Fantasy Sports: The Sporting Revenge of Geek Culture

Andy KontyCorrespondent IIDecember 21, 2012

Dr. Ruth on MLB opening day.
Dr. Ruth on MLB opening day.Julian Finney/Getty Images

Fantasy football, fantasy baseball, fantasy basketball and fantasy soccer teams all appear on my Yahoo! Fantasy Sports web page.  I could, if I were so inclined, also have fantasy golf, fantasy auto racing and if the players and owners were so inclined, fantasy hockey.

Fantasies are supposed to be good for us.  Doctors Ruth and Phil said so.  They mean “healthy” fantasies, of course, not obsessions.

While I like to think that my fantasy sportsmanship is healthy, and everyone else’s is obsessive, I realized last weekend that playing fantasy sports had brought with it a profound change in how I consume the sports entertainment product: aka, watching sports on TV.  

The sports teams and the actual games they play are increasingly less important to me.  In 2012, I didn’t watch a single NBA or MLB regular season game from start to finish.  I might look in if I had a pitcher starting or a point guard was playing who I had never seen before and whose name I could not pronounce.  The only games I watched in their entirety were playoff games.

The fantasy sportsman cares only about the players, and then not really the person, but the player’s stats.


Fantasy Playoffs

NFL Week 15 is semifinal week for most NFL fantasy football leagues, with the league finals on Week 16.  Why are the fantasy football finals in the penultimate week rather than the ultimate week of the season?  Because in the final week of the season, teams that have already secured their playoff position are tempted to rest some of their starters, particularly star players.  

These star players are, of course, crucial to fantasy managers.  So, rather than play the fantasy league championships on a week when star players may or may not get in the game, nearly every fantasy football league conducts the finals the week before.  

Fantasy baseball and basketball handle the vagaries of the season’s final weeks by making the league final a two-week, cumulative point contest.  Every other head-to-head fantasy game totals the stats for one calendar week.  

The finals, however, are deemed too critical by fantasy sportsmen to leave to the vagaries and fluctuations of the final weeks of the season.  They therefore use two weeks of statistics just in case a coach who is coaching for the playoffs or next season, a player who is rested for the playoffs, an injured player who decides to wait for next season or any number of unusual end-of-season considerations do not impact the integrity of the fantasy league final.

The fantasy sportsman could care less about the battles for playoff position and instead structures the fantasy league itself around such nuisances.


Fantasy Football: Week 15

I’m in the semifinals and have the highest-scoring team in the league.  This is by far the best fantasy team I have ever had.   My fantasy team is trailing going into the Sunday night matchup between the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers.  

My starting QB is Tom Brady, and he is a BIG part of the reason my team is so good.  So I need a big night from Gorgeous Tom, against the NFL’s No. 2 pass defense, to get me back into the head-to-head matchup.  

The Pats are blanked in the first quarter and Brady can’t manage anything more than a few underneath throws.  This won’t cut it.  So when the Niners go up 14-3, I’m psyched because now the Pats will have to throw the ball, which means beaucoup chances for my fantasy quarterback.  

In fact, if the Niners can score some more, then Brady has to throw even more passes.  So I want the Niners to score, but not get too far ahead because then the Niners will unleash Frank Gore and try to control the tempo and the game clock.  This is no good for me because I want Brady to have more possessions.  

I thus find myself cheering for the Niners to get ahead, but not too far, just enough that the Patriots feel inclined to throw the ball and abandon their ground game.  At this point I realize that I could care less who wins the game.

In the second half, I don’t look at the Yahoo! Fantasy Football window on my computer.  I don’t want to jinx my starting QB.  Too many times I have destroyed my fantasy players by watching their stats too closely.  It's true; if I follow them too closely, they immediately go in the tank.  Besides, I can count fantasy points in my head.

Soon my fantasy comes true, the Niners start playing not to lose and give Brady just enough daylight to find a rhythm with his receivers.  My fantasy QB puts up huge numbers and I win our fantasy football semifinals.  Yahoo! awards me the “Toyota Biggest Blowout Award” for my dominant performance, my fifth one this year.

The goal of every player on the field and every fan in the stands is for one team or the other to win the game actually being played.  But not the fantasy sportsman.  The games themselves become fantasies, where the outcome doesn’t matter and the true meaning of the game is found within the subtext, like themes in a fairy tale.


Free Dumb

I don’t care for the money fantasy sports leagues that have sprung up all over the place.  In these leagues you pay an entry fee and there is a monetary prize at the end.  The fantasy sports equivalent of going pro, I guess.

I am retaining my amateur status.  The best part about the fantasy is that it's free.  In exchange for ignoring a few ads, the good folks at Yahoo! will set up my league, keep the stats and report the head-to-head fantasy scores on the Scoreboard powered by Miller Lite.  

All season long Yahoo! awards performance “medals” that flash on your team’s page: Toyota Biggest Blowout, Rav/4 Golden Touch, Venza Head Turner, On a Roll (with a picture of a roll of toilet paper) and several others I cannot decipher.  Nothing is truly free, I suppose.  

A free service should be appreciated more by fantasy sportsmen.  Hell no.  When a bug hit the Yahoo! system in Week 10, you’d think by the hew and cry that the North Koreans were invading Hawaii.  Yahoo! suits sent out emails apologizing that they were not able to deliver instant mobile app gratification to those of us procrastinators with millisecond attention spans and expectations that Santa Claus couldn’t meet.

I shudder to think what could have happened if my fellow fantasy sportsmen had actually paid to be in the league; it may have crashed the world economy or swung the Electoral College toward Donald Trump.


Revenge of the Geeks

Fantasy sports are not fantasy games, those card-and-dice roleplaying games adored by high school geeks.  The same geeks who endure years of terrible abuse dealt out by football players and other jocks.

Fantasy sports should be the domain of those ex-jocks.  Who else would have the interest or expertise to successfully manage a sports team?  

Except it's not.

Instead the jocks find themselves regularly abused by those same geeks whose larger craniums and years of strategizing—in games, as well as how to keep their bladders from betraying them with a trip to the school’s bathroom torture chamber—destroyed the old jock method of player evaluation.  Look at the fantasy scores posted by celebrity ex-jocks—my ten-year-old son could beat them.

You saw the movie, read the book or are otherwise aware of the geeks that changed baseball.  In Moneyball there is a scene where the A’s scouts, ex-players oozing jockishness, are evaluating baseball players, arguing with each other in a thinly-veiled homoerotic fashion about the cut of a player’s jib, privileging their own subjective love affairs and scoffing at hard data.  

The lone geek in the room sits quietly, avoiding the discussion lest he be taunted and jeered and overwhelmed by the PTSD from his own high school experiences.  The lone geek knows these meatheads are clueless about player evaluation, that the numbers don’t lie and that the team is doomed to another whipping by the Yankees.  Only the iconoclast Billy Beane is desperate enough to listen to the geek.

By the end of the story, the geeks win and sabermetrics is adopted in some form across the league.  These days this type of data-driven approach that ignores the traditions of jock culture is found in every team sports league in the world.  

The jocks, of course, refuse to admit the geeks got the better of them.  Lord High Geek Nate Silver wrote an article arguing that Miguel Cabrera should not win MLB’s Most Valuable Player Award because Cabrera was deficient in the stats that are most valuable to baseball.  Across the airwaves and internet, the ex-jocks screamed defiance and continued to spout pablum about there being “more to sports than numbers," as if the truth of that statement meant that the jock culture’s evaluation method detected something that math and science missed.

Fantasy sports are the ultimate revenge of the geeks.  The geeks made sports teams and games inconsequential to fantasy sportsmen.  They reduced their jock tormentors to the equivalent of 12-sided dice and dungeon cards.  In the end, fantasy sports become just like fantasy games, and those fantasy games are such a colossus that sports marketing and viewing is changed forever.

Just like any healthy fantasy, this one is good for us.