I first encountered fantasy baseball just a few years ago, in the 2011 season. I had withdrawn from paying any attention at all to the sport of baseball during my high school and college years, only to rediscover it after moving to Philadelphia in 2006. After deciding focusing April through October watching or listening to or reading about baseball daily was not giving enough of my time, I joined my first fantasy league. It was a 10 team head to head Yahoo league, my brother was the commissioner, and he set up the league to score on every imaginable category. I did only cursory draft prep– enough research to determine I wasn’t going to draft a pitcher until round 7 consequences be damned (and I drafted Ubaldo Jimenez which if you recall 2011 was not the best idea). I won the season with the best record only to be shut out in the post season by my dad who autodrafted and then did not change his roster more than twice the whole season.
In 2012 I upped to 4 leagues, including taking on an abandoned team in a deep dynasty league that plays by the strangest rules I have thus-far encountered. In 2013 I expect to join at least one new dynasty league if not more. Suffice it to say I am hooked.
If one were to ask me why I play Fantasy Baseball, my answer would be that I enjoy it. This is the simplest and purest answer one should give for any hobby, I do believe, and in itself should be sufficient as long as the thing one enjoys isn’t causing any harm to one’s self or others.
As for WHY I enjoy it, I have found that the satisfaction I get out of playing fantasy baseball is only tangentially related to the sport of baseball itself. Whereas some seem to play fantasy sports based first on love and knowledge of the sport and a desire to experience it more fully, I find this reason wholly unsatisfactory. Certainly I know far more about prospects, depth charts, stats, and sabermetrics after 2 seasons of fantasy baseball than I ever did in the 4 previous seasons of watching 100+ Phillies games a year. But while knowing baseball is helpful for playing fantasy baseball, it isn’t sufficient.
I posit that any skill required to play fantasy baseball comes more from focusing on the “game” part rather than the “sport” part– that is, focusing on “fantasy” instead of “baseball”. Fantasy as in genre fiction, as in dungeons and dragons, as in RPGs, as in tabletop strategy games. Fantasy as in the sort of thing it is entirely unlikely Ken Burns will ever document. Fantasy as in the sort of thing jocks stereotypically hate.
Knowing baseball, the whole world of baseball inside and out, and above this being interested by baseball is central to one’s enjoyment of playing in a fantasy league. But knowing how to play games, how to understand complex sets of rules and identify strategies that allow you to use those rules to your advantage, how to play with and against other people toward a common goal of mutual enjoyment up to and until the point where a victor must be declared, how to find fun in a seemingly-endless game where the opponents are constantly changing and luck is at least as important as skill; this is what makes fantasy baseball fun.
If you have played fantasy baseball for any amount of time you have certainly encountered the managers who eagerly sign up to play only to ignore or half-ass the draft, forget to set a line up, disappear for 3 months only appearing to complain, and otherwise contribute nothing to the game. Sometimes these people even win a league or at least beat you. Certainly this type of player takes away from the enjoyment of playing, but they also serve to prove that winning is not the ultimate reason to play. Winning could be a result of sheer luck. Enjoying requires effort.
In this specific way– the relationship of luck to winning and effort to enjoyment– playing fantasy baseball is not unlike playing REAL baseball, or any sport. The fun and fulfillment in a sport or game comes from challenging ones’ self, improving ones’ self. Games and sports are tools for self-fulfillment, giving purpose to recreation. In this way, though, fantasy baseball is decidedly not like WATCHING the sport. Being a spectator is extremely enjoyable in its own way and can be equally consuming and defining, but as as spectator the only true benefit to me is in identifying with a community. It’s like being in a club that requires only one pay dues to join. Being a fan is not the same as being a participant.
Most of us will not ever play baseball at any competitive level, and definitely not work in or near a baseball front office. The skills required to work in the world of real baseball are almost certainly divorced from the skills required to succeed at fantasy sports, in the same way that the skills required to slay a dragon are divorced from the skills required to enjoy D&D.
It is perhaps not a coincidence that my exposure to fantasy baseball and my exposure to tabletop strategy games happened at about the same time. I would be quick to compare fantasy sports to games like Agricola, Settlers of Catan, and Ticket to Ride. I’ve only played D&D once, although I’ve played more than a few video game RPGs. The thought behind designing a good game engine, and the strategies various players take to succeed at and enjoy these types of games, are I believe entirely similar to fantasy sports.
I created this blog as an outlet for thoughts such as this. I’ve spent copious hours researching, preparing, and thinking about my fantasy baseball leagues and teams. I’ve encountered a ton of strategy, analysis, and thought about how to improve one’s team or prepare for a draft. What I have encountered very little of is theory. The focus of most thought tends to be on diving deeper into the research behind “baseball” while the “fantasy” part is often treated as secondary. Part of my goal for this blog, or at least the fantasy baseball-related posts, is to turn greater attention to the fantasy parts; the game parts; the ideas at play.
I approach maybe too much of life as if it were a strategy game– attempting to understand the engine, fully research the rules, and determine how to succeed within the confines of the established universe. Games provide a framework to achieve this greater understanding of the world around us, and more complicated games allow for more opportunities to learn. I have yet to encounter a game more nuanced, difficult, or intensive than fantasy baseball. Playing has led me to deeper understandings of statistics, economics, group dynamics, goal setting, and sportsmanship among other things. When I write on my future resumes that I am adept at Microsoft Excel, I will have fantasy baseball to thank.
As a game, I find fantasy baseball extremely fulfilling. But only when I put in the effort.