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The Crazy-Ass, Dystopian Future of Fantasy Football

Huge points for hard hits, a RedZone Channel on PEDs, and more: our roundtable of fantasy football experts imagines how the fake game changes the real game.

Do you remember a time before fantasy football? Neither do we. The game adjacent to the game has become so inextricably a part of Sundays in the fall that it's hard to remember that once, in a galaxy far, far away (like, before DirecTV Sunday Ticket far), NFL games were watched mostly because of an allegiance to a team, and not at all because you were sweating out your fantasy football matchup against Jan from Accounting. And while the increased awareness of concussions and CTE means football may have an uncertain future, the advent and meteoric growth of daily fantasy sports* foretells an unequivocal certainty: so long as the NFL does have a future, so too does fantasy football—a rather robust one. So we called up (individually) seven people who know it better than their immediate family members probably want them to, and asked them to tell us all about the dystopian future that might soon be our fantasy football reality.

Ed's Note: Traditionally, fantasy football has been played as a season-long game. You would draft a team at the beginning of the season and manage them throughout the NFL's 17-week schedule. New sites, like DraftKings.com and FanDuel.com, allow you to draft a new team each week with a salary cap, so you are not beholden to the same line-up from week to week.

How Has Fantasy Changed the Game Already?

Matthew Berry, Senior Fantasy Analyst, ESPN: The truth is, a decade ago, you would have a real football conversation and then a fantasy conversation. And I believe these days, honestly, they’re the same thing. Because when I sit here and ask, “How are the Patriots going to be affected by Tom Brady missing four games?” that’s interesting to Patriots fans, NFL fans, and Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, and Dion Lewis owners.

The (Fantasy Football) Players Club

With experience comes knowledge. Here's how long each of our experts has been playing fantasy football.

— — — — — — — — — —

Berry: 1988

Robins: Mid-90's

Klosterman: 1990 (Later, in '96' or '97, joined the "Jello League" which he still plays in today)

Torre: Fall of 1998 or, maybe, "99ish"

Evans: 1995 (First pick ever? Barry Sanders)

Loza: 2006

Bales: "Maybe 15" years ago (So, 2001. Maybe)

Jason Robins, CEO, DraftKings.com: There's a whole lot of people who grew up watching football a certain way and watch it a completely different way now. When I grew up, I had a favorite team, and I usually watched those teams’ games, start to finish. And I kind of knew what was going on in the rest of the league but I didn't necessarily know who was the best wide receiver on the Arizona Cardinals at the beginning of the year was or something like that.

Matthew Berry: For somebody like [Cleveland Browns tight end] Gary Barnidge, who plays in a town for a team that’s struggling on the field, the only people in America who knows who he is are fantasy owners.

Chuck Klosterman, Author of But What if We're Wrong?: People in their mid-20’s don’t even really remember pro football without a fantasy football component. Like [running back] LaDainian Tomlinson, when he goes into the Hall of Fame, I think the main thing that a lot of people will remember him as is the greatest fantasy player ever. He had the single best fantasy year anyone has ever had. He didn’t win a Super Bowl. There was only a couple of years when I think you would argue he was the best back. But from a fantasy perspective, he’s real memorable. So I do think it will have some impact on players’ legacies.

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How Will Fantasy Change the Way We Consume Football?

Pablo Torre, Senior Writer, ESPN: Now, my entry point on Sunday is not: Time to sit down and watch this game. It’s RedZone: Hook my brain up to this Matrix-like device, put this manic announcer's voice into my brain as we travel through the world like Professor X in X-Men. I'm just getting touchdowns fed into my veins. And that's a fantasy football development. Let's be clear about this: That's the reason why it's that popular and why it was made.

Brad Evans, Columnist, Yahoo Sports: RedZone is one of the world’s most marvelous inventions. It’s like: Polio vaccine, fire, and the NFL RedZone channel. Those are the marvels of humanity.

Pablo Torre: We've seen games where there are cameras on specific players, far more than on other ones. What if I sold you a package on TV, where I gave you however many roster spots you have and a camera on each of those people? It's always on them, no matter what. Why can't we do that? Why isn't that how people would consume it?

What if the world becomes more invested in fantasy football than actual football?

Brad Evans: You’d have to have so many shots and so many cameras and so many producers to cut it, but oh, God, that would be glorious. Basically I would sit in my house with a bag of Cheetos, and I would never wear pants again. I mean what would be the point? I would be divorced, my kids would disown me, but it could be worth it. That sounds spectacular.

Chuck Klosterman: Certainly that jump is not as insane as the jump between how football on TV looks now and how it looked in 1960.

Brad Evans: Fantasy is why the DirecTV Sunday Ticket package has been such a huge success. It’s why ratings are through the roof. It’s why players are making unprecedented stacks of cash. Everybody’s benefiting from Fantasy, and I don’t see that slowing down. If you were to take a scientific poll of 100 self-proclaimed NFL fans, I would say 65-70% are probably active fantasy football players. It’s just going to get closer and closer to 100%. We saw that in the Bills/Jaguars game that Yahoo broadcast last year. That was a game that was early in the morning. We had unbelievable numbers. Tens of millions of people streaming the game online, watching two bad teams. The reason why they were consuming it was because somebody had Allen Robinson or somebody had Tyrod Taylor. And they gotta see how it pans out for fantasy purposes.

Pablo Torre: I'm getting increasingly futurist here, but we're getting to a place where the formal structure of football is less important than the superstructure we've built around it. What if the world becomes more invested in fantasy football than actual football? Those things can benefit each other. But there comes a point where, philosophically, we have to reckon with the idea that we don't actually care about the teams as teams. We just care about the players as they are now [our fantasy team’s] fake employees.

Matthew Berry: There are certainly a few people who just aren’t necessarily “football fans” that just data crunch and number crunch and it’s just all about the competition. But do I ever think fantasy football could become bigger than the NFL? The answer is no for me.

Chuck Klosterman: I’ve got a friend whose kid is nine years old. He’s a real, real good athlete. But him and all of his friends talk about their fantasy football teams constantly. Much more than they talk about the Jets. There was a huge shift in the ’80s where there would be the parents were upstairs watching television, and the kids were downstairs playing Atari. The idea that what they were seeing on the screen could be manipulated never seemed weird to them. That’s why it was so easy for them to start using home computers, and it was very difficult for their parents, because their parents were kind of socialized to believe that looking at a monitor was a one-way experience. So the idea of watching football as something where the main objective is for your own sort of game, that you're watching this and they’re actually playing for you, I think young people probably do think that way. So if it was 25 years from now, I don’t know if fantasy football would be more popular than football, but I don’t think the difference between the two would be that great to the average consumer.

Liz Loza, Fantasy Analyst, Yahoo: This is why I don’t think that fantasy will ever outgrow football: there isn’t the emotional connection to stats that there is to watching these players on the field do heroic things. And so much of the game is tied to memories you have. I’m from Chicago. My husband’s from DC. But we live in LA and we just got the LA Rams. I have a three-year-old son. We immediately signed up for season tickets, because even though I’m going to be at the office all day on Sunday, I want my husband to take my son to the games so that he has his home league. Because so many of my warm childhood memories are surrounded by my grandfather, watching the game.

And so, while stats are fun, and I like to look up someone’s “yards per attempt,” at the end of the day, I want to watch that run. The stats are fun, and they help inform your winning. But if there’s no heart behind it, I really don’t think, like everything else, it’s going to succeed for a long time. As long as football is popular, fantasy is going to be popular. I don’t think math is wildly popular.

Pablo Torre: I would argue that the larger impact of fantasy football might be just introducing mathematical fluency to a lot of people who may not have given a shit about it. And it's interesting that fantasy football is the Trojan horse for math for a lot of people who, if I may stereotype broadly, maybe didn't care so much about math in a broader context.

Will the NFL Ever Embrace Fantasy?

Brad Evans: If you watch the NFL Network nowadays, some of the new programming that’s out there—Good Morning Football, for example—does cater to fantasy fans in segments. So it’s kind of the elephant in the room, and they throw the elephant an apple once in awhile and say, “Chew on this.” Or a couple of peanuts. But they don’t fully keep feeding the elephant. So I think the NFL, in its independence, is trying to decide what direction to go and who to cater to exactly.

Pablo Torre: My sense is that if the NFL wanted to own this, as in bring it internally as opposed to having every media company or website have their own league platform, they would have done that already. My sense is that they understand that there are landmines… [As a general manager], you may love the idea that fantasy football is bringing your business to another level. You're expanding it, you're giving people that maybe don't watch football obsessively reasons to invest in your games. But in terms of trying to monopolize it, I think that raises questions. Like, you're really encouraging everybody to not care about your team exclusively? It's weird. You're then logically suggesting that as competitive as you are, if you’re the Steelers, you also want this guy out there to really give a shit about [Cincinnati Bengals quarterback] Andy Dalton in a way that makes him care less about [Steelers quarterback] Ben Roethlisberger. That's weird. That doesn't really make sense.

We are getting away from physical pain as this glamorous thing in football.

Chuck Klosterman: It’s sort of the same as: What would be more exciting than if, in the summer, the NBA had a 16-player, winner-take-all, million-dollar, one-on-one tournament? But they’ll never do it because these pro leagues are still in a position where they have to work under the impression that their motives are the same that they were in the ’50s, that this is not just a money game. This is some extension of the great part of America, and they can’t do things like this. I’m sure the NFL would love to be like, “Well, we’re going to take over sports gambling.” Still, could they justify taking over fantasy football? They could have in 1995. It wasn’t that big of a deal. If they had done that, they would have completely cornered the market. But they just sort of were like, “This is just what losers do.” So it took them a long time to get over that perception that the only people who play fantasy sports were guys sitting in their basement.

Liz Loza: If the Raiders do in fact move to Las Vegas, then that’s gonna be telling in how chummy [NFL Commissioner Roger] Goodell is willing to get, at least outwardly, with the fantasy community. There’s obvious revenue incentive involved in welcoming the fantasy community into the NFL, which I think he’s doing. And so if that’s not gonna happen, then there’s a grand rapid-level stream of potential money that’s not going to be available.

Pablo Torre: Purely logically, by barring daily fantasy, you are trying to prevent the logical conclusion of something from happening. As a product, clearly it's popular. And as a thing that's worthy of regulation, once leagues realize it's happening and it's going to keep getting more popular to gamble, to have stakes on games that they don't otherwise care about, I would be shocked if daily fantasy was somehow eradicated. The trick for the leagues is [how to regulate it]. It reminds me of what parents say when they know their kids are smoking weed. It’s like: As long as you do it inside the house! But we don't want you going to some weird offshore betting site because who knows… And that's fair. And as weird as that is and as hypocritical as that is, I kind of get where they're coming from. At least they can get a cut, they can manage it, without exactly endorsing it and without formally giving your children the metaphorical joint.

Chuck Klosterman: It really comes down to whether or not the league has an adversarial relationship with the idea that [football] is fundamentally just entertainment. For example, in the NBA when Gregg Popovich sits stars, there’s always this conflict. In a sense, his job is to do what he can to win a championship. But at the same time, the only reason any of this exists is its entertainment value. So if the NFL says, “Well, you know, our focus needs to be on the idea that this is something consumers want, and the only idea this is a wealthy industry is because people like it,” well, we have to accept that fantasy is what they like. And certainly, there’s no question that fantasy football has expanded interest in the sport. There’s no way around it. There are people who play fantasy football who still don’t watch the games, but they’re engaged with it because they want a check.

Brad Evans: The NFL is always changing the rules, too. Not only to protect players and increase safety, but also to benefit fantasy owners. Every single rule change that’s out there, it’s not benefiting a defensive player. It’s benefiting an offensive player. There’s not as much contact. There’s not as much grabbing as there used to be 15, 20 years ago between a defensive back and a wide receiver. So you’re seeing an increase in scoring.

Matthew Berry: [Seattle Seahawks cornerback] Richard Sherman has actually suggested this. Last year around this time, he gave a quote, something about the fact that when the new rules came out—you can’t touch after five yards and all those kind of things—he believes it’s the result of fantasy football. They want more scoring, that it’s all about driving fantasy football ratings and interests. My belief is that Richard is wrong. I don’t believe the rules committee got in a room and said, “All right. How can we make this more fantasy-friendly?” I think they’re concerned for players’ safety, and I think they’re considering all kinds of different factors. But I will say that there is some—for lack of a better phrase—a halo effect. I think the NFL in general wants the game to be as entertaining as possible, as accessible as possible. The NFL is a huge promoter of fantasy football in a big way.

Pablo Torre: There's that apocalyptic nightmare scenario where guys have financial incentive to do things in games that don't align with the incentives that their coach has for them. I'm not going to go out and say these guys are all about to throw games. But I will say the more granular fantasy football becomes—where you have new categories, new stats—we're gonna eventually evolve to a place where we're not just tracking yardage, touchdowns, catches.

Chuck Klosterman: Fantasy football has a lot less leverage over the NFL than casino gambling does because the amount of money is so much less. There was a time, certainly, prior to 1970, when the amount of money bet on football might have been greater than the amount of money within the league itself. That’s why there was so much greater fear about point shaving and game fixing in the past. Because you would look at a guy making $44,000 a year or whatever and he was real susceptible to corruption. But if he’s making $4.4 million, he’s not susceptible.

How Will Fantasy Change Going Forward?

Jason Robins: We're watching [DraftKings.com's] traffic and each day that passes, it's more and more mobile. It's just where everything is going, and the experiences, they're gonna need to be tailored more and more for mobile. Which, in turn, allows cool things like proxy play: being able to play with other individuals that are nearby.

Jonathan Bales, CEO, DraftLabs.com: Just imagine you go to a game and in the back of every seat is an iPad and then you can play live daily fantasy right there. The only very fundamental difference between daily and season-long is the timeframe. So if you take that to the next step where it’s in-game, based on what’s happening, and it immediately updates, and maybe after the first quarter you can pick a new team or whatever? I think that’s growing.

Brad Evans: I would say that maybe real-time fantasy is an option, where you're watching a game—and I think there are some smaller sites out there already experimenting with this—and it’s basically trying to predict the next play. I’m sure there are sites out there that I’m unfamiliar with that are starting to do this on a micro-level. Can it grow to macro? I don’t know.

Jonathan Bales: And the leagues are incentivized to do this too because it’s so comfortable to watch games on TV. It’s almost a chore to go to the game. If they can make that live experience better by incorporating that—maybe even like stats projected onto the field or whatever—those things sound outrageous but maybe aren’t that far down the line.

Matthew Berry: I think artificial intelligence will go a long way. So if it’s like, “Crap I’m on a vacation! I missed a deadline!” or “I’m at church with my wife and the preacher started talking to me and I couldn’t get out to change the lineup,” and kickoff happens, and all of the sudden you’re like, “Oh, oh, this is good. They automatically substituted my running back, which was a late scratch, with the best available player on my bench.”

What if I told you that the new kicker stat was heart rate?

Jason Robins: There's still a lot of room to improve the “sweat experience,” the part where you watch games. We have an integration with MLB At Bat. It’s sort of like your own customized RedZone for baseball where what happens is: when your player comes up to bat, Siri will tell you, and the little symbol will flash, and you can click it and it'll flip over. And that's where I think all of this is going. Technology is bringing this so-called first- and second-screen experience together, where you have people who are watching games and consuming the fantasy content alongside.

Jonathan Bales: People love the draft. That’s the best part of season-long [version]. Once you get in the season, it’s almost like, “Oh, this sucks. The draft is over.” And I think daily misses out on that. But if you have a hybrid league, you draft and then instead of counting things up throughout the year, you keep your team, but you have different sort of games or side bets that happen week-to-week. We bet on the results of playing someone head-to-head in that week—sort of like daily, but you keep your team. You get the ability to build your team and be like a GM in that way, but then you also get the immediate payoff and sweat each week.

Matthew Berry: Does wearable technology get into football uniforms? Can we then take that data—a wide receiver’s acceleration and heart rate and speed versus a corner—and use it? If I know that Desean Jackson has X straight-line speed, and I know this corner has Y straight-line speed, then I know: Oh, they’re going to take some deep shots to Desean Jackson.

Pablo Torre: I think that that next interesting stage is the whole biometrics movement, devices that track acceleration, heart rate, velocity. Who's to say that that's not going to be incorporated into fantasy football on some level? What if there's a world in which fantasy football not only involves the points you're getting but which payers were the most calm, which players had the most solid heart rate? Your goal is to draft a team where there's a category like panic as determined by heart rate. What if I told you that the new kicker stat was heart rate? So instead of extra points being meaningless, you lose points if your kicker literally begins to tremble. Or the strength of the hardest hits. We are supposedly in this world where we are getting away from physical pain as this glamorous thing in football. But if I can give you the accelerometer data in a player's jersey when he gets hit, that's something that could absolutely be commodified and be rewarded. We can quantify that in a way that's actually numerical as opposed to just looking at a TV screen and seeing a guy get jacked up. That's kind of awesome! But it's also kind of dystopian.

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