Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance: the five stages of grief. That’s what I go through every time I lose a game of fantasy football. Every year I join an online league, draft a team after weeks of player research and prayer, and accumulate points based on how well my players do from week to week. After the regular season, my league’s top four teams make the playoffs, where they battle it out to determine the champion. Sounds like a fun game, right? Wrong. It’s a serious addiction. Here’s why:
The initial draw of fantasy football is the competitive edge. Most people join leagues with friends, which inevitably leads to massive amounts of hate-infused trash-talking. If you’re like me, you’ve probably had dozens of football-themed debates with friends that never conclude with anything settled, especially your testosterone levels. However, fantasy football provides a medium to definitely (not so definitively, but we’ll get back to that later) decide who amongst your friends truly knows the most about football.
Yet, competition goes way past the goal of proving who knows most about football; it breeds obsession. I learned this the hard way. My first league was with a group of kids with whom I went to camp. After they explained the (surprisingly complex) logistics to me, I spent the rest of the summer bragging about how I would wipe the floor with the whole camp. A week before draft time, I realized I had to back my claims up.
I started with research. In an inhuman period of time I went through three different magazines and about 20 different ESPN articles, burying myself under a heap of player names and draft strategy. Next, I got on my knees and prayed to the fantasy gods for a sleeper, an unknown player who exceeds all expectations. By draft time, I was ready. I could have told you how many yards per catch Mark Bradley averaged against zone blitzes, or how many play action plays Tom Brady ran against a zone defense: I knew it all. I was a mess, but a successful mess.
All the work I put in paid off. I knew to go for a quarterback or tight-end early in the draft—by far the most consistent positions on a year-to-year basis. I knew which players were worth jumping on a round or two early (Mathew Stafford and Jimmy Graham, come on down). Beginning with Week 1, I had my alarm set to 3:01 a.m., so I could be the first player to get in my waiver claims. I was sacrificing sleep and probably my social life, but I was winning.
It all came crashing down that year in the first round of the playoffs. Despite all my obsessive-compulsive tendencies, I lost to a kid who was uneducated about football, to say the least. That’s when I realized that 90 percent of being successful at fantasy football is pure luck. It’s essentially gambling, which is probably why it’s so appealing. Someone who knows only the basics of fantasy football could win a league filled with ESPN “experts.” For example, if you just happened to pick Victor Cruz in the 15th round last year because you liked his name, you probably won your league. Nobody predicted that rookie quarterback Cam Newton would be among the top five scorers in fantasy, but if you were lucky enough to take a chance on him as a back-up, you lucked out. Additionally, it doesn’t matter how well you drafted if your first-round-pick tears his ACL early in the year. While studying statistics helps, in many cases it’s better to be lucky than to be good.
While the gambling component makes fantasy great, it also makes it extremely stressful. Every week, I mentally beat myself—sometimes physically, even if it is a particularly poor decision—when one of my bench players goes off for 30 points while the guy I started ahead of him flops. Out of all the things I enjoy, fantasy football certainly brings me the most stress.
It’s simply astounding how much both fans and the national media have embraced fantasy football. It’s become so mainstream that the NFL network even made a channel (RedZone channel) primarily for fantasy purposes. The cult has even infiltrated the league itself. An NFL referee recently told Eagles running back LeSean McCoy prior to a game, “Come on, I need you for my fantasy [team].”
What makes fantasy so appealing that a referee would show a clear conflict of interest just to play it? It’s that every football fan has had the thought at one point or another, “NFL general managers are idiots—I could easily do a better job.” Fantasy football gives us the chance to be in charge. And when it comes down to it, through all the pre-draft torture, the week-to-week agony, the endless smack talk, there’s nothing better than the bliss that comes with a hard-earned (fantasy) victory.