Until last week, online fantasy sports betting was a prosperous and unregulated new industry, but things are shifting as Nevada regulators determined that fantasy sites are not skill-based, but rather a form of gambling.
These quick leagues offer instant satisfaction compared to the traditional fantasy leagues where participants were stuck with the team they chose before the start of the season.
I recently saw Living the Fantasy, a straightforward documentary which follows several top fantasy football players during the 2014 season. Living the Fantasy tells a story, but like most art, it also helps us ask questions. This look into the world of online fantasy sports raises questions about the allure of quick money and the contradictions of internet-based community—about how we interact, compete, and commune. Traditional, real-life fantasy leagues brought individuals together and stimulated people’s imaginations. With the shift to online fantasy sports, gamers are isolated in their pursuits, and the payoff shifts from the thrill of competition to a million dollar jackpot. Yet, even with the changes and the questions they raise, there is something powerful in watching people compete.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with the director of Living the Fantasy, Joshua Adler, about his film and the questions it raises.
Sarah Hanssen: Can you tell me about the genesis of Living the Fantasy? Why did you think this was a story worth telling?
Joshua Adler: I’m a filmmaker first, but a big sports fan as well. I’ve been playing fantasy sports for many years (even when I was in film school at Columbia). I discovered daily fantasy games about three years ago and found myself playing practically every day.
In September of 2013, I was on a site called DraftStreet (which has since been acquired by one of the largest daily fantasy sports providers, DraftKings) and I was playing a daily fantasy baseball game that night. There’s a chat board on the site that shows up at the bottom of the page. You couldn’t avoid seeing it. And I noticed people would write the most absurd and obnoxious things on it. I saw that someone wrote “Fuck Mark Teixeira. I hope he fucking dies of testicular cancer.”
That intrigued me. What kind of people are so obsessed with this game that they, even jokingly, wish testicular cancer on a stranger because he had a bad day at the plate?
That’s the genesis. I wanted to learn who these people were. However, I never really learned who “that person” is. But it was the beginning of wanting to make a documentary on the subject.
SH: Were there any moments or angles you wish you could have included in this film that didn’t make the final cut? What else do you wish audiences could know about in the fantasy sports world?
JA: We started making this documentary quickly. The world was blowing up so fast that we could hardly keep up. Time was a factor, and if we started making the film today, it would be significantly different, more well thought out. However, while it wouldn’t simply be a document of how fast the fantasy world was changing in 2014, we could have delved into the speed of the change a little more. When we started, no one really knew about DraftKings or FanDuel. Now, you can’t turn on the television without seeing one of their ads.
I also would have also have liked to explore the “gambling” aspect of this world a bit more. It’s a fascinating question whether this is a skill or gambling, and my thoughts changed back and forth as we shot the film.
SH: After being immersed in this world as long as you were, what do you think are the pros and cons of the online fantasy league world? Is it bad for society? Is it risky for human beings?
JA: My father said something years ago that has always stuck with me: “Anything in moderation is okay.” Of course there are exceptions to this rule.
That’s the simple answer.
Fantasy sports has been great for sports. For instance, basketball has really embraced fantasy. People like me, who were never big fans of basketball have found how much fun it is to play and through it I have become a basketball fan now. It’s also fun. I’ve had experiences where I’ve had a $20 team and been up to win a million dollars. Nothing beats watching football on a Sunday when you have a legitimate shot of winning big money with your fantasy team.
And trust me, if you don’t know anything about the sport, you’re not going to come close to winning money. That’s the big difference between this and sports betting. Anyone can go to a sports book and put money down on different teams. And anyone will win some and lose some. With this game, you have to know the players and the match ups.
Yet fantasy sports has been terrible for sports. As we say in our documentary (or as people we interviewed said), it’s broken sports down into plays and moments. People who play fantasy, none of them watch games anymore. No one roots for teams. It’s players. It’s moments. I personally can’t watch Sunday football without my computer open—scanning box scores of all the other games.
Fantasy Sports seems tailor-made for the ADHD generation. And it works. The purity of sports is totally fucked. Don’t get me wrong, I personally love it, but it’s still fucked.
As my father said “anything in moderation” and that goes double for fantasy sports.
SH: Would you have any caveats for people just considering giving it a try? I ask, for two reasons: I’d like to know what you see as the ethical conundrum in this world of fantasy league wagers, and I’d like to know for more personal applications. Modern human existence feels so isolating with less and less face to face interaction. Doesn’t this amplify that problem?
JA: Modern human existence is isolating. Look at the opening sequence of The Social Network (the credit sequence, that is)—it’s beautifully simple how Fincher takes us through the campus of Harvard before Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook. It shows Harvard campus on a Friday night and people are talking and interacting and riding bikes and hanging out. None of them are looking at smartphones. Fincher subtly sets up the thesis world that’s about to be changed forever.
However, I don’t know if fantasy sports has anything to do with the isolation through media. That happened long before fantasy sports developed. Fantasy sports (specifically daily fantasy games) has simply adjusted to the world that was created by Facebook and Twitter and so on.
I recommend to friends that they play all the time. If anything fantasy sports brings many people together. Because of it, I seek out friends who might want to go to a bar on a Sunday and watch football with me. For season-long leagues, it gets people to sit together for a day or for a weekend with old friends. It helps facilitate friendships and human interaction.
That being said, you go to a DraftKings event and spend a lot of time watching people watching the games. Most of them (including myself) are staring at their smartphones, checking stats. Is that fantasy sports, or is that the society we live in?
Hell, football stadiums now have the Red Zone playing on the big screen. Why? Because they know that in order to get people to come to the stadium and watch a live game, you have to give them the opportunity to see all the other games so they can follow their fantasy players.
SH: There’s something bittersweet and even disappointing about the fact that none of the characters we follow in Living the Fantasy are winners in the end. For me, this mirrors the experience of gambling. Can you talk a little about this parallel?
JA: It’s interesting that you think there aren’t any real winners at the end of the movie. I swear I’m not saying this, but I think they all win at the end. They just don’t win a million dollars in the last tournament.
I’ve been to Vegas many many many times. I’ve sat at tables with people and I’ve seen it in their eyes that they have gone overboard. They have lost it all. They were praying for that last spin of the wheel to finally turn their luck around. It’s horrible and devastating. I once witnessed a woman being dragged out of a casino by her husband because she blew $15,000 on high-stakes slot machines.
This was not the experience of the people we followed in our documentary. They all had fun; some even won a little or a lot of money. And if they did lose any, it could rightly considered “the price of entertainment.”