Online fantasies

By Jeremy Wilson on November 8th, 2012

Among the many wonders of internet and mobile technology is its potential to not only facilitate meetings of minds but also forge new obsessions. Who would have thought normal people would get hooked on clicking pictures of cows or, as in the case of  the British Prime Minister, flinging birds at pigs? While these examples work by, some might say cynically, manipulating psychological urges, other corners of the web are successfully tapping into existing obsessions.

Fantasy football might be the best example. Fantasy sports are games where participants select a fantasy team of real sports players to compete against other fantasy teams, with results based on the statistical performance of the real players – your player scores a goal, you get points. These games are often played across the length of a season, with accumulated points at the end denoting the finishing position of a team in an overall league or a mini-league made up of friends.

First invented in America in the 1950s, by the 1980s fantasy sports such as baseball and American Football had taken off, leading to the huge reach of American fantasy sports today. Around 25 million Americans play a fantasy sport: ESPN sports channels have pundits that cover it and there is even a sitcom based on it: The League.

A combination of popular American sports lending themselves towards fantasy play and sports betting being so harshly restricted in the United States has led to fantasy sports becoming ingrained in American sporting culture.

Fantasy football started in this country in 199,1 when it was launched by Andrew Wainstein, a businessman who had been inspired by fantasy sports in the USA. Initially a newspaper-based game, it required players to by send their teams in by post. It quickly caught on, with most national newspapers running a version of it.

Sports bores had found an outlet for their passion and newspapers had found a simple revenue stream: players paid a fee to take part and the papers gave prizes to the top few players. The new phenomenon caught the national imagination and started to become mainstream. Fantasy Football league, which started as a radio show on BBC Radio 5 and then became a programme hosted by Frank Skinner and David Baddiel, used the game, initially at least, as the premise for the show.

The platform for formalising what people were doing already – arguing about football – proved to be very popular. When the game moved online, both the complexity of gameplay and the potential size of the audience increased massively. Eventually the Premier League woke up to the value of the game that had built up around their sport and launched their own official version.

While newspapers still run online versions of the game, the Premier League now has by far the largest share of the estimated 3.5 million fantasy players in the UK.

Slowly but surely, the fantasy game is being seen as an increasingly important part of the Premier League’s overall product; it is starting to become more professional, more Americanised. As of last year, the League integrated their official player ratings system into the game (a major addition to the simpler versions of the game) and this year it has finally made the game available in app stores.

But, more importantly than the slickness of the product, the official website now provides journalistic content bought in from one of the fansites, Fantasy Football Scout, that has grown up around the fantasy experience. This wasn’t a case of “building engagement”: it was a company buying part of an audience that built itself.

The more you look through the plethora of fan blogs dedicated to fantasy football, the more you realise how effectively the internet has enabled this obsession. While some sites are little more than transcribed versions of a radio phone-in, others go to extraordinary lengths analysing, discussing and theorising on statistics.

Some sites are even dedicated to analysing the workings official game itself. FISO has built a free product that tries to pre-empt the official game’s algorithms, which change the in-game price of players on a daily basis.

The biggest site built round the subject is the aforesaid Fantasy Football Scout, brainchild of a journalist who built it to justify his addiction. It has become a full-blown media property built round the game.

What is noticeable about the Scout is not just the quality of the articles, but the depth of the content in the pay-walled part of the site, which utilises paid content and data from sports statistics company Opta. The result is an impressive publication with very high user engagement.

The Barclays Premier League is running the game because it increases engagement with their core product. The fans and obsessives operate their sites because they love the game. But where is the real money from this engaged group of millions to be made? You probably guessed: gambling.

The traditional bookmakers have begun to dip their toes into the waters of fantasy land. William Hill, for example, runs its own free game, presumably for the purpose of increasing the number of people with a William Hill login. Largely, however, the sector is wide open for innovation, and, pleasingly, this is where a handful of British companies have been leading the way.

Originating from Scotland, the site FanDuel is targeting the US fantasy market with its offering of short fantasy games where you pay a stake, select a team and after a day or a week of fantasy play the game ends and the best teams win cash prizes. Since betting on sport is limited in the US, FanDuel’s “games of skill” provide an option to risk money on sports to a thirsty audience.

Targeting the UK fantasy football market is Picklive, a company we profiled earlier this yearRegulated by the Gambling Commission, it allows players to take part in a real-time, short fantasy football games, again with the ability to stake money on winning.

Offering immediacy in the game does more than tick the “second screen” vogue box: it is offering a solution to the thousands, if not millions of fantasy sports fans who want to be ever-deeper involved in their favourite pastime. We can be certain that Picklive’s offering will be just the beginning of gambling’s affair with fantasy football.

Sometimes the digital world gives people things they didn’t know they wanted. Sometimes it is only playing catch-up with the real world. Football runs deeps in this country and, at every step, the consumer base has been waiting for the fantasy football developments that have taken place over the past twenty years to arrive.

Even with betting, the fantasy fans were ahead. Every other mini-league of friends operates a betting pool; everyone chips in a tenner, the winner at the end of the season taking it all.

A large group of highly engaged users is waiting for the next development in the fantasy footballer story to augment their football experience. Whether the players themselves actualise the development, or a canny entrepreneur, the opportunities to innovate are limitless.