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Fantasy football, explained for non-football fans

(Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Last year, millions of Americans spent countless hours researching the statistics of obscure football players.

Before the season, they "drafted" these players onto the imaginary teams that they "owned." Game after game, they tracked their play in the waning minutes of already-decided NFL games, celebrating in triumph when a player unknowingly gave them victory with a meaningless yard or catch.

Welcome to the bizarre world of fantasy football.

The strange game has taken the country by storm over the last decade or so. It has changed the way real games are broadcasted and permeated pop culture to the point where it's the subject of a long-running sitcom.

If you've received an invitation from friends or coworkers to play this game for the first time, this article is for you.

1) What is fantasy football?

fantasy draft

Some nice fellas conducting a fantasy draft. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images)

When you play fantasy, you make a virtual roster of real NFL players, then compete against other people's rosters, based on the stats of all the players in real games. Traditional leagues are season-long (meaning you keep your players for the whole season), but daily leagues (in which you draft a new set of players each week) have skyrocketed in popularity over the last few years.

It's all a game-within-a-game, in which the wins and losses of real-life NFL teams is unimportant. The only things that matter are a few key numbers for the individual players on your fantasy team — like touchdowns, yards, and catches. It's called "fantasy" because to some of us, assembling the top players from different teams onto one hypothetical roster is what passes for some sort of bizarre fantasy.

There are fantasy leagues for pretty much every sport, but fantasy football is the most popular in the US — an estimated 30 million people played it last year. Though the actual game is usually free to play, most leagues involve some money that is wagered at the start of the season and paid out to the champion in the end.

All in all, fantasy has thoroughly permeated football culture, and there's even evidence that it's been a significant driver of the NFL's continued surge in popularity. Fantasy football is the reason football broadcasts are now covered with stats graphics and it's the reason why there's a hugely popular channel that simply bounces live from touchdown to touchdown instead of showing a complete game.

For these reasons, the NFL itself actively promotes fantasy football, even though it's basically a form of gambling. Some players report hearing more from fans about their fantasy impact than their real-life one — and there are some NFL players who also play fantasy themselves.

2) Where did fantasy football come from?

Starting in the 1950s and '60s, a few different groups of statistics-obsessed fans hit upon the idea, with fantasy baseball most popular at first. Initially, the fans used paper and pencil to track their players' stats, but beginning in the 1990s, various websites began offering automated leagues for a fee.

In 1999, Yahoo became the first major site to host leagues for free. The popularity of all fantasy sports — and football in particular — has surged in the years since, and most people now use free online platforms (though premium paid ones with extra features are still available).

For a while, most pro leagues distanced themselves from fantasy sports, thinking of them as a form of gambling. But in 2002, the NFL conducted research showing that fantasy players watched significantly more football, and the league began actively promoting the game and even hosting fantasy leagues on its own website.

In 2006, congressional legislation to restrict online gambling was passed with an exception specifically written for fantasy sports. In 2009, FX debuted The League, a sitcom about a group of friends in a fantasy football league that occasionally features NFL players as guest stars. In a short period of time, fantasy has gone from a weirdo fringe hobby to a mainstream part of pro football, and it certainly looks like it's here to stay.

the league

Stars of The League. (Photo by Tommaso Boddi/WireImage)

3) How does fantasy football work?

To play in a season-long league, you register at one of a few different websites, either with people you know or strangers. You give your team a name. Congratulations: you are now a team "owner."

Just before the start of the season, you and the other owners (there are usually 10 or 12 in a league) hold a draft, in which each of you picks the NFL players you want on your team. Each player can only be on one team in your league. After the draft — and throughout the season — you can tinker with your roster by picking up players who didn't get drafted, dropping players you no longer want, and trading with other owners.

Then, for each week of the regular season, you select a subset of the players on your team as "starters." Usually, it's one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, a tight end, a kicker and a team's defense, although these numbers vary a bit from league to league. At a minimum, you need to take out the players who are injured or on a bye week (each NFL team has one week off during the year).

Each week, your starters go up against the starters of another owner in your league each week. You get points for the yards, touchdowns, field goals, and other stats your players produce in real life, and so does your opponent. At the end of the week's games, whoever has more points gets a win. This goes on for the whole season, eventually leading to a champion.

4) What players should I draft?

Le'Veon Bell

(Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

The basic idea is that you want to draft players at each position who will get you lots of points. Every expert has their own personal preferences and draft philosophy, but there's generally a basic understanding, heading into the season, of who the best players are.

SB Nation has an excellent guide, with lists of the top overall players, the top players at each position, "sleepers" (players that will be drafted low but might do better than expected), and potential "busts" (players who, for various reasons, might underperform this year).

However, if you don't feel like putting forth any effort, you can always just rely on your league platform's default rankings as you draft. If you don't even want to do that, you can just ignore the draft and do something else with your time, and the system will auto-draft your players for you — but what's the fun in that?

5) Should I talk about my roster with lots of people?

Absolutely not. Though your draft results might be very exciting to you, the truth is that to other people — especially ones who aren't in your league — hearing about the players you picked is a lot like hearing about your dreams, or the upset that ruined your NCAA bracket. They're just not relevant.

This goes for the regular season, too. Your glorious wins and painful losses simply have no meaning beyond the ten or twelve people in your league, if that.

Anyone who plays fantasy is guilty of occasionally violating this rule, but no one likes the person who works his or her team into every conversation. Please do not be that person.

6) Why would I want to do all this?

fantasy football trophy

Do everything right and you just might win your league. (Kevin Tao)

That's a great question. Fantasy is undoubtedly a weird, non-intuitive way to watch sports, and it takes time. And yet millions of people and increasingly obsessed with it. Why?

One factor is that it taps into the same control-hungry impulse that drives our love of March Madness brackets. Watching sports is fun, but the sensation of having a bit of control over the outcome can be even more exciting. We can't control whether our team wins or lose, but we can control how our fantasy team does.

Another is that fantasy breaks down a big, complex game into something more manageable. Figuring out why real-life teams win or lose is really hard. But boiling things down to simple stats — like yards and touchdowns — gives football an appealing semblance of simplicity.

For many people, the main reason is the fun against competing with friends or coworkers on a seemingly even playing field. Fantasy gives us something to talk about over the course of a season, and pretty much anyone can do it, even if we're not in shape to play actual football.

Finally, for people who are already football fans, fantasy can impart meaning to particular games that otherwise have none. If I'm not a fan of the Buccaneers or Rams, their bout on December 17 will probably be pretty unappealing, especially since neither team is likely to be in the playoff hunt. But if I have a fantasy player on either team, it'll make the game worth watching — which is especially good because it's the sole Thursday night game, so it's either Bucs and Rams or finding something else to fill my otherwise meaningless existence for one more night.

7) Isn't this basically gambling?

fantasy sports money

Dolla billz. ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images)

According to federal law, fantasy sports are not technically considered gambling. The 2006 act congress passed to prohibit online gambling (especially poker) included an exception for fantasy sports, officially categorizing them as "games of skill."

But it's hard to argue that fantasy doesn't fit under the actual definition of the word  "gambling." Most have some sort of entry fee paid at the start of the season, and provide a payout to the winner.

The NFL, publicly at least, is strongly anti-gambling. And yet it's carved out an exception for fantasy. It doesn't just tolerate fantasy: it actively promotes it in commercials with current players, and provides a platform on NFL.com where people can play it for free.

The reason is that fantasy football makes the NFL money. It's indirect — playing in a fantasy league on NFL.com is free, but the popularity of fantasy at a whole certainly drives up ratings for all games, and is especially effective at making people care about otherwise meaningless late-season games.

This would also be true of conventional gambling, though. But what gives the NFL cover here is that fantasy doesn't look much like conventional gambling: there are no bookies, no casinos, and the money gets paid out only after a convoluted, season-long process, months after it was paid in originally. The league has ridden this strange form of pseduo-gambling to new heights of popularity — and it doesn't seem likely to give it up anytime soon.