It started out as a hobby only the biggest sports nerds could enjoy, but now fantasy football is a full blown phenomenon in the US. As of 2019, 45.9 million people played fantasy sports in the US – and more than three quarters of those players favoured fantasy football.
Thanks to the rise of companies like DraftKings, it has never been easier to play NFL fantasy football and compete with friends in a league for big cash prizes. With the new season about to start, many new players are looking to take part for the first time – so here’s everything they need to know about the game.
Where it all began
The first game of fantasy football as we know it took place almost 60 years ago, one fateful night in 1962 in a New York Hotel. Bill Winkenbach, co-owner of the Oakland Raiders, teamed up with friends to form a fantasy league – although back then, it had the less catchy title of “Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League”.
However, it did manage for form the basis for the format played by millions to this day. Winkenbach and friends took turns to draft NFL (and at this point in time, AFL) players to their imaginary teams, with points awarded based on how well their players performed.
Of course, this was in the pre-internet era, so it proved to be more time consuming. Players would often have to wait until the Monday newspaper to get all the scores, each taking turns to tabulate points by hand – it’s no surprise that less than five million people in total competed before technology made the game easier and more accessible.
How to play fantasy football today
To play fantasy football, first you need to ensure you join a league. These can either be a public league where anybody can compete, or a private league where you’ll need an invitation to join.
Before signing up, players are advised to check whether or not they’ll be playing for fun or if there’s a cash sum involved. Once that’s done, it’s time to research available players ready for the draft – you’ll need to come prepared if you want to get the best picks for your team.
The draft is typically the most exciting part of the season, with each player in a league selecting players one at a time until everybody’s roster fills up. This usually takes place in a snake draft (where the last person to pick gets two choices, and so on), which takes place just before the first week of NFL season.
Every league has up to 12 teams, with the weekly roster of player featuring between 12 and 16 spots. Once the draft is done, it’s time to play – and apps like DraftKings will work out the amount of points won to see who wins the league each week, with the way points are awarded based on player performance broken down here.
Players are advised to continue tweaking their lineups as the season continues, so your fantasy team can make the playoffs and win the league outright. This isn’t the only way you could play though.
There are different scoring systems and season lengths available, while some players prefer auction leagues. This is where teammates bid on players to see who can join.
How technology has improved fantasy football
In 2018, there was an all time high of 59 million people playing fantasy sports – significant growth from the 27 million who played in 2009. The game’s rise in popularity is all down to how apps have made the game more accessible, its algorithm helping to count the winners and losers each week so players don’t have to work it out for themselves.
And the NFL have taken notice of just how popular fantasy leagues are. Several players have been open about how much they enjoy playing fantasy when off the pitch, and the NFL itself has forged a partnership with Draftkings.
The deal, which was signed in 2019, made the app the first fantasy app officially licensed to use footage from the league both on the app itself and other promotional materials. This is set to be taken to the next level with dedicated fantasy zones set up in stadiums, so fans can see stats and promotions before setting their lineups for the week.
Many in the NFL see the popularity of fantasy sport as a good thing – it can help casual fans become more involved in the game, as well as helping initiate new players to the excitement of fantasy. With the new season fast approaching, they are hoping that new players and dedicated fantasy players can team up to help make the new season a roaring success.
As developers create new features to make fantasy games even more competitive and addictive, it wouldn’t be a surprise if it reached new levels of popularity.