Thursday, February 4, 2010

Live the Fantasy (Football)

I try not to mock things that other people find fun. I don't always succeed, but it’s a good goal. See, I figure I'm totally happy to mock things people find important, because 'important' isn't really that useful a yardstick - lots of dumb things are important. But "fun" is pretty meaningful, in part because it’s sincere – people don’t talk about the things they find fun to sound cool or to impress other people[1]

That sincerity is a big deal, because it's not obvious why people find things fun, especially things you just don't understand. The instinct is often to find ways to justify your original idea (that the thing isn't fun and these people are wrong in some way) and look at it strictly through that lens, but I've consistently found it more valuable to really try to get my head around the fun people are having because that often gives me ideas I can steal for my own fun.

So I've been staring at Fantasy Football. Yes, I've passed around the jokes. It's D&D for people who beat up D&D players in high school. It's nerdier than D&D ever was, it just doesn't know it. Har har.

But, man, people play it. Lots of people. People who would laugh in your face (or at least look very pained) if you were to print up the rules for this game, put it in a box, and expect them to play. That's amazing, and it's something that really makes me stop and think.

Now, the obvious explanation is that fantasy sports succeed because they're tied to something people are already passionate about (sports franchises), it's a social object (people can talk about it[2]) and by extension it's socially acceptable. Those are all valid points, and while I am certain they're contributors, they are equally true about the discussion of the games themselves - there is something more that comes out of the game element of it.

Fantasy Sports still take many forms, and there are lots of variants out there, but their general shape has evolved through heavy use and revisioning[3]. In many ways, they're a better example of "Crowdsourcing" than anything the black turtleneck crowd would put forward (though that's become less true as it's gotten co-opted). For all that, I'd like to point to five things fantasy sports do that might provide useful lessons for other games.

Understanding is Not Required for Decisions
The rules you need to know to play a fantasy sport are incredibly simple. You have a list of players. From that list, decide how you want to fill a team roster this week. Bam. Done.

While it might be helpful towards your final score to understand what the numbers next to someone's name are, it's not necessary for you to be bale to play. You could pick people at random, because you like their team, because you like the sound of their names or because your cat told you to.

Perhaps even more potently, because the score you generate is based on events yet to come (who plays and how well) then there's often a lot of luck in the decisions you make, enough so that *any* method of selection will probably produce enough hits and misses to feel satisfying.

This means that it is incredibly easy to start playing and probably do ok.

Potential for Understanding is Bottomless
If, on the other hand, you want to really delve into the minutiae of the games, you absolutely can. There is more information (stats, news, personalities) than can ever be absorbed, and its utility as a predictive tool is questionable at best. But that's not important. You can gravitate towards whatever level of understanding you are most comfortable with, and that will be a perfectly effective platform to play.

"Turns" are long in fantasy sports, and the window of when you need to act is fairly small. As with understanding, this supports many different levels of interest. The guy who just picks out of a hat the day before game day is taking his turn just as well as the guy who spends his week poring over ESPN looking for details.

But that also has an extra bonus: you can be playing the game even when you're not playing the game. For a certain personality (like players of web-based games like Kingdom of Loathing) that's huge. It's a time-filling activity (to say nothing of fodder for discussion) and people are often desperate for that.

Cognitive Focus
It takes a fair amount of knowledge to appreciate most sports. Without it, football is just guys hitting each other, and baseball is a bunch of guys standing around in their pajamas.

The problem is that beyond a certain level of basic understanding, the potential depth of knowledge is HUGE - all the players and coaches, all their stats, all their careers.[4] The average fan is not going to have all that information.

Playing fantasy sports provides a narrow slice of that information you may want to care about - the stats and careers of the players on your roster. You can relax your brain a bit and worry less about the rest of the league, and just worry about "your guys."[5]

Social Game is Supplemental
Like most good games, there is a technical game and a social game to fantasy sports. In this case, the social game is that of trading roster members with other players. Importantly, the Social game can _improve_ the technical game, but it is not *required*. This offers the best of both worlds - players how enjoy the social game can dive in, but more tentative players can stand back, or just dip a toe in if they're inclined.

Using Tools
Fantasy sports are aggressive in their use of tools to make things easier. This is a good sentiment in general, but it also is interesting given how simple the actual act of playing is. If the tools were solely focuses on play, they would be small and sparse, but the reality is that they're robust as all hell. That's because the tools support play, not the game.

Looking at these all together, I want to call out the thread that runs through most of these[6]: letting the player find her own comfort level, and making that rewarding. This is not an idea I see a lot in most games, be they board, RP or video. The assumption of most published games is that there is a particular mode, and the player should be brought to it.

It's not a bad assumption: the tradeoff for that expectation is that it guarantees a certain level of player investment in the game, at least in theory. Still, I can't help but wonder what a game that takes these ideas to heart might look like.[7]

1 - Ok, they sometimes do, but not often, and you can tell. Usually it's because they want to impress someone in particular, and I can forgive that since it's usually under the "Trying to score" umbrella.

2 - And oh god they do. If you want to have your assumption that only geeks of various stripes drone on and on about minutiae nobody cares about from a game, hang out with some Fantasy football fans. I don't say this to criticize the fans but rather to suggest that being a colossal dork is not something limited purely to geeks - it's a human failing, albeit one needs an appropriate trigger.

3 - Rapid Revisioning is another great strength of this form. The rules are not terribly calcified, and there's incentive to tune them every season. Since each season provides copious sample data, there is also enough data to base revisions on.

4 - Some people can rattle this stuff off, and I am in awe of them. It is the greatest proof I know that very few people are truly stupid, rather that people are very smart about things they actually care about, though that list may be quite short.

5 - Paradoxically, reducing interest in the sport at large serves to *increase* interest in the sport at large. Your narrow group of guys you care about give you a reason to care about games and teams you might previously have been indifferent to.

6 - But not all, I concede. Some of the lessons depend on the timeframe fantasy sports operate on, and that's not necessarily applicable to all games. Not to say it can't be informative - play during downtime between sessions is a surprisingly robust topic.

7 - To some extent, this is something Fred and I have kicked around a lot, leading to the initial idea of FATE as a "fractal" design. There's an idealized game out there where character sheets trade off granularity for control, so one player might have a simple, Risus or OTE-like character sheet while another might have a vastly detailed one. As an example, imagine a World of Darkness game where my character sheet said "Ex-Soldier ********, Phone Phreak ******, Bully *****" and Fred had a fully filled out sheet. For 90% of the game, those two sheets could be used equally well with only a few rubrics in my head for handling odd cases. The advantage is that first sheet is appealing to one sort of player, but the second appeals to another. The ultimate question is how you turn those into a scale that people can find their place on.


  1. Just a couple of data points from my own experience to add to your otherwise thorough and interesting overview:

    1) within the sports fan and fantasy community, there is definitely a gentle hierarchy of teasing where super fantasy nerds are considered just that and sometimes treated with mild derision (combined with jealousy though as they tend to win).

    2) The social element is much bigger than just trading. Trash talking is a huge part of Fantasy and many online services offer multiple ways to communicate your gloating. Also, the draft day can be a giant social event, where people dedicate an entire day (as seen in Knocked Up and several beer ads) either connecting live online or physically gathering in someone's house, a local bar or even going to Vegas for the weekend.

    I think you are really on to something with the notion that individuals can participate on their own time and at their own chosen depth level. Some kind of GM-facilitated online RPG'ing which also allowed a lot of tweaking of the character (maybe going shopping, researching, training, doing all that downtime stuff) could be an interesting opportunity.

  2. As a former fantasy-football participant, I'll add that another social element is actually watching the games. A lot of texts and phone calls bouncing around on Sundays from that I can tell you.

    There's another interesting phenomenon in which the participants are constantly hunting for good info, i.e., the best websites, pre-season magazines, etc. It is actually a pretty strong analog to the fetishism RPGers have with their dice, minis, etc.

  3. Yeah, it makes the games meaningful to people who might not have grown up with football as a state religion. The fantasy football allows die-hard football fans and people who used to just watch on Super Bowl Sunday for the commercials to watch the games and suddenly, they have meaning.

    Maybe even that each game is the equivalent of a die roll in an RPG (to link this to yesterday's tweets).

  4. "...letting the player find her own comfort level, and making that rewarding."

    Ya know, the designers of Magic talk about this. The barrier to entry is a bit higher than fantasy football, but Magic does support both fairly casual play and high-level play.

  5. @Seth Magic is really interesting to look at in this light, though the question of how well it does it in reality is probably best measured by the effectiveness of a preconfigured deck vs. a preconfigured deck after $300 of modding.

    Though that might cast a light on the really interesting bit: Magic monetizes that investment. Being "more into" magic pretty much correlates directly with spending more on magic products. Obviously, that works well for them. It feels a little cynical, but monetizing commitment makes a lot of sense, and is certainly not limited to CCGs.


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