America loves sports. We always have, and we always will. There are dozens of sports that millions of people play and watch year-round. However, one sport stands tall above the others: football. Football is as America’s sport. It is by far the most popular and has the biggest fan base. The Super Bowl is consistently the most-watched event in the world. The public’s interest in football is based around our innate interest in play. In his book Homo Ludens, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga outlines his definition of play. He defines play with four distinct characteristics: play is free, it is different from “ordinary” or “real” life, it creates order, and there must be no material interest involved in play. Nearly all sports fit this definition of play, and football is no exception. For many years, spectators were not considered to be a part of play, they merely watched and enjoyed the spectacle of play. However, a new type of game has recently gained popularity among sport fanatics: fantasy football.
Fantasy football is pretty intuitive. A group of friends can start a league by logging on to a number of hosting websites like ESPN or Yahoo Sports and create a league. Every member of the league has their own team, and the owners of the teams draft real NFL players individually to fill their roster. Every week the owners get points based on how well their players perform that week.
It’s no wonder that this idea took off so quickly. But it really took off. In the world of football fandom fantasy football has become a cultural phenomenon. People have become obsessed with player rankings and leagues. Sports websites have begun profiting from this fad by creating blogs and hiring writers specifically for fantasy football. Companies even use fantasy football to advertise their own products, like The Xbox One. This game became so popular that there is an entire television show dedicated to people playing fantasy football called The League.
But how has fantasy football become so popular? What is it about fantasy football that is so much more interesting than just watching? Perhaps our friend Huizinga can answer that. Fantasy football, although different from many traditional types of play, is in fact a game itself. It offers a way for football fans to compete with each other. What fantasy football creates is skill. It is a test of one’s knowledge of football. If you are a better fantasy football player then you know more about the players, and thus, your team will score more points. By creating a game for football fans fantasy football has made the fan experience far more interactive and engaging, which is the principle reason for its widespread popularity. Now we don’t have be 6’5 and weigh 250 pounds to compete, we just have to be football nerds.
Fantasy football not only creates an entirely new game out of football, but it extends the playing field to the spectators. When outlining his definition of play, Huizinga also mentions the idea of the “magic circle”. The magic circle is a concept that describes the space in which games are played. For NFL players, the magic circle is simply the playing field, but for the spectators, this space extends all the way to the internet. Fantasy football has greatly expanded the magic circle for its fans and has created an overlap between the magic circle of the actual players and the spectators. This expansion is another reason why fantasy football has such a positive impact on the spectator’s experience, and why it has become so popular.
Fantasy football has paved the way for a number of new games. Sports networks like ESPN have already begun creating dozens of games specifically geared for fans, and these games will only continue to grow in popularity. The cultural phenomenon that fantasy football has created can be attributed to the fact that it changed the spectator experience and changed they way we think of play.