That thunderous gallop you hear isn’t your imagination:it’s the sound of millions of Americans rushing breathlessly to their computer and television screens. It happens every year – and every year the stampede grows louder.
It’s the beginning of fantasy football season.
The NFL season doesn’t begin until early September, but it’s the preceding month and a half that has nearly one in five United States males foaming at the mouth, since this is the time of year when fantasy football drafts are initiated.
Fantasy football is an online game in which each ‘owner’ selects real-life football players, and then garners points based on those players’ stats. Teams compete against one another on a week-to-week basis, with the winners determined by most points scored in each match. This ultimately results in a “championship game” usually played in late December.
At an August meeting in Leander, Texas, eight friends met to engage in a live fantasy football draft. This type of event is a relatively rare for most fantasy leagues, as most drafts are conducted online.
In total, there are 10 participants in this fantasy football league, but two could not attend the draft, instead relying upon Skype and text messaging to send in their picks. Before the draft, league commissioner Ryan Centi feverishly distributed draft day documents of fantasy football rankings and draft boards for participants to record their picks. ESPN Insider, a paid subscription service that promises to help improve subscribers’ chances of winning their league, generated the rankings.
Meanwhile, the other men gathered around a pool table, repeatedly checking their phones as they prepared to engage in the three and a half hour process of drafting their fantasy team.
At the center of the table was a fantasy football trophy – bought on eBay – that each participant from the previous year of the league had helped pay for. The trophy comes with blank plaques for each future champion to engrave their team name into.
Centi, who is also the reigning league champion, boasted that he would repeat the feat this year.
“I think I killed it. This trophy is mine,” Centi said after the draft. “You’ve got to be confident in your picks.”
Every inch of fantasy football oozes with advertising dollars, multi-platform experiences, and social media exacerbation. Most importantly, the users of the NFL generated game are loyal to the bone.
An estimated 32 million North Americans engage in fantasy sports, and this time of year advertising for the game is everywhere. And as data suggests that fantasy fans are much more likely to watch games and buy tickets, it’s not surprising how aggressively fantasy football is promoted.
Fantasy football also encourages participants to watch every game that each of their players is involved in. The typical fantasy football roster is composed of 15 different players, which can lead participants to watch most every NFL game during a week. This task has been made easy by a pay television services like NFL Redzone, which shows, commercial free, each touchdown of the day. This program often runs upwards of six hours each Sunday of the NFL season.
“It makes you want to pay attention to every football game instead of just a couple every week. Makes Sunday Ticket worth it,” Centi said. He also said that he didn’t feel the game made him more inclined to buy NFL merchandise – although he does own a jersey of fantasy superstar Arian Foster.
The marketing magic here is that players’ performances are unaffected regardless if a user watches the games. But it’s that illusion of control that contributes to the game’s addictive quality.
Juan Dominguez, an associate professor of psychology at UT, says not much is known about Internet addiction. But fantasy football has some traits similar to other forms of addiction – like a reward system.
“These individuals are engaging in an activity where they have anonymity, where it offers convenience and escape, because it’s being done online,” Dominguez says. “And they’re also participating in an activity that helps them feel as though they are a part of a group, and hopefully it would be a winning group. So it gives you this variable ratio reinforcement schedule that you also see with gambling.”
In a survey I posted to Reddit, 21 percent of 477 respondents said they spent 10 or more hours a week maintaining their fantasy football teams.
It’s important to note that hours alone aren’t the same as addiction; Dominguez says addiction is best defined as “continuation of this activity despite negative consequences.” This would include the loss of a relationship or job opportunity.
Still, it’s easy to see how important fantasy football is to a fan’s viewing experience. In that same survey linked on Reddit, nearly half the respondents said that their football viewing experience would be significantly worse without fantasy football.
Centi, who has played fantasy football for six years, is involved in five different leagues this year. He estimated that he spends 10 hours a week on the game.
“It’s definitely fun to do in the spare time, but just if you’re a football fan it gets you even more involved in the sport and liking it,” Centi said.