Davis Mattek was “irrationally confident” when the Cincinnati Bengals played the Cleveland Browns last December—enough to let thousands of dollars ride on the outcome. He started enigmatic quarterback Johnny Manziel.
The Browns lost 30-0 on Dec. 14, 2014, and Manziel was dismal in action. Mattek’s botched hunch killed his daily fantasy football team and put the clamp on his finances. With little other recourse, he felt he had no alternative than to bet his way of the hole, doubling down at the earliest possible opportunity.
“I don’t know how I’m going to come back from this,” Mattek recalls thinking. “I went over my prescribed limit.”
He’s far from the only one to make such a casual but drastic mistake. An estimated 56 million people will play fantasy sports this year—up from 12 million a decade ago—and increasingly, those users are flocking to sites that offer the high-stakes thrill of a fantasy football playoff game on a daily basis. FanDuel alone boasts more than 1 million paying members. Its chief competitor, DraftKings, raised $300 million with help from Fox Sports, while Web giant Yahoo entered the daily fantasy market in July. It’s a wide-open frontier—one that’s swiftly become a billion-dollar industry.
But the evolution of fantasy football from a season-long endeavor with friends and co-workers to a daily competition with random strangers has brought with it potentially serious side effects. It amplifies the most obsessive qualities of the game—the opportunities (and spoils) are instant—without providing much in the way of oversight or customer support in return. Critics argue that combination makes users more susceptible to addiction and serious losses—a risk the industry itself has done its best to ignore.
Fantasy sports don’t qualify as online gambling—thanks to a loophole in the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act (UIGEA). That 2006 law essentially killed online gambling—then a $200 million industry, driven primarily by poker and sports betting—and shuttered the three biggest offshore gambling sites of the era.
“Very simply, it’s gambling. [It’s putting] money on an event with a certain outcome in the hopes of winning more money.”
Even then, the NFL had an active interest in fantasy football, and it successfully lobbied Congress to exempt fantasy sports from the legislation. The league made the case that fantasy sports aren’t games of chance—like poker, slot machines, or roulette—but one of skill. That’s a crucial distinction: It’s allowed fantasy football to flourish without any of the red tape or legal oversight that’s dogged online gambling for the past decade.
Dr. Timothy Fong, associate clinical professor at the UCLA Gambling Studies Program, is one of America’s leading researchers on the effects of fantasy sports. He’s quick to attack the notion that fantasy football is a skill-based game and thus exempt from larger gambling concerns.
“Very simply, it’s gambling,” Dr. Fong says. “[It’s putting] money on an event with a certain outcome in the hopes of winning more money.
“To call it anything else is really just not accurate,” he continues. “That link hasn’t really been made by the players and the public—that what I’m doing is no different than playing blackjack or craps or betting on sports in Vegas casinos.”
To those unfamiliar, in fantasy football you build a team of unrelated players and win in weekly head-to-head bouts by garnering points from the real-life stats of your opponent’s team. Teams are situated within leagues—which vary endlessly in terms of size, scoring, and format—and the process plays out from September to December. Daily fantasy offers you a new team every game day. Your opponent is the house, particularly daily fantasy sports go-tos FanDuel and DraftKings.
Anyone 18 or older with a credit card can sign up for a daily fantasy football league. Creating an account on FanDuel is as simple as selecting a username and clicking Try It Now. You’ll then be immediately encouraged to bet $200 on the welcome screen—a tempting offer given that the company will typically match between $150 and $175 in house money as a “deposit bonus.” You’ll also be asked to sync up your PayPal account and to identify what state you live in; five states prohibit betting on fantasy sports: Arizona, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, and Washington.
Getting to the lobby on FanDuel drives home Dr. Fong’s comparison to traditional gambling. It’s like being on a casino floor, where the tables are open and all that’s missing is a cocktail waitress. You can toss your hat into dozens of immediate bets with an entry fee. The Deposits sections doesn’t specify how much one can bet in total, but a FanDuel support representative says individual transactions top out at $10,000. For only $25, you can fill out a quick fantasy football team and enter to win $5 million on Week 1’s Sunday action. You could go to bed Sunday night a multimillionaire. (More than likely, you just gave FanDuel $25 less than five minutes before you pondered signing up.)
The appeal of both FanDuel and DraftKings is akin to slot machines or scratch-off lottery tickets. Both bank on people wanting to turn small sums into giant gains, and the two sites are in an arms race right now for market share, doing everything they can to encourage new users to sign up. You can’t spend 15 minutes on Facebook or watch ESPN without seeing one of their ads. Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade, for example, is hosting a $1,000,000 one-week fantasy football league at FanDuel that costs a mere $5 to enter. Meanwhile, DraftKings runs flash specials, like the baseball pitch below, that promise to “turn $5 into $100K!” just by drafting 10 players.
The Kernel interviewed 10 writers who covered fantasy football, and all but two of them considered daily fantasy sports to be gambling.
“The consistent winners win through skill, but they are taking that money off of a lot people who are just there to gamble,” writer Mike Beers said. “The quickness with which you find out if you won or lost (relative to a season-long managed team) attracts even more gamblers.”
The appeal of both FanDuel and DraftKings is akin to slot machines or scratch-off lottery tickets. Both bank on people wanting to turn small sums into giant gains.
“You can only profit from someone else’s loss,” added Kevin Cole. “Therefore, DFS (or daily fantasy sports) fits my definition of gambling.”
“I have no idea how someone can seriously say DFS isn’t gambling,” conceded Tim, a semi-pro fantasy football analyst with more than 1,000 Twitter followers, who requested that we not use his last name. “Anything is addictive if you’re a compulsive person. … If DFS wasn’t there, people would just be betting on point spreads, I imagine.”
You can’t ignore the element of chance in fantasy football. Advance research won’t predict random injuries, like a pulled hamstring or a concussion. Or if secretive coaches like Bill Belichick will abruptly bench Jonas Gray a week after he scored four touchdowns because he overslept and missed practice. But the analysts the Kernel spoke with were adamant that there’s an element of skill involved, too—an ability to make smart bets based on predictive analytics. The comparison to professional poker came up time and again.
“They do research, they learn new lines, they learn to balance their ranges if necessary, they approach the game from a puzzle-solving point of view. While they are playing a game of chance, they are not trying to profit from chance,” stressed writer Heith Krueger. “The gambler is different. They are not considering strategy, analyzing their opponents, or putting in any work to improve their percentage chance to win in the long run.
“The gambler is looking to win and win now. It’s all about trying to walk away with as much money as possible in a brief period of time. I feel this outlook is very similar to daily fantasy sports.”
Can’t stop. Won’t stop.
If fantasy sports aren’t considered gambling from a legal perspective, then it’s theoretically not possible for someone to become addicted to it. In fact, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published in 2013, does not formally recognize Internet addiction or, by proxy, any sort of fantasy football-induced disorder. Gambling disorder, however, is listed, and Internet gaming disorder is a literal footnote—flagged in Section III as a trend that warrants “further study.”
In practical terms, that means that fantasy service providers don’t have to provide disclaimers about engaging responsibly or promote resources like hotlines for those who may need help. For its part, FanDuel says it has a point person who handles “responsible gaming issues” via email for members in its customer service department, but that’s not apparent to the average user and wouldn’t be much use in a crisis scenario, especially considering a FanDuel rep told the Kernel there’s no cut-off point for how much users can deposit, so long as individual transactions are kept under $10,000. (Our support ticket to FanDuel went unanswered at press time. DraftKings could not be reached for comment.)
“It’s very different when you’re playing against a virtual community and you’re going up against… some avatar? How fun is that? How enriching is that?”
“This is not regulated on any level: local, state, national.” Dr. Fong says about daily fantasy sports. ”You comb through the website, you will not see any help for gambling problems because, again, they don’t want to admit that they’re gambling.”
Dr. Fong has played fantasy football since he was a teenager and uses it as a way to stay connected with old friends. His mounting concern stems from how the game has evolved across the Web from its core purpose.
“It’s very different when you’re playing against a virtual community and you’re going up against… some avatar? How fun is that? How enriching is that?” Dr. Fong says. “At its core, fantasy sports is meant to be a social interaction, meant to bring people closer.”
Of greater concern to Dr. Fong is the growing trend of daily fantasy football. Dr. Fong maintains that this sector is dutifully blind to the dangers of addiction because it needs to lean on its “skill-based” definition to exist apart from heavily controlled, traditional Internet gambling. In traditional fantasy football, the registration fee is paid up front and money is not exchanged until the season ends and a winner claims the pool of cash. Daily fantasy hits you up every weekend for bank account transfers, and Dr. Fong says he’s seen patients lose $50,000 in one season.
Moreover, Dr. Fong says that some of his patients—already making appointments for gambling addiction—will cop to fantasy football as a problem in their lives. While screening patients, Dr. Fong says he often finds people struggling with the game’s residual effects. Suddenly a sit-down with a patient yields buzz phrases like: “I can get just as much action from [daily fantasy football] as I can from a casino.”
“[It’s the] same kind of flavor,” Dr. Fong says. “Same kind of addictive process… Same sense of thrill, the same dopamine rush.”
Tim, the part-time fantasy writer, says he personally wins or loses only $600 or so every autumn on fantasy football. Despite the fixed figure, he admits that his fantasy habits are “obsessive” and at an “unhealthy level.”
“I worry about the way that it affects my personal relationships with people,” he said.
As daily fantasy sports have snowballed in the past two years, the number of people seeking out the UCLA Gambling Studies Program for fantasy counseling remains minimal. How can that be?
“We’re still a little bit puzzled as to why not, because daily fantasy sports have all the elements that would predispose somebody to become addicted,” Dr. Fong says. “It’s available, it’s fast, it’s affordable, it’s high-stakes, there’s no regulation, you can lose enormous sums of money—quickly.”
Dr. Fong’s Gambling Studies Program at UCLA outlines gambling addiction clearly: “Four phases have been described: winning, losing, desperation, and hopelessness. As the disorder progresses, there is not only an increase in amounts wagered and time devoted to gambling, but an increase in feelings of shame, guilt, helplessness, and depression. Some gamblers will turn to illegal activities and do things that were previously thought inconceivable; twenty percent will attempt suicide. There may be the development or exacerbation of other mental disorders, notably anxiety and depressive disorders and other addictive disorders. Stress-related physical illnesses are also common.”
To Dr. Fong, the line between recreation and addiction is clear: If playing fantasy football improves the quality of your life, it’s a fine hobby. If playing involves lying, stealing, and disassociating from loved ones, well, you have a problem.
A thin line
Davis Mattek’s gamble on Johnny Manziel worked out in the end. He earned the money back the next week. He’s grown uncomfortably numb to that cycle. He says he can lose thousands on any given Sunday and not let it affect his emotional stability and health. It’s all part of the process, and for him, it’s a necessity. Mattek’s become a fantasy analyst at FantasyInsiders.com.
“If I wasn’t doing it every single day,” he says, “I don’t know how I could help someone else.”
If playing fantasy football improves the quality of your life, it’s a fine hobby. If playing involves lying, stealing, and disassociating from loved ones, well, you have a problem.
Mattek is an outlier in fantasy sports. Most don’t have his professional knowledge—or his background. As a high school student he got hooked on “gnarly drugs.” A semi-pro, traveling skateboarder, he says he weighed 105 pounds when junior year started. “I got arrested for possession a couple of times,” Mattek says. “I was all strung out on coke.”
At 16, he was arrested—while already on probation—for stealing a glass pipe from a gas station. To avoid getting in “real trouble,” Mattek went to rehab after spending three weeks in jail. As of Aug. 19, he’s been sober for seven years. But the daily payouts from fantasy football provide a familiar rush, and he’s absolutely hooked.
“I can literally do nothing but fantasy sports for days and days and days on end,” Mattek says. “It can completely consume everything about my being.”
Mattek knows to route around his edges, what vices make him go. Doesn’t harboring a predisposition for addiction mean that he needs to be extra careful around his fantasy football endeavors?
“There’s a line that I know that once I cross it there’s no going back,” Mattek says. He adds in a follow-up email: “Literally no question about it, it’s 100% addictive.”
Correction: Mattek had funds for tuition and rent following his daily fantasy losses.
Illustration by Max Fleishman