Widgets Magazine


The perils of the daily game

In the last decade, fantasy football has transformed from an uncommon pastime into a huge industry. Millions of Americans now participate and many belong to more than one league. No longer do people play only for fun in year-long leagues with their close friends and family; today, fans often bet money weekly on sites like FanDuel or DraftKings.

Those who play fantasy football have no control over the games on which they bet: They can’t control whether a player suffers an injury or whether a coach benches a player due to an early fumble. Sure, there is some strategy involved — certain fans are better than others at keeping up on injury news, analyzing matches, and setting lineups. But to call the money spent on these sites an “investment” is laughable. Football is far too variable from week to week, and there are simply too many unknowns. Fans on daily fantasy sites may be far better served picking players for their lineups based on whether they liked the color of the players’ uniforms. The people who use FanDuel and DraftKings religiously are bettors. They’re gamblers. They’re not investors.

The nature of the daily fantasy game has given many observers pause. Monetized, weekly fantasy games have proved troubling for many; instead of adding valuable “fun” to people’s lives and perhaps giving fans reason to tune into more games, the game has become a source of anxiety for too many fans. Many fans have given up on year-long leagues altogether and have directed their attention and resources to the daily scene. No longer do these people derive joy or excitement from the prospect of beating their good friend, neighbor, or co-worker in a friendly contest. Now, they watch the games worried about the impact of the result on their financial situation for the week.

There’s no problem with betting money on sports, as long as it’s in moderation. Like millions of Americans, I enjoy throwing a couple bucks in a March Madness pool every year; it makes the games more exciting and gives me a reason to tune in. But many fans spend far too much on daily fantasy football, and unlike March Madness, the football season lasts seventeen consecutive weeks, excluding the playoffs. Even worse, many of these fans are overzealous teens with little room for financial error, or parents who waste away their paychecks with little regard for their families. Monetizing the game has created a class of diehard fans who stress over every single game, simply because they care too much not to pay attention. Unfortunately, due to its highly regressive nature, the game has punished these fans, many of whom can least afford it.

The growth of daily fantasy football has created some undesirable consequences, but even more concerning has been its impact on our discourse surrounding sports. Matthew Berry, a longtime fantasy football expert at ESPN, publishes his weekly “Love Hate” column every Thursday afternoon in which he recommends certain players whom he believes are likely to play exceptionally well and cautions against players likely to disappoint. His recommendations are grounded in common sense and empirical analysis of each weekly matchup; Berry does the best he can with the information available to him. When he nails the predictions, fans hail him as a genius. But when he gets it wrong, the discussion turns ugly. Fans around the country berate Berry and direct bitter attacks towards his Twitter account.

I fear that much of the hateful rhetoric I observe is linked to the rise of monetized fantasy football. When fans play for fun, there’s little reason to attack somebody for their misguided advice. But when the financial stakes are high, people are prone to lash out and blame those around them. Unfortunately, Berry is an easy scapegoat.

We should also examine the ways fantasy football players respond to player injuries. When news breaks on Twitter of an injury to a star player that forces him out of the game, too often the discussion focuses on the impact of that injury on people’s fantasy teams. Instead of wishing the player and his family well, and hoping that the injury does not jeopardize his career in the future, people scream, shout, and assign blame.

I love fantasy football. I’ve played for the past five years, and I enjoy doing research so I can make my own projections prior to each season. But I’m worried about its future. We can’t let the game become a source of financial anxiety. I’m not asking that we shut down FanDuel and DraftKings, or that we stop betting entirely. Instead, I’d encourage people to participate in free leagues and keep their daily fantasy betting to a minimum. Let’s keep things in perspective and make sure fantasy football remains primarily what it always has been: a fun, exciting pastime.

Contact Andrew Ziperski at ajzip ‘at’ stanford.edu.