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Sunday, 9 August 2015

In Praise of Fantasy Football

Once again we're at the start of a new English Premier League season, bringing with it all the things you'd expect: transfer rumors, managerial sackings and the odd instance of fan misbehavior (typically in the form of racism or violence). But enough nostalgia for my days in London, which in any case I covered at around this time last year - no, today I want to talk about the humble fantasy league.

While I went around 9 years between the one I participated in at my first job (the venerable Blundersliga) and the one I'm on now, run through the Premier League's own site, it's actually hard to remember what life was like without it. OK, that might be overstating things, since I also just went without for the past couple of months... but there was definitely something missing from my life.

But it's back now, and so is my (admittedly limited) interest in the doings of mid- or low-tier Premiership sides like Everton or Norwich. During those 9 long years where I didn't join a league, the start of the season was always a trial, because I had no real interest in any of the teams. I generally don't commit to supporting any Premiership sides, because of the inevitable conflict when they meet an Italian team I support, so trying to muster some interest in the likelihood of Spurs winning the league was always a bit beyond me.

But add in the prospect of earning points and competing with friends, family members and colleagues who work 5,000 miles away and whom you've never met, and suddenly I am quite interested, thank you, in how many goals Harry Kane is likely to score this season. Chris Hardwick once summed up the appeal of Dungeons & Dragons as a hybrid of fantasy and math ("squeeeee"), and this is just as valid in fantasy sports, which is pretty much just Dungeons & Dragons for jocks.

In fact, from what I can tell soccer is actually a pretty dumbed-down version - listening to my friends who play fantasy football (NFL) or baseball tells me that they immerse themselves in a lot more stats than I do. I'm mainly interested in how many goals, assists and clean sheets my team will get, along with the not insignificant question of whether they're playing at all - American sports have gone through the looking glass and introduced something where you can have athletes from all sports on one team.

Crazy, huh? I wanted to add some impact to that statement by listing athletes from each major sports league in America, but after Lebron James I couldn't think of anybody. Sorry. But I'm sure if you can be bothered to think about three enormously stat-driven sports at once, it must be super-fun.

As I said, though, I prefer the simpler pleasures of obsessively watching Sky Sports News for news of who's registered a clean sheet or not, only to return to the office on Monday to discover that my entire starting lineup was out through injury, international duty or simply being too shit to start. That and, of course, coming up with witty comments on what my team did during the week.

This was why the Blundersliga was my favorite experience. It was set up by my friend and coworker Mike, who laboriously went through the scores in the Times on Monday and exhorted the rest of us managers to say something clever about our performance. I filled in for him once when he was on holiday, and I can report that it was a pretty serious job, checking each player's score and then doling out the points.

Of course, the reason I'm so nostalgic for the post-match reports is that I found early on that you could do all kinds of wonderful things with them. I introduced, for instance, a brash American club chairman named Baz Vegas, who was guilty of all kinds of misdemeanors week to week; I also lifted wholesale from the Mike Myers opus, "Austin Powers in: Goldmember" to make a lot of silly Dutch jokes involving then-Manchester United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy.

But I think I can say that my crowning achievement was when I stole the Blundersliga trophy (yes, Mike had a trophy made) off my flatmate Ian's desk, and hid it for several months in various spots around the office, using the post-match reports to give him clues, which, sadly, he never really bothered to follow up. In the event, the trophy spent quite a long time at the back of a filing cabinet, in the Germany section.

So yes, I miss that. There's not really an element of trash-talking in my current leagues (I'm participating in three, all via my one team, the storied Westcliff Athletic, on the Premier League site). Or if there is, I'm not privy - but I do get to talk tactics with my sister, who's revealed herself to be even more obsessed with it than I.

However, if you think it's nothing more than a way to be silly and squabble with others, I can say that my experience last year gave me quite the crash course in economics. The main thing was value - how many points does a player costing X score, and is X worth the extra points when he's compared to a player who scores fewer points, but costs X-3? And how much money should I tie up in a player I'm signing exclusively to sit on my bench?

I'm not sure how applicable this is in anything other than fantasy sports, but I need some way to justify all the time I've spent on it, so please indulge me.

The other question is how to set up your team so that it's not 100% copied from someone else - after all, if all of your starting XI are in your nearest rival's team, you can neither catch up to them nor widen the gap between you.

In any case, I have to go see how many points I received from today's matches, and prepare for tomorrow's game. If you need me, I'll be poring over the form sheets of players from the lowest depths of the Premier League - think titans like Watford and Bournemouth.