The race is on to create a viable professional fantasy football scene, even if no one is quite sure what exactly that would mean.
Fantasy sports was born out of a desire to let ordinary people play the role of general manager. But once those imaginary teams are established, why couldn’t they have real fans following them? If fantasy football is a digital game, why couldn’t a game with more than 50 million players support a pro circuit, like the esports leagues of NBA 2K or Overwatch? And, with betting ascendant in sports culture, couldn’t fantasy use the shot in the arm?
Until now, most fantasy content has been of the educational sort, but a few pioneers are testing the game’s entertainment potential as a spectator sport.
ESPN fantasy expert Matthew Berry said he “would not be surprised at all” if a nationally recognized fantasy league developed in the next few years. “Honestly,” he added, “I would be disappointed if it didn’t exist.” Then he went even further. “I definitely think there will be [a pro league],” Berry said, “and I want to be involved with it in a big way.”
Berry said he has a specific vision for what his pro setup might look like, and he has gone so far as to register multiple URLs for the project. He said he’s just waiting to find the right backer to make it happen.
In the meantime, the Hall of Fantasy League is bringing its vision to life. The 10-team league recently held its inaugural draft, with the Las Vegas Pocket Kings selecting Christian McCaffrey first overall. Each team is tied to a locale, from the Boston Barflies to the Los Angeles Sidekicks, and led by a mix of fantasy experts and ex-NFL players, all competing under the league’s commissioner, former NFL running back Terrell Davis.
In the Hall of Fantasy League, fans financially back the team of their choice, with a commensurate payout coming to those who support the league’s top two finishers. Throughout the year, team leadership will engage their backers to discuss roster moves. The league is owned by the Hall of Fame Resort & Entertainment Company after it acquired The Crown League, which developed the concept, last year.
“The people who get fantasy are incredibly intrigued by this,” HOFV CEO Michael Crawford said in an interview. “The audience that I think we’re trying to target are the folks that don’t really understand fantasy that well, because this makes it easy.”
Through the HOFL, Crawford said, casual fans can root for individual players alongside fellow supporters without having to worry about weekly waiver wire decisions or last-minute injury announcements. Meanwhile, diehards are able to connect in the HOFL app and its Discord channels for non-stop fantasy conversation.
Bleacher Report, meanwhile, is launching a new show built around a four-person fantasy league with a focus on audience participation. The Punishment League will pit four online personalities against each other, with losing players forced to endure fan-selected embarrassments each week.
B/R Gridiron director Collin McCollough said the series, partially inspired by the viral story of a fantasy loser enduring 15 hours at Waffle House, will aim to extend fantasy conversation beyond Thursdays and Sundays into a seven-day narrative. The league’s culture, and its dares, will take the spotlight over detailed fantasy maneuvering.
“I don’t think audiences right now are necessarily gravitating toward programming that just speaks at you,” he said. “People want to participate in the conversation and be a part of it.”
While the idea that “no one cares about your fantasy team” has been drilled into players’ heads (often to no avail), Berry said he regularly hears from fans asking who is on his teams and how they’re doing, especially considering his ties to leagues featuring the likes of Jay-Z, Chris Paul and Robert Downey Jr. Just as the NFL rises and falls with the popularity of its stars, Berry said a successful fantasy league would get fans to care about the people making the moves.
“I think that finding ways to make fantasy more accessible to other people and doing things around the game beyond just the typical, Here’s who to start and here’s who to sit, would be very well-received,” Berry said. Plus, a league done right could remind people about fantasy’s unique joys, as more and more attention is paid to its gambling relatives.
“The advent of sports gambling has caused people to forget about fantasy,” Berry said. “I think that’s a mistake. I completely understand that sports gambling is the shiny new thing, and it’s a massive opportunity. I’m excited about it as well. But fantasy is still a very big business…. And, honestly, where do you think sports gambling companies are going to get their customers from?”