FLIGHT OF FANTASY
The week of August 24, 2014
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The extreme, addictive side of fantasy football

By Josh Klein

One of the people I work with asked if I wanted to join his office fantasy football league. I immediately said no. Not simply because he was the kind of person who would consistently come up to me on Monday and say, “Man, I really need Miles Austin to go off tonight,” or “I had Charles Clay on my bench and he scored 16 points—can you believe the heartache I’m going through right now?”

The fact is, I’m too good at fantasy football for another standard office league.

Ten-team, weekly head-to-head leagues—with the one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, a tight end, a flex, a defense, and a kicker format—are old hat, and I’m not participating in them anymore. They are the book clubs that read 50 Shades of Grey—the moviegoers that enjoyed Transformers: Age of Extinction. After almost 20 years, I need a bigger challenge.

I’m not the only one.

Fantasy football started in the basements and mailboxes of the nerds in the ’70s and ’80s, slowly gained popularity and NFL-sanctioned recognition in the ’90s, and then exploded into the mainstream with the advent of the Internet and smartphones. Now everyone has a fantasy football team, and more than likely, they want to to talk to you about it.

The true connoisseurs of the game, however, don’t bore you with the details of their sixth-round pick for weeks after the draft—they just take your money. They’re not interested in talking to you about how good the Broncos’ strength of schedule is; they paid the money for RotoPass. You’re checking Matthew Berry’s Manifesto on draft night; these guys are discussing the RBZero Strategy on Twitter in May. These are the Joey Knishes of your Standard ESPN League, and they need that Atlantic City Professionals Table to feel alive.

The fact is, I’m too good at fantasy football for another standard office league.

Luke Wehrheim, a writer for SBNation Seattle, had lost interest in standard fantasy football and quit playing altogether in 2010. He likens redraft leagues to Call of Duty multiplayer; eventually, “they all blended together into one collective memory.” Then he discovered Reality Sports Online, a fantasy football platform that incorporates front-office operations into leagues.

“Multi-year contracts, a salary cap that escalates along with the NFL, rookie drafts, and flexible rosters meant control,” notes Wehrheim, rattling off the advantages of the platform like QB stats. “Control I’d never had before. New and unique ways to leverage what I feel is an above-average understanding of the game of fantasy football and roster management. In a league like this, everyone is trading for something.”

It’s not surprising, really. In this day and age of niche everything and instant gratification, you don’t have to feel boxed in by other people’s normality. Just think back to Lost. It was quite possible to enjoy the ABC super-hit every Tuesday night, consider it a must-watch, greatly enjoy the episode, maybe even discuss the show the next day at the proverbial watercooler. It was much more fun, however, to delve deep into the mysteries, discuss the show online, develop theories, know the backstories, even buy Lost-themed lottery tickets. When you jumped in with both feet, you experienced the show and could appreciate how much intricacy went into creating a show that could be both beloved on the surface and dissected frame-by-frame.

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It’s the same in fantasy football. Winning your eight-team office league is fine and all, but it is so much more rewarding to win a 32-team super league with two 16-team conferences where you draft either AFC or NFC players only and play on a schedule modeled around the NFL schedule, including byes, playoffs, and a Super Bowl that features the AFC Champ and the NFC Champ squaring off in week 17. Then, at the end of the season, you could find out that there are actually two of those leagues, and if you didn’t finish in the top eight of your conference, you were being demoted to the B-league, and you’d have to try again next year to move back into the Premier League, where you could actually bet real money.

Doesn’t that sound more rewarding than talking to your coworker about how he “can’t believe Adrian Peterson got hurt, that a**hole, I’ll never draft him again.” (In case you’re wondering, I made it to the Super Bowl of said league, and like Lost, it was totally rewarding up until the very last moment: I lost because my opponent started Carson Palmer and Matt Asiata, both presumed fantasy afterthoughts who went off that week.)

“Fantasy football is to being a compulsive gambler what pill poppers are to drug addicts,”  says RotoViz founder Frank DuPont. “The worst enablers in our hobby at some point decided that playing 16-team leagues with two starting quarterbacks actually increases Sunday dopamine releases, so that’s where we’re at now.”

In other words, the need for a bigger, better high has led fantasy addicts to flock to bigger and more complicated leagues. As DuPont relates, “The only thing that’s left for us is figuring out a way to grind up our lineups and somehow get them into a needle.”

Fantasy Football Twitter star Ken Griggs has a similar take. “It’s not about building a dynasty but more about who knows the game on a concentrated level, analyzing week-to-week matchups and pinpointing trends as they happen,” Griggs argues.

In this day and age of niche everything and instant gratification, you don’t have to feel boxed in by other people’s normality.

To the shock of his thousands of Twitter faithful, Griggs has yet to join a dynasty league himself. “I can’t do it. It’s the same reason I don’t own a PlayStation or drink vodka: I got no off button, and I fear how much I’d read about college players. I’d be scared I’d be tailgating TCU games in order to get a glimpse of some second string WR no one has heard of. In other words, I’ve checked my own addiction.”

If you want to throw yourself head first into football, there is no better way than fantasy, and the hard-to-find, confusingly, embarrassingly complicated leagues are where the heady fun is. For many fantasy veterans, having Peyton Manning throw for 400 yards and four scores while leading your team to victory is not half as exciting as spending hours poring over lineups and tendencies before choosing Ryan Fitzpatrick over Alex Smith because the Jets nickel corner has a broken finger, and the Texans run a lot of three WR sets, and Fitzy loves to throw down the seam—which is exactly where the Jets are most vulnerable. That kind of information is available to everyone, and if you are willing to spend the time, you can be rewarded with the correct decision.

The modern world affords you the opportunity to revel in obsessions instead of hiding them. Embrace it. Find 11 of your friends and start a two-quarterback, two tight-end league. Play in a league where each team drafts one defensive player, and if that player scores a touchdown, it’s worth 80 points. Hell, start small and add coaches to your standard 10-team work league. A win is worth 10 points, and a loss is negative 10.

The possibilities are endless, and you deserve better. It’s football, and it can be your fantasy.

Illustrations by J. Longo