July 2, 2022

Imageglee

Sports Really Satisfies

My Life in Fantasy Sports

Illustration: Madison Ketcham

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Last summer, I reached a grudging conclusion about myself: I’d been playing fantasy sports for too long. It had been 12 years since I’d married my love of NBA basketball to a fixation on stats and petty feuds with my friends, which seemed charmingly zany at age 22 but was getting to be exhausting by 34. My enthusiasm had started to wane a few Octobers earlier, between catching my orcish reflection after staying up until 2 a.m. to draft and collapsing into bed to wait for my toddler’s screams to wake me up. The high jinks depicted in The League, FX’s sitcom about fantasy football, used to spark amused recognition. Now they were a warning that my pastime was becoming neurotic.

Somewhere in the course of this realization, I met Martin. He was a drummer from the Bay Area who’d relocated to Los Angeles, my hometown, and had been invited to join my fantasy basketball league by our mutual friend, Jonathan. Jonathan is the league’s commissioner — alternately a benevolent steward who settles disputes and builds consensus around new rules and a menace to my inbox who triumphantly signs emails with “2016 League Champion.” It was a special occasion: the league’s draft, in which we choose players for the upcoming season. The pomp that goes into this yearly event is embarrassing to admit. I remember trying to imagine how it must have looked to Martin, the only first-timer, and couldn’t avoid the takeaway that we were all unhinged, including him for sticking around.

The draft happened, as it always does, at the tree-shaded house owned by Eddie, our oldest member at 76. There are usually ten of us, a crew composed mostly of friends from high school or the social circles that came out of it. Jonathan was dating a professional singer at the time, so the proceedings started with a special recording she’d made of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Next was a not-so-short documentary Jonathan had directed about himself that featured a Rocky-style montage of him exercising. Awards were distributed from the previous season. The league champion got a trophy and a faded Lisa Leslie jersey from her days playing for the L.A. Sparks. The past season’s loser was punished with a license-plate frame that read LAST PLACE FINISH, FANTASY BASKETBALL, which was awarded over solemn music at a candlelit ceremony. Best Trash Talker produced, and continues to produce, my favorite highlights. Jonathan’s middling win rate this season led Chris to observe that he reeked of desperation — “I smelled it on you at dinner the other day as well.” Jonathan retorted, “Maybe what you’re smelling is your 13-23 record.”

Why was I there? The straightforward answer is because my friends were, and I wanted to be with them. The actual draft was secondary to the event’s social function — an excuse to stay in touch, which has become increasingly difficult since I moved to the East Coast in 2012.

As it turned out, explaining how an elaborate contest had become so crucial to my ability to keep in regular contact with people I loved was hard to do without further humiliation. “Oh,” replied a fellow soccer parent one recent Saturday after I told her, sheepishly, that I was writing a story about fantasy sports. “Is that when you, like, make a fake sports team and play fake games against each other?”

Indeed it is, Candice: Fantasy sports, generally speaking, are a type of organized contest where competitors “draft” real-life athletes onto made-up teams that battle for primacy, usually as part of a bigger fantasy “league.” Points are tallied according to how well these athletes perform in various statistical categories during actual games. If the real LeBron James scores 35 points on a Sunday and James is on my team, I get points too.

If this sounds like nerd shit, it is — only it’s the Game of Thrones kind, where it feels like everyone is doing it and you know it’s making someone lots of money. The global market for fantasy sports is expected to grow to $26 billion by the end of the year. One in five American adults participates, according to a study that predated the pandemic, so it’s reasonable to assume the true figure might now be even higher. The same survey found that 81 percent of participants were men, half between the ages of 18 and 34. These are the peak “friendship-collecting” years, as Jennifer Senior wrote recently in The Atlantic. I’m right at the upper cusp, and I’m not surprised that it’s the year in which participation starts to fall off. It’s a liminal stage, when life tends to narrow to work and family and, if I’m honest, not much else. Once-convenient relationships start to need active maintenance. Men don’t lose friends, exactly. We just stop having them.

This is a process that many people intuit and that a body of literature gives anecdotal and statistical credence to. “Men Have No Friends,” reads the headline of a 2019 Harper’s Bazaar article by Melanie Hamlett, “and Women Bear the Burden.” Last year, the Survey Center on American Life found that the number of American adults with three or fewer close friends leaped from 27 percent in 1990 to 49 percent in 2021, and men are significantly less likely than women to discuss personal matters with the friends they do have.

One of the outcomes is a slew of physical-health risks. “Loneliness can kill you,” reads one especially bleak subhead on a 2020 article from the University of Miami Health System. A November Psychology Today article claims that loneliness can shorten your life, describing side effects that include cardiovascular disease and stroke — even suicide. “Loneliness is as much of a health risk for men as smoking or being overweight,” reads a 2021 article at UCLA Health, citing Psychiatry Research. It “increases cancer risk by 10 percent, regardless of age, socioeconomic status, lifestyle, and other risk factors.”

Fantasy sports are at the nexus of this decline — a rare platform for the kind of sustained contact that gets taken for granted when you’re young but dwindles as you age. “It’s probably the only reason I’m still in touch with some of these guys,” Martin told me of another ten-person fantasy football league he’s in, which has been active for 21 years and has a track record of byzantine nonsense. It made him a natural fit for our league and its draft-day antics but also hinted at a shared predicament. Our parallel crews had glaring differences on paper — Martin’s was all white guys from a small Northern California enclave; ours was mostly Black and Asian American from the farthest-flung reaches of L.A. County and included one woman (God help her). But everyone had independently chosen to gamify a good chunk of their long-term friendships and mediate them through platforms that bypassed intimacy as fluidly as they encouraged a near-constant stream of texts and other digital means of communication.

The doomsayers insist that health and longevity for men depends on actively cultivating your close relationships. But more than a decade after I’d started playing fantasy sports, it had started to look uncannily like other behavior I thought of as corrosive — spending too much time online and getting into weird stuff — and was making me feel tired and defeated instead.

I didn’t know it then, but when I sat next to Martin at the draft table, he was in thrall to a hex cast by a guy named Mike. Mike later told me he got the idea from an argument he saw in his seventh-grade art class 22 years ago. He doesn’t remember the exact topic of the middle-school dispute, only that John, one of his best friends since preschool, started getting into it with a girl who was sharing their table. “I guess she practiced witchcraft,” Mike said. “After John said something back to her, she cast a spell on him and did this weird little ritual. So when my luck is down in fantasy football, or I really need to step up, I utilize that same hex.”

Mike’s go-to victim is Martin, his fantasy football rival, who, according to Martin, consistently fields better teams than Mike but has lost 14 matchups in a row against him — an astonishing run of defeats. “Even if you’re really bad at fantasy football,” Mike said — and Martin, he clarified, “is not really bad” — “losing 14 in a row is almost impossible.” The hex was such a success that Mike chose to commemorate it. “He made me a T-shirt,” Martin said. “It kind of looked like a music-tour T-shirt where the front said THE HEX IS REAL. And then on the back he had every single matchup.”

The hex shirt was a relative mercy. People who play fantasy sports are notorious for attaching theatrically high stakes to their play, and humiliating your competitors is one of its bedrocks. Ask the Mississippi journalist whose penalty for finishing last in his fantasy football league required him to spend 15 hours in a Waffle House last June. Or the Nebraska man whose league required the loser to get a tattoo designed by the other players; his involved a wrecking ball that looked like Jay Leno.

Once, Martin bet on a head-to-head matchup with Mike during their league playoff, a wager that he lost. The next week, he sent Mike an email with a video from a singer’s show that he was playing drums for. “He was up onstage” in the footage, Mike said. “It wasn’t really a small concert. It looked like at least a few hundred people minimum or maybe even more.” During a break in the performance, Martin stood up from his drum set and grabbed the microphone, catching his mortified bandmates off guard. “I lost
a bet to my friend Mike in fantasy football,” Martin said in Mike’s recollection. “And I just wanted to give a big shout-out to Mike for beating me.”

Despite its professional perils, their rivalry grew out of a long friendship. Martin and Mike are both from Piedmont, California, which the historian Robert O. Self once called an “island city” surrounded by Oakland. Both men remember it as idyllic, a place that blended the exclusivity of an enclave with the culture of an urban center. In 1994, the Raiders moved back to Oakland from Los Angeles, and Martin’s dad bought partial-season tickets to what would become the team’s famous bacchanals. “People would roll in at 9 a.m., 8 a.m., when the gates opened and set up these elaborate tailgates” in the parking lot of the Oakland Coliseum, Martin recalled.

This early exposure to grown-man debauchery was a natural segue. Boys consumed sports one way. Men, for better and worse, had more options, both to consume and be consumed by them. As Martin and Mike’s group of friends coalesced over the course of elementary and middle school, it became clear that fantasy sports satisfied their varying approaches to this transition. You don’t have to be a body-paint-wearing fanatic or a tailgating warrior or even invest in a single team to have fun with fantasy. You just have to invest in the other members of your league.

Martin got the idea for them to start playing fantasy football in 2001. They were 14 years old, and Yahoo — the platform their league still uses — had recently made its program available free of charge. “It was online when we started,” Mike said, “except the bulk of it had to be done offline.” They got together at Mike’s parents’ house for their first draft, and Martin hand-recorded the players that everyone chose for their respective teams on a sheet of paper. “At the end of the draft, someone would have to upload all those draft picks onto Yahoo,” Mike explained. “And it was quite tedious. We had to go one by one, type in every player’s name on every team, and manually put them over on a team.”

The league has survived college and other means of dispersal. School, study-abroad programs, and work have landed guys as close to home as Oakland, San Francisco, and Napa; outward to Seattle, Colorado, and New York; and even, for short stints, in Italy, Israel, and India. One player, Saul, once tuned into the league’s fantasy draft from Rome. That was the same year he regularly Skyped his sister in the U.S. and had her point her computer at her TV so he could watch his beloved Green Bay Packers; it was usually around 3 a.m. his time.

But the main events, what they all looked forward to the most, were the times they could draft in person. Their most frequent destination was a cabin owned by the family of one of the league’s members, Fletcher, at Donner Lake, California, near the border with Nevada. They’ve drafted from Las Vegas twice — “Shitshows,” remembers Fletcher — and, in 2019, rented a cabin on Lake Washington, in Seattle. “What I remember most is probably the football passes I jumped off the dock into the lake to try to catch that weekend,” said John. “I would be so tired swimming back to the thing, climbing off the ladder, like, ‘All right, that was my last one.’ Then all someone had to do was have the ball in one hand and tap it with their other hand and I’d look up; I’d see it. And I’d take off and run and jump off the dock.”

These days, in-person drafts feel quaint, a throwback to when game stats came from newspapers. “It felt much more intimate than it is now,” Saul told me of his early days playing fantasy sports. It’s clear that something has changed.

Fantasy contests, like most interactions, have moved further online and, in the process, started to resemble the social networks whose rise paralleled their own. Lots of things got easier in the bargain — tinkering with lineups, researching players, accessing scores and statistics, even chatting with your fellow owners on message boards. But they also got easier to do apart and became more mediated by the features of contemporary life on the internet — aggressive advertising, prompts to pay more money for special access to inside information, and a ballooning array of gambling options to go with the special time killer that is having a semi-addictive diversion always at your fingertips.

Using them to facilitate friendships, as Martin and I have, is an easy way to pervert your social incentives. When your interactions with other people start to get “scored,” as the philosopher C. Thi Nguyen has written — that is, measured by how effectively they advance your odds of winning something, whether that’s social cachet or, in this case, a literal game — they tend to become characterized less by the depth and complexity that marks richer forms of communication and more by the pleasure rush of shallow one-upmanship.

In a 2013 TED Talk, famously sampled in Beyoncé’s song “Flawless,” Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie lamented how girls are encouraged “to see each other as competitors — not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men.” That boys are taught differently — to compete for another kind of status, individual dominance — is her implication, though to the degree that it’s true, the result is often just as poisonous: approaching human relationships like zero-sum contests.

But while this is not unusual, it is not inevitable either. Fantasy sports — like regular sports and, really, any mode of competition — is socially useful by virtue of who engages in them, and how.

Every league has an engine, often the commissioner. And if several of the Piedmont crew talk only because of their league, as Martin has claimed, it follows that their friendship owes a lot to Mike, who volunteered to lead after one especially chaotic season when he realized that if nobody took charge, there was a good chance they would not get organized in time to draft. “There’s been a couple attempted coups, which I thwarted,” Mike told me. The most recent was plotted by John and led indirectly to the creation of the league’s trophy, a 50-pound Buddha statue.

John had lost the championship that year to a guy named Dan on a technicality, which Mike enforced. John was angry and started texting the other guys in the league to see if he could marshal enough support to push Mike out as commissioner, while Dan celebrated by making a prize as annoying as his victory (a 50-pound Buddha is difficult to carry and store). But the revenge plot collapsed, mostly because no one else could feasibly do the job. As Mike put it, “If you guys take this responsibility, I’m fairly confident the league will fall apart.” In many ways, Mike’s work is both thankless and lopsided — one guy with a keyboard, propping up the infrastructure needed for other people to sustain a meaningful social life with old friends.

I have often failed to do this on my own. A friend of mine, who isn’t part of my fantasy basketball league, got laid off from his restaurant job during the pandemic. He’d been putting money away for a while, which along with the largesse of the government let him keep his apartment, where he lived alone. The harder adjustment was social; he spent a lot of time in his head. He immersed himself in a new diet and workout routine, which he catalogued in detail on Instagram. Other than that, the closest I got to a full view of how he was doing — by which I mean a sense informed by more than the disembodied words in a text bubble — were the times he tried to FaceTime me.

I answered him probably twice. The main reason was time constraints wrought by work and family, which made his mid-afternoon bids to shoot the shit hard for me to indulge. There was something more shameful and less defensible there, too — an aversion to intimacy, to vulnerability, that had long been a subtext of our relationship and that I couldn’t articulate to either of us until later. Not all men are like this, but a lot are: Embedded in the silence that followed every missed call from my friend was a creeping dread that whatever he needed to unload was getting bigger, and heavier, and waiting to drop the next time I picked up. I was scrambling in my own ways too. But more than that, I felt helpless and a little resentful. Who was he to expect a solution to his problems from me, who clearly had none to offer?

He had, of course, not actually asked me to solve anything. Projection of this kind was a by-product, partly, of my growing up with a sense that silent suffering was virtuous or at least a courtesy to other people. When I tried later, and only partway succeeded, in explaining this to my friend and committed to texting him more, we both knew it wasn’t enough. However, it confirmed the need to treat our friendship not as a given but as something I owed to both of us.

Fantasy sports are not a stand-in for this work, but they give it something reliable to build on. The foundation of friendship isn’t ease or convenience — it’s ritual. And Mike’s ritual wasn’t static. The league he sustained out of his own sense of obligation led to a group chat, which operates at a constant thrum throughout the day and only occasionally deals with football. A stream of updates about their kids and efforts to grow potted plants flows comfortably alongside debate about last night’s game. One day the main subject is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The next is Martin sending videos of himself and David golfing together, which happened while I was on the phone with Saul. The chat, in turn, is used to organize in-person get-togethers and Zoom calls where the guys can catch up, hear each other’s voices, see each other’s faces — antidotes to isolation.

“While you may have various levels of connection with everyone,” Mike said, “I’m sure there’s some people I would not talk to as much” otherwise. Two and a half years ago, Mike took a job as a hospitalist in Pueblo, Colorado, almost two hours south of Denver. The city is at the easternmost tip of the state’s Third Congressional District, represented by Lauren Boebert, who made headlines in March for screaming at President Joe Biden during the part of his State of the Union speech about his dead son, Beau.

The scene in Pueblo starting in 2020 was a vision of acute suffering — intubations, infected people struggling to gulp down their last breaths, alone at the end because family members who came too close risked dying too. Even without the congresswoman’s knack for transfixing the media with her antics, the region’s sympathies were clear. “A lot of the COVID patients on the last surge were in the camp of ‘You can’t tell us to get vaccinated,’ ” Mike said. “The hospital was above capacity for three months straight. It seemed like a personality type of ‘You can’t tell me what to do, and I’m going to come into the hospital with zero medical knowledge but be condescending and tell you what I need and how to manage my COVID.’

“So that was probably the most frustrating part about the whole thing. The work was stressful. It was tiring. I remember we all had to do extra shifts and the shifts were longer. Usually it’s a 12-hour shift or 13-hour shift. These were like 15-, 16-hour shifts with minimal times for lunch and stuff like that.” The tumult was made manageable, he said, by the calls that his friends from Piedmont organized to check on him and each other. “People would ask how I’m doing and get updates and then I would vent a little, which was great, because it was very frustrating at times and would alleviate some stress.”

Mike never asked for help. It showed up when he needed it anyway.

I took a break from fantasy basketball this year. I’d reached a point where the league had started to feel isolating, its connective force morphing into a fragmenting one. It seemed mutually burdensome: Trying to keep up with my obligations to the other owners weighed on me, while being the only member who didn’t live in California made me the group’s main scheduling impediment — not ideal for them. I had two young children, and there was a pandemic, all of which affected my ability to focus. My game play was a sorry stand-in for the effort I felt the other owners deserved. My wife was tired of me complaining.

So when we initially couldn’t settle on a draft date in October that worked for all of us, and the whole fantasy season looked like it might get canceled, I saw an opening. “You don’t mean that,” Jonathan, my friend and the commissioner, said when I told him I planned to take a hiatus.

I felt an immediate drop-off in how regularly I talked with my friends. It wasn’t that we stopped — like with the Piedmont crew, our fantasy-sports habit has become a negligible share of what gets covered in the group chat that grew alongside it. But without the scaffolding offered by the season’s rhythms — the weekly matchups and corresponding trash talk, the delirious mid-game back-and-forth about a player’s performance, good or bad — the communication got more haphazard, less moored to any sense of regularity, and thus more random and sporadic.

There’s a tendency among men to judge the quality of our relationships by how little effort they require. We recoil when they start to look like work. The problem is not so much managing our bandwidth, which can be important, but treating vulnerability like an imposition. I don’t know how much fantasy basketball has helped or harmed the quality of my friendships, but I know that without its rituals, I got lonelier. Its structure made staying in touch feel not just natural but obligatory. And suddenly it was gone.

Friendship is, among other things, an accumulation of stories, of events and landmarks that impart meaning. The longer you spend away from it, the less new material you’re generating. It becomes something you consume passively until it starts to fade. When I asked Martin to sell the Piedmont crew on participating in this piece, part of his pitch to them was what it would mean for their story. Theirs is a friendship that contains more memories and experiences than they can clearly recount, dating back to preschool for some, material that’s become so taken for granted that it hardly registers as worth telling. The question Martin was tacitly asking them was, “What if it actually is?” What if insisting that the story gets bigger, and branches off into new subplots, is the reminder we all need that opting in is worthwhile?