I was deliriously provoked by my rivals’ escalating bids. To my horror, the auction ended with me as its “successful” bidder – leaving me with sweaty palms and the question of how I might pay rent that week.
I was rescued by luck: within hours, eBay wrote to say there was something fishy about the vendor and that the auction had been nullified. I crossed myself, repentant and grateful, and swore to never again become so intoxicated by auctions. And I think I’d mostly honoured that – until last weekend. As soon as the auction started, I became the rat on the hamster wheel, pedalling giddily for another taste of that damn pellet.
In our league, fantasy players are each given a notional $200 to spend on their roster – the NBA’s absolute elite will typically go for about $60, but, as with most markets, goods are bought for whatever someone is willing to pay. The salary cap of $200 is carefully calculated to encourage compromise and tactical prudence – a fantasy roster is comprised of 13 players, and immediately splurging $125 on Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo, say, would prove recklessly short-sighted.
But knowing this doesn’t matter, because it turns out that my disordered relationship to auctions was not vanquished but merely hibernating. As soon as our live draft began, there was something about watching the bid number rise, and the seconds clock dwindle, that destructively excited my amygdala. With my first three bids, I’d already spent more than three-quarters of my salary (on Doncic, Durant and Sabonis, for those playing at home).
Only now do I see the great fortune of not having attended the auction for the house I live in. Had I been there, I’ve no doubt I would’ve indulged in profligate brinksmanship and somehow pledged to buy not only the house in question, but also both of those adjoining it.
Fantasy sports is said to have been created by the magazine journalist Daniel Okrent in a New York bistro in 1980. It was a baseball league, comprised of mates who contributed a few hundred dollars, the winner claiming half the pot. Today, the Fantasy Sports and Gaming Association says 50 million Americans played some form of fantasy sport last year. ESPN employs several fantasy sport analysts, memoirs have been written and FX got seven seasons out of its comedy series The League.
Okrent was profiled by The New Yorker in 2015, when he wryly discussed the costs of fantasy leagues on his mates. “A couple of them really don’t give a shit about baseball at all anymore,” he said. He meant here that his friends had become fanatically absorbed not with baseball but with the enormous volume of data it generates. They had lost their love of the game itself and become mad accountants. “When people say, ‘How do you feel, having invented this?’ I say, ‘I feel the way that J. Robert Oppenheimer felt having invented the atomic bomb.’ I really do. I mean, pretty terrible!”
But in our humble league, it’s not all spreadsheets and bloodless accountancy. There is, happily, still room for the irrationality of fandom. Some players draft disproportionately from favourite teams, out of fondness but also as a hedge against conflicted interest. Some may desire an Aussie in their team, while others may pay a premium for the distinction of having the French rookie Victor Wembanyama on their squad – around no rookie since LeBron James has so much awed expectation bloomed. Meanwhile, most participants will have favourite players, happily overlooking their inconsistency, lurid scandals, or fervent belief in Earth’s flatness.
Meanwhile, I’ll start the book Professor Renee Miller, an American neuroscientist, published in 2013, Cognitive Bias in Fantasy Sports: Is your brain sabotaging your team? Even if I well know the answer.
Daniel Okrent won’t have any part of it. He retired from fantasy sports years ago, fatigued. “In the first year or two you’re playing, you are much more engaged with baseball than you’ve been since you were seven years old,” Okrent told The New Yorker. “And then, by your fourth or fifth year, the actual game has lost meaning for you. You’re engaged in the numbers that the game spins out and engaged with millions of others in the same way. It has no relationship not just to the fan attachment that you may have had to a particular team but to the physical thing that’s taking place on the field. It’s the representation of it in a number that’s what’s important.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 28, 2023 as "Blights of fantasy".
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