You will spend your Monday reading about the Sunday performances of real-life NFL teams, led by real-life NFL players, coached by real-life NFL coaches. You will consume and digest information about coverage schemes, reads, options, read-options, all of it. You will nod and you will agree with what you’ve taken in, not knowing what it all truly means. And then you will head on over to ESPN or Yahoo or NFL.com or CBS, log in, and check your fantasy team for the seventy-fifth time in the past three days.
This is reality. There was once a time many years ago when fantasy football was the sports equivalent of Dungeons and Dragons, a guilty pleasure that bordered on hidden obsession, the counterpart to viewing porn for hours on end. You played it, sure. But you didn’t talk about it with anyone you knew. Your leagues were limited to random counterparts across the broad spectrum of the world wide web or your very closest friends, no one else. And god forbid you got caught checking your team. Checking your team on any day, at any hour, differed in no way from adjusting your testicles in public. It looked all sorts of weird, awkward, and offensive, simultaneously. So silently, you played.
It started for me in 1998, when I was 14 years old. I discovered the now-defunct website Sandbox.com, a fantasy sports mecca that filed for bankruptcy in 2002. In most formats, leagues were available to join for free. And because fantasy was still such a relative anomaly, prizes were awarded to even those of us who shelled out no money to participate (probably contributing to Sandbox’s bankruptcy, I imagine). The first time I ever won a standard 10-team league I received a t-shirt in the mail, a prized possession two sizes too big that rarely ever saw the light beyond my dresser drawer. Still, though, it was nice to know that an otherwise-useless talent of possessing far too much information about sports — all sports, really, though I invested myself primarily in baseball, basketball, and football — could pay off to even the slightest of degrees.
I owned teams riddled with the likes of James Thrash and Dennis Northcutt, Bret Boone and Larry Walker, Rich Gannon, Kerry Kittles, the list going on and on. For every great team there were five or six more mediocre ones, for every championship squad a bottom-feeder or three.
When I entered college in the fall of 2003, it marked the first time in history that I had a core group of friends who actually wanted to play fantasy sports with me, guys who were able to prioritize weekly roster updates over dramatic teenage girlfriends for a change. By 2006 I was in a dynasty/keeper football league with my college buddies, a league that still exists today and will continue to exist until we all perish, it seems. With an affordable annual buy-in of $50 and a network of trash-talking malcontents, maintaining enthusiasm for kicking everyone’s ass has never wavered.
The league itself has become so popular that the list of friends waiting to join got tired of waiting, spawning offshoot leagues of a similar format, leagues which I’ve been privileged enough to partake in, as well. And then there are offshoots of the offshoots, spinoffs of the spinoffs, leagues formed by the disgruntled wannabe commissioners of the leagues ruled by veritable Bud Seligs, leagues formed by newbies looking to just get involved, leagues formed for different purposes (this one’s just for Seahawks fans born in the month of October, you see…), leagues just for the sake of leagues.
By my count, when 2013 comes to a close, I will have participated in at least 10 fantasy leagues over the course of the year: two NBA, two MLB, five NFL, and one Pac-12 college football. The purposes of each league? The NBA leagues were created by friends, for friends, just for something to do. One of the MLB leagues is run by my brother’s closest friends, a dynasty league I was invited into a number of years ago when I proposed the idea of a minor league draft to build year-to-year interest; the other MLB league is of my own creation, the SSNBL, yet another dynasty league dedicated to my buddies who thoroughly enjoy baseball. Of the five NFL leagues, one is the aforementioned PFL (Pearce Fantasy League, named for our evil overlord); one is the PFFL (the PFL’s first offshoot league, the Wario to the PFL’s Mario, if you will); one is a long-standing league done with former coworkers of mine from Nordstrom (the Shoe Dog League); one is the Frankensteinesque creation of a deranged fantasy maniac, a points-per-reception (PPR) dynasty league with a severely-altered scoring system (the Xtreme Fantasy League); and one is a near-annual tradition with my friends in the media world, a half-heartedly run attempt at bringing a bunch of writers and pseudo-writers together in a setting away from the murkiness of alcohol-infested nighttime establishments. And then there’s the Pac-12 league, the 25-year-old brainchild of ex-coworkers at The Seattle Times, an idea I’ve been a part of for five years now.
That many leagues can drive a man crazy. And at times, it does. When Ryan Tannehill, who you own in one league, throws a touchdown against the Browns defense, who you own in another league, you’ll find yourself tearing your hair out over the dual implications of concurrent success and failure. When you only have time to update one roster, as opposed to all of them, you find yourself prioritizing leagues over one another — this one has a bigger buy-in, but this one includes my closest frenemies, while this one doesn’t really matter at all.
There are the players who can drive you crazy, as well, the most poisonous of whom you distance yourself from forever and always. Edgerrin James polluted my roster once and never did so again. Deuce McAllister was a curse upon the Honkies, as was Chris Bosh. On the flip side, though, there are always those players you devote yourself to, those guys on which you go all-in, the mancrushes you add to every roster in every league. For me, those special few players range in ability from the likes of Felix Hernandez (star of the Compton Honkies baseball organizations — plural — for three-plus years now) to Kenbrell Thompkins (unproven up-and-comer of the Compton Honkies football teams — plural — since 2013).
But most of all, there is camaraderie with those around you, camaraderie with friends you might otherwise have forgotten about, a connection with people you’d otherwise only read about on Facebook. We play fantasy sports because it’s fun, because it brings us together. It gives us something to talk about beyond the uber-passion we might have for real-life teams that may or may not return our love. The money doesn’t matter, the prizes don’t matter. But the wins matter, the trash-talk matters, the ass-kickings matter, the victory text messages matter.
So spend your day reading about real-life games played by real-life teams. But just know when you put all that behind you and check on your fantasy teams for the eighty-first time this week, you’re not alone. This is real life, too, fantasy or not.