Fantasy football, Harry Potter, and World of Warcraft have more in common than you think.
For the longest time I thought “fantasy football” sounded too nerdy. The same people who played World of Warcraft might be enticed to cross over to the sports world, which would destroy my high school-like mental divide between football and nerds (which has since been shattered by the likes of Football Outsiders and Advanced NFL Stats).
Before fantasy sports, the very word “fantasy” was reserved for video games with Roman numerals in their titles, or books with 12 sequels. It seemed so inappropriate to mix sports with fantasy. Sports are real; by definition, fantasy is fake.
Sports are events that take place in a limited three-dimensional space, organized by a series of creators, where players must follow certain rules and are observed at all times to assure their compliance to those rules. Out of these spaces and limitations comes a zero-sum competition with a winner and a loser. What happens within this space and time is, more or less, disconnected from all other events on this planet in any significant or measurable way.
When professional sports are described like that, they sound a lot more like video games or novels than real life. Real life is chaotic and spontaneous; sports are designed, controlled, and monitored. In a very significant way, sports already are a fantasy world of sorts. Part of why I love sports—and I suspect why many others love sports as well—is it approaches our ideals of fairness and equality in ways that real life often fails. It can come closer to these ideals precisely because it can artificially create limitations and monitor them at a pretty successful rate. (And, if it’s suspected the fairness ideal has been compromised, the proceedings halt so the overseers can double-check. Time literally stops to make sure the fantasies are upheld.)
If sports are already a fantasy, then fantasy sports are a type of meta-fantasy, a distilled world to create a 4th fantasy dimension. Aside from being kind of mind-boggling to think about—and a little fucked up—it begs the question of whether fantasy sports share any link to reality.
In general, sports are just far enough from reality that we recognize the differences, but just connected enough so we can take it seriously and not feel weird about it. Sports still share some real-world determinants of success like teamwork, applicable intelligence, determination, and perseverance. After all, for most people it feels unnatural to take something extremely seriously that isn’t connected with reality in any functional way (see: LARPing).
Fantasy sports require none of those traits. There is no teamwork whatsoever, applicable intelligence is highly debatable—since a large determinant of success is blind luck—and it doesn’t take much determination to remember to fill out your roster every week. There’s nothing to glean from fantasy sports that can be applied to real life.
But there is one important exception. Sports’ most important function is a distraction from our regular lives. Fantasy sports, despite being completely disconnected from reality, still acts as a perfectly viable form of distraction to supplement a sports fan’s obsession. It’s something to pour over on Tuesday through Friday, when there are no actual sports worth watching. (Unless you like baseball, which is usually as exciting as managing your fantasy roster, which, yes, is a very backhanded compliment.) It’s something to micromanage other than your bank account or your child’s eating habits.
In this very important way, fantasy football acts exactly the same as the more traditional fantasy worlds that existed before it. The imaginary worlds of Harry Potter and World of Warcraft have little in common with Earth, but they offer distractions for billions of people from their daily lives. Their worlds don’t exist except in our minds, which is kind of how fantasy football works, too; handpicking certain events to extract from the complex array of circumstances in which they unfold, placing them in the context of completely different circumstances, and building an unrelated narrative to assign it meaning is the very definition of fantasy.
Fantasy football exists only in our minds, but if it makes our lives better, then it’s real enough for me.
—Photo Ran Yaniv Hartstein/Flickr