The rise and rise of fantasy sports

Fantasy sports has grown into big business. Photo: Supplied/DT Talk.

Sports is one of our most pre-eminent forms of entertainment. The value of the sports industry globally is around $A771 billion, according to a report from The Business Research Company. That’s big business. Much of it is driven by people at home sitting on their couch watching a game.

If you were to watch these sports fans, you’d spot that a large proportion of them have a second screen up. You might even notice that they are more engaged with a set of numbers on their phone, tablet, or computer than the action on the field. Why? It’s because of the explosive growth of fantasy sports.

It’s more than a game

The concept behind fantasy sports is simple; athletes are attributed a score based on their in-game statistical performance. For example, the score allocated to an Australian rules footballer will increase the more he (or she) kicks and handballs the ball, takes marks, or tackles, but the score every time the footballer concedes a free kick. Fantasy game players put together teams of these statistical athletes, mixing them up into different hypothetical teams, and they play off against each other, with the highest scoring fantasy team winning.

Fantasy games can vary in complexity, with some based on simple arithmetic of a team of players’ counting stats and others accounting for analytics-driven concepts, such as value and efficiency. It’s hugely popular; global numbers are hard to come by, but the Fantasy Sports & Gaming Association estimates that 62.5 million people played some form of fantasy sports game last year in the United States, the world’s most mature market.

A major factor behind the growth of fantasy sports is content. Many players take the game seriously enough to seek out expert advice to help them improve their teams. One of these experts is Adam ‘Warnie’ Child, who, alongside university classmates Roy and Calvin, founded DT Talk, a website that provides fantasy sports content, in 2007.

After being recruited by the Australian Football League’s media arm in the mid-2010s, the Tasmanian high school teacher is now one of the most prominent and important figures in Australia’s fantasy sports community. He loves how the game brings an extra element of excitement to football, the sport he loves. “It’s a good way to connect with your mates or a different community. Your mates can end up being some people online that you might have met through playing the game,” he says.

The rapid growth of fantasy sports has been followed by an uptick in academic interest in the topic. Dr Luke Wilkins is a sport and exercise psychology lecturer at La Trobe University in Melbourne who has conducted multiple studies into how fantasy sports games affect the well-being of those who play them.

He says his interest in the topic emerged from playing English football’s Premier League Fantasy Premier League product, which boasts over ten million users from around the world, and observing the online communities that emerged around the game.

“I was scrolling through Twitter and I noticed how negative the game seemed to be and that kind of surprised me, given that it’s entirely meant to be a game and people seem to be taking it quite seriously … it seemed to be something worth exploring,” he says.

The fantasy family

Fantasy games are something that tens of millions of people engage in, but the thing that makes it more than a game is players engaging in communities with other like-minded fans. Research from St. John Fisher University into people’s motivations to play fantasy sports concluded that the community aspect was the most important reason why people play, and that it was even more important than involvement with the sports the games are based on.

Putting the term ‘fantasy sports’ into the Listen Notes podcast search engine returns more than 2000 results, with each show featuring content creators engaging with eager fans to try and help them improve their results.

Wilkins says his research illustrates that fantasy sports can help people both strengthen existing social links and create new connections. “People speak really, really positively about the friends they’ve made, the fact that they can debate things and chat about things that maybe they wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to do because of the community that has been built around the game,” he says. Whether it’s through a simple water cooler chat in the office about the merits of a risky move or getting involved in an online setting to talk about some potential trade targets, the game gives people an important sense of belonging.

Having cultivated Australia’s biggest fantasy sports community, Child is acutely aware of how the game can be a conduit for connection. DT Talk regularly hosts events across the country where hundreds of like-minded ‘coaches’ come together to watch games and share stories, with the most recent meet-up happening in Brisbane last week.

“It’s a really fun thing when you do get to go to some different places and meet people that engage in our content,” he says. “We always pinch ourselves a little bit, we always talk about how we’ve got some good stories for the nursing home when we’re going there, ‘remember that time we went to Brisbane and people came to talk to us and took photos with us’, that stuff.”

The sense of community is a big reason why people play fantasy sports games. Photo: Supplied/DT Talk.

Fantasy’s flaws

The community aspect is a strong positive driving the growth of fantasy sports, but the growth may also have a dark side. Any player with a moderate level of investment will tell you that performing below expectations can affect their mood, and Wilkins’ research found that the game can have seriously adverse outcomes on people’s well-being and mental health. “In a game that’s played by commonly 10 million people worldwide, even if that’s only affecting 10 per cent of people, then that’s a lot of people becoming anxious and depressed because of what is meant to be a game,” he says.

Like any game, addiction can be an issue, with some people putting so much time into their teams that it begins to negatively affect other areas of their life. Other problem areas found in Wilkins’ research include players struggling to reconcile with the reality that much of their success or failure comes down to luck and battling with the perception that their fantasy performance is a reflection of their knowledge of the real-world sport.

Child is in a unique position as someone both running his own team and acting as a trusted source of advice for tens of thousands of others. He is open that performing well is important to him. “I think there’s a little bit of a pride factor. We still play the game but also, we want our content and our product to have some credibility with what we do,” he says.

But to show their fans that doing badly in a fantasy game isn’t the end of the world, Child and his colleagues try to lighten the mood around under-performance; the lowest-scoring of the trio from the week has to perform a light-hearted punishment on their Sunday night review show, with recent examples including an ice bath in Launceston’s freezing winter cold and a walk across a smattering of Lego bricks with bare feet.

Wilkins says the benefits and drawbacks of fantasy sports are often borne out of the same topics. “The kind of paradox that we have is that the more you invest, the worse the negatives are. But the more you invest, the greater the positives are,” he says. His research found that players who can struggle with the downsides of the game are often not well-adjusted to the “rollercoaster ride” of results and lack the tools to deal with the frustration of under-performance.

The future of fantasy

A report from Straits Research valued the global fantasy sports market at $A36 billion in 2021 – amid the COVID-19 pandemic where many sports leagues were on the comeback trail from lengthy shutdowns – and the same report predicted it would grow more than threefold to a value of $A118 billion by the end of the decade.

Firms borne out of fantasy sports are using its growth to make their presence felt in other areas of the sports market. American companies FanDuel and DraftKings, which launched in 2009 and 2012 respectively as daily fantasy sports platforms, have leveraged their userbases to capitalise on the country’s fledgling sports gambling market, with their current combined market share of the highly lucrative industry estimated at around 65 per cent.

Despite the explosive growth, fantasy sports are still seen as something of an ugly stepchild by some people in power. Child says the Australian Football League’s AFL Fantasy platform, which currently has 153,654 players registered to play the ‘Classic’ game mode, is not a profitable exercise for the league. But he believes the surface of its potential is only just being scratched. “Hopefully there’s a bit more money put into it, a bit more investment from some of the people who don’t totally get fantasy,” he says.

Further growth in the popularity of fantasy sports would naturally lead to a growth in its negative outcomes, some of which are difficult to mitigate. Wilkins believes social media is a major driver behind some of the downsides of fantasy sports. “Whether [social media] gets better or that gets worse, I think is the way that well-being with fantasy sport goes,” he says.

Fantasy sports games are growing fast because of the tens of millions of people around the world who take some form of value out of playing them. Players take the game extremely seriously; any teacher or boss will tell you it is a common discussion topic among sports-obsessed students or workers. Some may see it as the bane of productivity, but the growth of the second screen setup shows no signs of slowing down.