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The Curious Case of Fantasy Leagues

  • We take a look at why fantasy leagues are becoming increasingly popular and how they play a pivotal role in the sports ecosystem
Modified 09 Oct 2018, 01:28 IST


A significant part of our everyday life has a fixed routine. While a majority of the 24 hours is consumed by routine tasks, what we consume in the remaining time is becoming increasingly important. It is this consumption of leisure that matters to a lot of businesses.

One of the ways in which people spend leisure is by playing and watching sports. Sports play a pivotal role in engaging fans, by providing a wide variety of content, throughout the year. As per a study conducted by Adobe and TDG in US, an average live sports viewer spends nearly 8 hours per week watching sports.

Another study conducted by snack giant Walkers in UK, revealed that British men spend a whopping 20,472 hours watching sports in their lifetime. Very few things command the loyalty and attention that a team or a player does from their fans. Sports fans cheering, yelling and hooting week in, week out is not an uncommon sight in most parts of the world.

For most ardent fans, the team or the player they root for is an extension of themselves. Fans expect them to play in a certain way. How many times have we witnessed fans complaining about a team selection gone wrong! Every fan dreams of getting to make those crucial decisions and see how they pan out. This is exactly what fantasy leagues offer. This is precisely the mind space in which they operate.

Fantasy Leagues started in 1980 as fun games played among a group of friends. The workings of a fantasy league are simple. Fans are allowed to pick a set of players to form their own team. Teams so formed earn points based on the performance of the players in the actual matches.

It is similar to a simple math problem, wherein you are required to pick a set of entities with certain constraints while trying to maximize the sum total of the value these entities offer. However, what started as a casual game has turned into an industry of its own. Today, fantasy games are worth slightly more than $7 billion in America alone, according to Fantasy Sports Trade Association.

All it requires is a die-hard fan to apply his knowledge of the game and select a team, which ideally should not involve too much effort or time. On the contrary, research reports suggest that fantasy team owners spend 8 hours per week working on their teams in the US. So why do fans spend an awful lot of time on fantasy games?

Professors from the University of Michigan conducted a research on why fantasy games are so popular. They attributed the tendency to the psychology of individuals, wherein greater the level of control users think they have, the more they want to play the game. If you have ever spent tireless hours playing EA Sports’ FIFA, you would instantly recognize this is true.

EA Sports’ FIFA is unparalleled in terms of the level of control it offers among all the sports games. A fantasy football game allows you to build a squad, select the required formation, take control of transfers and substitutes and decide whom to give the armband to. With so many factors under the control of the user, they end up spending significant time playing fantasy leagues.


Fantasy Leagues are considered a game of skill rather than a game of luck. A game is considered a game of skill or a game of luck, based on which of the two factors dominate the outcome of the game. For any game that involves money, to achieve sustained popularity, it needs the right balance of skill versus luck. The popularity of chess is unquestionable, but not many people play it for money, because it is highly skill-based and the better player is expected to win every time.

On the flip side, poker thrives due to its higher reliance on luck and the possibility of an amateur beating the best player in the world. Fantasy Leagues operate midway, with the right amount of skill and luck in place. The lucrative prizes offered for the winners of fantasy games is another reason why fans inevitably spend multitude of hours on it.

What started as a medium of engagement for team-sports has slowly made its foray into individual sports such as Golf and Formula 1, to name a few. The launch of mobile applications and reduced data charges has only made it easier for the users to play the game from anywhere, at any point of time, without the fear of missing deadlines for submitting their teams. 

Official Fantasy League games of Formula 1 and Golf (PGA Tour)
Official Fantasy League games of Formula 1 and Golf (PGA Tour)

The advent of the digital era has brought new metrics along with it. Entertainment services nowadays are increasingly focused on drawing the eyeball time of the audience. Higher the time spent by audience on any sport, higher the value that can be derived out of the audience.

Fantasy games are an extension of the sports we watch, thus resulting in an increased involvement in the sport as we spend more time on the fantasy game. There is a certain belief among experts regarding the crucial role fantasy sports play in achieving a stronger connection between fans and the sport. Any fan who usually watches a game or two over the weekend could possibly end up watching a couple of extra games to analyse the performance of the teams and players involved. It has the potential to convert a casual sports viewer into a die-hard sports fan. 

For example, let us consider the English Premier League (EPL) which is the most watched football league in the world. Fantasy Premier League (FPL) is the official fantasy game of the EPL. EPL has a diverse representation of players from all over the world. The league has evolved over the years to the extent that it has dedicated shows on Fantasy Premier League tips and suggestions by FPL experts and a show dedicated for the fans named ‘EPL Fanzone’ being broadcast on TV.

Adding to this is the live Q&A session that occurs through the various digital media, that keep the audience engaged right until the first match kicks off every weekend. This gradually increases the involvement of the fans in the game and their exposure to the brands associated with EPL and FPL.

It leads to a higher awareness of the 20 teams taking part in EPL every season and the players involved in all these teams, due to the potential investment being made on some of those players while drafting them to the FPL squad. Furthermore, the FPL twitter handle keeps the fans engaged every day with the updates on injuries and player availability.

Add to this the dynamic component of player prices in FPL — which increases and decreases depending on their actual form and ownership percentage — and the FPL twitter handle has enough content to keep the audience engaged even on days when no matches are being played. That is what the end goal is all about: keeping the audience engaged and glued to EPL even when there is no action taking place. It is a clear win in terms of the eyeball time they are capturing from the fans. 

Fan Engagement Model for English Premier League, explaining how Fantasy Premier League helps in keeping the fans engaged throughout the week
Fan Engagement Model for English Premier League, explaining how Fantasy Premier League helps in keeping the fans engaged throughout the week

Another associated industry that thrives with the help of fantasy leagues, albeit only to a certain extent, is the sports statistics industry. Companies such as Opta are known for the enormous amount of sports data they gather and the analysis they perform. Any player casually involved in this year’s FPL would have heard at least once a day that Harry Kane had not scored in August until this season.

Fantasy players are always on the lookout for such interesting and sparkling numbers and pieces of evidence before they invest on a certain player. These statistics are also made use of in TV shows and social media pages, thus explaining and guiding fantasy players on whom to select and why. 

Fantasy games are also known for the strong communities they create. Families and friends create their own private leagues and compete against each other for pride and joy. Fantasy games are gradually becoming massively popular ways of bonding in workplaces. A recent study in the US revealed an interesting insight – “Companies that not only allow workers to enjoy fantasy football, but actually encourage it by organizing company leagues are likely to see significant benefits in morale, which, in turn, leads to an overall boost in productivity as well as employee retention”.

People bonding over fantasy league discussions on social media is becoming a popular trend. It gets even more interesting, with the involvement of sports experts and players in the fantasy leagues through the creation of their own teams. Sports experts discussing which players they have selected for their team on public forums encourages the fans to be involved in the game constantly. 

One of the funny moments when Neil Etheridge, goalkeeper of EPL Club Cardiff City placed himself as a substitute rather than in the playing 11 in his own FPL team
One of the funny moments when Neil Etheridge, goalkeeper of EPL Club Cardiff City placed himself as a substitute rather than in the playing 11 in his own FPL team

Fantasy games gained popularity in India with the launch of ESPN Super Selector in 2001. In an era when digital connectivity and mobile penetration in India was still at a nascent stage, ESPN Super Selector fared well but was shut down eventually.

Although fantasy games in India largely revolved only around cricket until a few years ago, they now attract a large number of players to various other sports, thanks to the increasing popularity of Pro Kabaddi League and Indian Super League in addition to the ever-popular English Premier League.

India currently has around 60 fantasy sport companies, with Dream 11 leading the race with a market share of close to 90%. However, the Indian fantasy sport market lacks official leagues that are hosted by the organizers. Barring the IPL Fantasy League, no other sport has an official fantasy league of their own (Pro Kabaddi League has an official partnership with Dream11 for fantasy).

While it might not be an Achilles heel now, official leagues carry a credibility unlike any other and can leverage the statistics they gather from their league and have a fantasy league show of their own, much like the famed English Premier League model. They have the potential to create an ‘ecosystem’ surrounding their league and keeping the audience engaged, leading to an increase in eyeball time and thereby the popularity of the league.

The fantasy games culture in India is booming and still has a long way to go before reaching the same heights as in Europe and US. Innovations are made every year to enhance fan experience and to attract new users to play the game. There have been constant debates surrounding the legality of the game and the significant amount of time it consumes.

However, with the ever-increasing consumption of sports and the numbers associated with it, fans are delving deeper into the statistics, more with an intention of proving that it is a game of skill rather than luck. It can safely be said that fantasy games are here to stay.

Published 09 Oct 2018, 01:28 IST
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