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Why We Play Fantasy Football

by Jon Stonger on 21 August 2009

fantasy-football

35 million people are doing it.  Every year, millions of Americans get to fulfill their fantasies.  They do it in groups, usually with friends and aquantainces, but some of the more hard-core will even play our their fantasies with complete strangers.

I’m referring, of course, to fantasy football.

Despite having an almost-unhealthy interest in football, this is the first year that I’m joining a fantasy league.  My group wanted to do college instead of pro, so I went along.  I figured I’d spend a few minutes looking over the players in our selected conferences, just so I had an idea who the hot prospects were.

Instead I spent hours ranking the top players at each position, evaluating their production from last year, their projected points for this year, and what kind of gum they chew.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who’s had this experience.  There are even serious scientists studying fantasy football. What is it about fantasy football that draws us in so obsessively?  Here are five reasons why we play.

Variable Reinforcement

If you give a lab rat a lever to press for a reward (a food pellet, or maybe some nachos) there are a few ways to arrange the schedule of reinforcement.  You can give the rat a reinforcer every time (continous reinforcement), or every three times, (fixed ratio reinforcement), it presses the button.  This is predictable, boring, and it doesn’t take the rat long to figure it out.

Or, you can screw with the furry dude’s head and provide the treat randomly after he presses the button.  Sometimes he has to press the lever two times to get a treat, sometimes twenty.  This is called variable ratio reinforcement, and it is powerful stuff.  Of all the different reinforcement schedules, it is variable reinforcement that causes the rat to press the lever most frequently, and makes him least inclined to quit.

The same effect works on humans.  Gambling, especially slot machines, work on a system of variable reinforcement.  You press the lever, sometimes (ok, usually) nothing happens.  Sometimes you win a little bit, and every great once in a while, you win a lot.  The system of variable reinforcement is enough to keep us coming back.

There is an element of variable reinforcement in fantasy football similar to that in gambling.  Every season you prepare for the draft, and every week you make substitutions, and maybe even trade for some new players.  Even if you put the same number of hours in each week, sometimes your picks will pay off; you’ll win big and look like a genius.  Sometimes you can’t catch a break, and all your moves backfire.

It’s that random payoff that makes the game exciting.  Imagine if the number of points your team scored was directly proportional to how many hours you prepared each week.  The game would cease to be worth playing- it would be too much like work!

Competition

There are guys who will treat a game of checkers like the world championships.  Competition is a central part of human existence.  For those of us born without the requisite physical skills (Usain Bolt runs the 100 faster than I run the 40) to compete on the field, fantasy football offers a way to compete in sports mentally.  Even better, we can compete while sitting on the couch in our underpants.

While pure mental competition in games like chess is often reserved only for the devoted, there is enough luck in fantasy football to level the playing field.  Just as a beginner can beat Doyle Brunson at poker for one night if he’s running lucky, so can any fantasy player beat the most knowledgeable analyst if things go his way.

Comradery

A league is a great way to stay in touch with your buddies when you’ve moved apart (say you’re living in South Korea, for example).

Teams to Root For

Most men would like a job as a football coach or general manager.  Most men will never have such a job.  Fantasy football not only allows someone access to this, well, fantasy, but it offers several opportunities to get closer to the sport of football.

It increases your knowledge of the game, which always comes in handy in bar trivia and winning small bets.  It provides a rooting interest in games you would otherwise ignore.  If Jacksonville is playing Minnesota, I’m probably not going to watch . . . unless I have Adrian Peterson going.  Even better, if your team sucks (and mine do) then fantasy football provides a way to spend your Sundays other than screaming in frustration at the TV or mowing the lawn.

Illusion of Control

This is another psychological element that influences why we play.  When people perceive that their actions have an effect on outcomes, they believe they have control over the outcomes, even when those outcomes are largely random.

I’ve seen this often at the blackjack tables.  A player will get blame for taking a card that would have busted the dealer, or credit for taking a card that would have made the dealer’s hand, even though the next card out of the shoe is random (unless you’re counting, but I don’t think there are too many counters at the $5 tables).  By being allowed to hit or stay, players believe they have a much larger influence over the course of the game then they actually do.

People are prone to believe they have some measure of control, even in random situations.  Why do so many people wear their lucky shirt for big games?

The same effect occurs in fantasy football.  Sure, you choose your team and set your lineup, but there are a huge number of factors that will affect your team that you don’t control at all.  Injuries are the obvious choice, but there are many other factors.

How many times does the coach give the ball to your player?  Both the offensive and defensive gameplans have an affect.  Will the opposing defense try to take away the #1 receiver (your guy) and leave the TE open all day (your opponent’s guy)?  Something as simple as your receiver making a big catch and being forced out at the one yard line instead of stretching over the goalline can make the difference in a close game (especially if they give it to the RB, who just happens to be on your buddy’s roster).  Will that rookie with great potential you so wisely drafted turn into a playmaker, or ride the bench?

While it’s true you can research some of these things (if you really want to be obsessive), there is still a lot of luck in the game.  That’s one of the things that makes it so accessible to so many people.

But no matter how much you study and prepare, you’re not in control.  Yet we think we are, which is another thing that draws us to the game.

Conclusion

There are powerful psychological factors that draw us to fantasy football.  In particular, the variable reinforcement provided by the game, along with the illusion of control that we experience, stimulate our minds in ways that make the game hard to resist.

Throw in the social elements of competition, comradery and greater access to our favorite sports, and it’s no wonder that fantasy football is played by millions of people.

Image Credit: The Sports Abyss. This article also appeared on Heretical Ideas.

About Jon Stonger

Jon Stonger is a novelist and short story writer. His first book, The Adventures of the Delineator: The Slimy and the Sentient, is now available. He currently resides in Suwon City, Korea.

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Manly Thoughts
22 August 2009 at 08:55
Ryan Sager - Neuroworld – The Psychology of Fantasy Football - True/Slant
24 August 2009 at 09:42

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