It is hard to quantify just how huge fantasy sports have become. Fantasy sports, little known before the advent of the internet, have become a multi-billion dollar industry in the past ten years. In a fantasy league, fans take control of digital “teams,” drafting from a pool of active players in a given sport. Each week, depending on how the players perform, the fan earns points and hopes to beat their opponent. Most play for money (some for large sums – there is a fantasy league of Wall Street traders that boasts a $1 million dollar prize), others play purely for pride and bragging rights. No matter what they’re playing for, a lot of people are playing.
There were an estimated one to three million people playing fantasy sports in the early 1990s, before the internet made statistics tracking more accessible to casual fans. A 2010 estimate put the number of users at 32 million. It’s hard to find a sports media outlet that doesn’t cover fantasy sports in some way, or offer a way to play on their website. And it’s hard to find a sport that doesn’t have a fantasy option these days – a simple web search will find you fantasy cricket, bowling, darts, or bass fishing. A 2003 estimation of the financial value of all fantasy sports was $3 to 4 billion dollars; the total has probably grown since then. Simply put, a ton of people are playing fantasy sports, and a ton of money is being made from it.
Fantasy sports have changed the way fans watch games and how the media covers them. Fans now have incentive to watch games that don’t involve their favorite team, but that involve one of their players – even if the game is a defensive slugfest with very little excitement, many fantasy owners will stick it out in the hope that their player will score. TV broadcasts of most sports now put a premium on updating stats on-screen throughout the game – most NFL games show individual player stats after every play, as well as league leaders in fantasy-friendly statistical categories throughout the game.
Fantasy sports have even inspired related television programs. Fantasy football has its own pre-game show on ESPN, as well as a half-hour program in the afternoons. There’s even a comedy TV show, The League, centered on a group of friends and their fantasy football league.
This boom in popularity itself isn’t a huge problem – everyone has their hobbies – but what is troubling is the way that it changes how fans view and treat players. The players are becoming the fan’s commodities, pieces of meat who should do nothing but play, play well, and win the fan a fantasy championship.
At the beginning of the 2011 season, Houston Texans running back Arian Foster, a top selection in many fantasy football drafts, was dealing with a hamstring injury that threatened to keep him out of the first game of the year. Fans were constantly tweeting at him, asking him about his leg – but they weren’t all Texans fans. Many of them just “owned” him in their fantasy leagues. Foster sent out a tweet a week before the first game, saying, “I’m doing ok & plan 2 B [sic] back by opening day. 4 those worried abt your fantasy team, u ppl are sick.” A few hours later, he further explained, tweeting that “… [his] quarrel [was] with people who value a digital game over a human’s health.”
This sort of treatment of injured players is frequent; players are often lambasted for not being able to play through injuries that most fans wouldn’t be able to deal with, let alone play through at a professional level. But since many fans now think of themselves as “owning” these players (there is a comment on a news story about Foster’s tweets that is actually signed, “your employer”), fans treat them like bad bosses would: do your job no matter what, do it well, and make me money. The players are rarely considered as human beings.
Players are similarly attacked by their “owners” if they fail to live up to some preset performance expectation. Consistently performing at a high level in any sports league is extremely difficult, yet many fantasy owners expect it every game. Players are subject to vilification not only by fans, but also by the huge fantasy media industry that breaks down every player’s performance, every game. The player is expected to be a statistics machine, performing at their highest level no matter what–an unsustainable pace for any athlete. A dip in performance is unavoidable – no player can have a great game, every game – but to a majority of fantasy owners, perfection is required. In fact, some players even apologize after “bad” games, saying they need to get more points for their fantasy owners, placating the angry masses.
I’ll admit, in my own experience in fantasy leagues, I’ve been guilty of these offenses. I’ve been angry at players for sitting out games with high ankle sprains, or for “only” scoring one goal, or “only” grabbing nine rebounds. It’ s easy to think this way – that winning is all that matters – but this is a narrow and selfish view. Many fans forget the player’s humanity: they work for our entertainment, but also to provide for themselves, and their families. We sometimes dream about having their athletic prowess, their fame, their pure ability. But for them, our fantasy is their reality.
There’s nothing wrong with playing fantasy sports, but there needs to be an acknowledgement by every fan, a reality check of sorts, that “owning” a player in a fantasy league gives you no right over them, no special privilege. There is no deep connection besides a fan watching the player perform. All that’s left to do is the standard – sit back, watch, and enjoy. This is a divide we shouldn’t cross.