Fantasy Sport: half a century long history

2015-12-24 05:06:09 Author: alextazy Rating: +3

If you have seen the iconic motion picture Moneyball, you are aware that people in Oakland love stats. And it started long before the legendary Billy Beane.

Brad Pitt playing Billy Beane

As early as 1962 the owner of a local NFL club Wilfred Wilkenbach arranged an intriguing contest in one of the Oakland newspapers. One of the newspaper issues contained the list of all NFL players and their nominal prices. Readers were encouraged to pick their teams, staying inside a limited budget. Then everything depended on the football players as they scored certain points for their performances on the pitch. The lucky reader whose team’s players scored the most points was declared the winner of the competition. According to most contemporary researches, it was Wilkenbach’s contest that laid foundations in the history of Fantasy sport.

Wilfred Wilkenbach

Wilkenbach’s idea was great yet not really timely. Readers had to browse through tons of paper stats manually to get an idea of their teams’ performances. Organizers faced an even harder task as they struggled to process all incoming files. All of these factors were leading to delays, gameweek results were published 10-14 days late, angry readers would blow off the game… As a consequence, Wilkenbach’s project bit the dust little by little.

Original of the first ever Fantasy pick

Despite Oakland’s initiative failure, the USA and Canada newspapers caught up the idea and went on to set up similar tournaments in NHL, MLB and NBA competitions. They were generally implementing the simplified rules: for example, they offered to pick ten hockey players and then calculated the total score according to goals + assists system. The European newspapers also began to entertain the audience with similar contests, but naturally put football in the limelight.

Computer era provided a new impulse for the development of Fantasy sport as it solved the problem of processing the massive volumes of statistical information. In 1991 Fantasy League Ltd. introduced the concept of fantasy football which gained unbelievable success in England in the blink of an eye. The tournament based on the 1992/1993 national football championship assembled the audience of several thousand people. Naturally, this figure has been increased each year.

The actual FPL competition poster

The fantasy competition that the British played at the beginning of the 1990s was very much similar to the modern one. There were, however, some significant differences. You could only submit an application at the start of the season, and if your main star got injured or was lured away to another championship, there was no way to replace him. Considering the length of the English championship, many managers faced a number of squad problems and were losing interest by the end of the season. Many of these players switched for sports manager games that became the true revelation in the 1990s. That is where everybody could feel like a manager of a real sports team, react to poor performances and complete transfers.

Internet becoming available for mass users was the next step in Fantasy sport development. The ‘correspondence’-based concept of the game got outdated as the entire web portals, dedicated to Fantasy and offering far more intriguing rules, started to launch. Playing on the Internet, users could make real time transfers, which naturally made the game much more exciting. Besides, Internet made it possible to diversify the system of picking players, enabling users to create special leagues. Friends’ leagues appeared, introducing an option to play in a private group of friends, which is always presenting much more fun than opposing dozens of thousands of abstract counterparts. The scoring system became more sophisticated as many fantasy platforms started to add points for such actions as fouls or corners created in addition to standard goals, assists and clean sheets.

The type of Fantasy sport, described in the previous paragraph, remains popular in some countries. It is not too bad, but has its weak sides. For example, if all of a sudden I get interested in German Bundesliga in December, I will have to wait for the start of the new season for over seven months because, clearly, there is no point to join the current tournament. Even if I were in time to join the competition at the beginning of the season, there is a big chance I would be trailing behind the leaders by hundreds of points by December along with most other players. There is no doubt I would be gradually losing interest in the tournament by the time in this case.

To keep players interested Fantasy platforms need to introduce fresh motivation without a break. This task is successfully solved in the so called Daily Fantasy competitions, extremely popular worldwide, as most days there are prizes to fight for. Instead of creating season-long squad, players need to pick a day, gameweek or month lineup. Such tournaments typically involve bets as every player pays a small entry fee, and the prize pool is shared between the winners. At the same time, most fantasy platforms offer so-called freerolls with free entry as well. Furthermore, there are ‘modernist’ platforms with out-of-the box rules: for example, all players are encouraged to pick a team from 70 randomly selected players (hockey players, baseball players, etc.).

A typical ice hockey Daily Fantasy interface

Fantasy sport has gone a long way from a trivial newspaper entertainment to financial industry with hefty profits. And, obviously, its potential is far from being drained. The game will undoubtedly continue attracting players until people stop loving sports.

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