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The NFL as Transmedia-- the Merits (and Faults) of Fantasy Football

In this paper, I aim to analyze fantasy football as a game, and a transmedia experience, with a focus on standard leagues. I explore the game's narrative space and potential for learning about principles and values of the NFL and football as a sport.

Gabriel Munoz Espino, Blogger

November 30, 2016

18 Min Read

        Oh, how Fantasy Football has taken over our lives. I refer mostly to NFL fans, who increasingly are Fantasy Football players, too. Though I suppose it has taken over non-fans’ lives, as well. If you have been disturbed by a few of your coworkers’ unproductive and obnoxious behavior in the office, and they happen to watch pro football, you probably have the pleasure of knowing members of a Fantasy Football league… or three. All of Sunday and Monday and Thursday nights is not enough football for NFL fans. The player is put in control of her/his team and asked to build a Super Bowl contender— with balance, depth, and a leader. Throughout the season, the player will learn compromise, boldness, perseverance, and will learn about more NFL players than are ever mentioned on broadcasts in a season. At least in some rudimentary sense, the player will gain an understanding of what it’s like to be a general manager. However, most Fantasy Football leagues do not afford crucial aspects of the game, such as linemen, hence misrepresenting what is needed to win a football game. Fantasy Football complements the NFL as a transmedia experience by informing the managerial aspect of the sport, but skews the player’s understanding of its principles by placing virtually all value on offensive skill positions and the individual over the team.

Fantasy Football Draft.jpg

Typical NFL Fantasy Football Draft

        In Fantasy Football, the players, or managers, draft active NFL players to their team, much like in the real NFL Draft. Traditionally, a team drafts a quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, a tight end, a flex (an additional running back, wide receiver, or tight end), a kicker, a defense/special teams unit to start games, and six additional players of any position for the bench. The game uses players’ statistics from their real performances in games to generate points for the manager’s team; the winner of a game is the manager whose team has the most points at the end of the week. The players that go undrafted form the waiver wire (the free agent pool of players). Players can be added from, or dropped into, the waiver wire; managers can also trade with other managers for players from their respective teams. Managers have access to all sorts of player/team stats, injury reports, highlight videos, and endless game analysis at their disposal. An NFL season is long and unpredictable, with breakouts and regressions for players and teams, injuries, and heartbreaks. Managers will be voracious and teeming with excitement as they pencil-in last season’s darlings at the top of their draft charts… only for their top picks to regress, land on injured reserve, or dissipate from their team’s frontlines a few weeks in. I would know— Michael Floyd and Allen Robinson, 2015’s breakout wide receivers and two of my top picks this year, have been off my team for weeks. This might have had something to do with my early absence from the W column. For this reason, managing the waiver wire and negotiating with the rest of your league is the most important skill, the strategy, and the heart of the game.

        Managing your team by working the waiver wire and trading with other managers is only possible in season-long, or standard, leagues, not in daily leagues. I mentioned earlier that most Fantasy Football leagues do not have linemen, and this is true in daily leagues, as well. In daily leagues, every week, managers build new teams with a set budget— players are valued by their projected points in that week’s matchup— and compete for money in pools of ten, twenty-five, or even hundreds of teams. The appeal here is that if you fail one week, you have next week to build a better team and compete again; plus, people love a chance to earn some cash playing. In order to have big, competitive leagues, the game allows different teams to have the same player(s). But herein lies the problem with daily fantasy football: because there are players who produce huge numbers weekly, and every week there are several players with promising outlooks, managers will compose their teams of the best players and end up with almost identical lineups. This means that the margin for error is extremely low, as the winner every week will be the manager who chose that one unknown second-team running back that scored three touchdowns filling in for the injured started. A similar situation happens every week, in all leagues, but the NFL is sneaky, so luck plays a big factor. This has caused controversy over its legitimacy as a skill-based game— that it’s mere gambling.

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This particular daily league appears to be for high rollers.

        Though I would argue that even this kind of “gambling” is a skill-based game. Game designer Greg Costikyan speaks of “interaction with a purpose” in his work “I Have No Words & I Must Design”. Such interaction describes decision-making and Costikyan posits that it is the defining quality games. The existence of a ‘better’ or ‘worse’ outcome based on what decision you take gives meaning to those decisions and, crucially, the process involved in arriving at those decisions. Even in a “less cerebral” situation where you rely on intuition or, in the case of daily fantasy football, luck, there are imperative choices the player must make that define the course of a game. Choosing that prolific backup running back has much to do with who has the most upside— this requires the player to know the distribution of touches (times a running back gets to run the football), the health status of the starting running back, the player’s contributions that season, and perhaps some notion of the team’s gameplan that week. Even choosing who gets the last few bucks of your budget requires strategy.

        This core strategic aspect of playing fantasy football is more consequential in standard leagues. There are playoffs to get to, after all. Winning once is not enough to get you there, and going on a four-game losing streak is not enough to disqualify you from contention, but your chances change based on your weekly performance, so there is pressure to improve. What this structure does then, is create a broader, more dynamic game space. Whereas in daily leagues you have one shot at forming the best team, in standard leagues, you are afforded the chance to try different approaches, to learn, and have “… considerable freedom… to take many possible paths through the ‘game space’,” (Costikyan). This is significant because the game space gives the player choice. In practice, a standard league demands managers explore the game space creatively over the entire NFL regular season and make meaningful decisions. Further, in order to win, the manager must stay well-informed and have short-term memory, so to speak, in order to stay focused, every week. Throughout the season, some manager might land several of the highest-ranking players and dominate every week. your quarterback will have his worst game of the season at some point, all the star running backs might disappear (ahem, 2016), and your friend who’s new to the game might draft Randall Cobb. Fantasy football has possibility space, with vast potential for play and emergent narrative.

        Fantasy sports inherit this quality from sports. When we hear the word “narrative”, we tend to think of fiction, and of a single author being responsible for writing and telling that narrative. Yet players and teams have histories, developments throughout the year, fans, and there are always expectations. Of course, they must win. There is drama in sports, stories, and therefore, there is narrative in sports. Jeff Watson, designer and professor at the University of Southern California’s Interactive Media and Games Division, in his paper “What Hockey Wants: Drama, Narrative, and Sports”, delves into the rich emergence in hockey. He articulates: “Like all sports, a game of hockey is more than merely the robotic execution of a set of rules and procedures— it is also a dynamic psychological landscape, the topology of which is determined by the accrual of narrative over time and across multiple contexts.” The narrative of the NFL is carried by television, radio, newspapers, word of mouth, and today, the internet. NFL Network and ESPN even have shows dedicated entirely to fantasy football. The narrative of the game blends in with the sport, not a mere side story. And this narrative has an effect on teams themselves, players’ performance, and, by extension, Fantasy Football. Managers often rely on what is supposed to happen; during the week, passionate fans and managers are analysts, talking football all week and building the narrative going into Sunday.

        Over the last four weeks, for example, the Green Bay Packers have been embarrassed on defense— I mean, surrendering-almost-forty-points-per-game embarrassed. Naturally, they lost all four games. Yet because the Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy (quarterback and head coach) led Packers have been to the playoffs every year since Rodgers became the starter, except his first, the expectation remains that they will maintain that streak. If you have Aaron Rodgers or one of his ‘weapons’ on your team, with a primetime game coming up, YOU PLAY HIM. Period. With their division rivals multiple games on top and two thirds of the season gone, yesterday’s Monday Night game was their last shot at turning their season around— if you started wide receiver Davante Adams, you were handsomely rewarded. The narrative now, of course, is “Rodgers Back in MVP Form. Packers Begin Playoff Run.” In fantasy land, Davante Adams is one of several men of the hour and people are scouring the waiver wire for Packers offensive players and other teams for trade options. There you go, managers.


The viewing order for the different films, specials, and TV show seasons in “Phase Two” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)

        This complementary nature and interplay of the two mediums is a feature of transmedia. Renowned media scholar and author of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, Henry Jenkins, coined the term. He is particularly interested in narrative space and defines transmedia storytelling:

Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story. (Jenkins).

The key aspect of his definition is the dispersal of integral, unique elements across mediums to create a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. In short, transmedia refers to the dispersal of elements of a media production across distinct platforms. An example would be Marvel Studios’s cinematic universe. Their television show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is directly impacted by significant events in the films, such as the reemergence of the evil organization Hydra in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The show reflected this and shaped most of season two, as the main characters fought Hydra as they rebuilt their team. Most examples of transmedia storytelling involve fictional worlds like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so fiction has inevitably been bound to transmedia storytelling as a requirement. Indeed, most of the studies on the narrative transmedia logic deal with transmedia as a storytelling form for fictional world building, but what is key is that it is about narrative— and narrative need not tell a fictional story. There are several transmedia logics, which can include branding, performance, and games, but when considering the NFL as a transmedia franchise, it is appropriate and useful to situate it within transmedia storytelling, because as a sports league, it oozes narrative.

        NFL broadcasts don’t cover the entire narrative, however, so there are gaps in the knowledge of viewers that, unless they bother to look for answers, remain open. This is where Fantasy Football comes in. One such gap Fantasy Football fills in is the lack of significant information regarding all of a team’s players, their depth. In T.V. broadcasts, the players who typically get most of the attention are the stars and the players who are around the football most. But when managers play for seventeen weeks with nine other teams, they end up examining a given team’s depth chart and looking around the league for the best available wide receiver: some rookie who has not played since the preseason and whose usually mobile quarterback has a sprained ankle. Speaking of injuries, broadcasts do a fine job of discussing any injuries a team might have and how that affects them, so viewers are aware of who is in or out. During the week, however, injury reports get lost amidst all the talk of the stars and the results of the week’s action. The way Fantasy Football presents these pieces of information allows managers to be better informed than most and have key insights into the outlook of games; all of these factors are crucial for a manager to create her/his lineup weekly, after all. Finally, by learning about all kinds of player statistics that are recorded over the season, managers gain a notion for the importance of production and efficiency in football games in order to win. Fantasy Football employs most of the key stats used to analyze a player’s performance in a game. Having this understanding of a player’s production is key for general managers as they evaluate their rosters, parsing through a season game by game.

Steelers' D Parted Like the Red Sea.png

Ezekiel Eliott (#21) said the Steeler’s defense “parted like the Red Sea”. Spoiler: touchdown!

        Broadcasts generally touch on players that play around the football and/or are the faces of their respective franchises, but Fantasy Football completely omits the the unsung heroes of every team: the totally unglamorous, underappreciated, and misunderstood guys without whom no team could hope to survive. Linemen. These are the men who give Tom Brady all day to throw and create voids in a defense for Adrian Peterson to get to the second level. They are the men who allow Luke Kuechly to fly from sideline to sideline without pesky blockers getting in the way and put pressure on the quarterback to give Richard Sherman a chance to make a play. Linemen clash at the ‘trenches’ for control over the line of scrimmage. If you can dominate the line of scrimmage, you should win the football game. Let’s take the Cowboy’s star rookie running back, Ezekiel Elliott. I don’t mean to discredit him, but people forget he has seven (Seven!) Pro Bowls among the absolute best offensive line on the planet. Yet Fantasy Football tallies up all 1,500 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns next to Elliot’s name, as if he carried the team by himself. The game’s focus on skill positions— wide receivers, running backs, tight ends, and quarterbacks— not only undermines the most important position groups in football, but it conveys that only the offensive side of the ball is important to win games. Oh, the game does include defense and special teams; they are combined into one player unit, plus a kicker.

        By omitting linemen and by reducing defense to one unit, and special teams to a kicker, Fantasy Football only accounts for about half a phase of football. To help illustrate the importance of defense, consider the fact that the last, say, five Super Bowls have either been defensive slugfests (admittedly one-sided at times), or at least been won by a defensive play. These are Denver’s defensive onslaught on Carolina’s offense, New England’s goal-line interception, Seattle’s annihilation of Denver’s offense (the most prolific in NFL history, by the way), Baltimore’s goal-line stand, and New York and New England’s three-quarter stalemate— all pieces of emergent narrative. Regarding special teams, if they were narrowed down to two key players, for the sake of clarity, it would be the kicker and the punter. The punter is missing, and he is the key to obtaining favorable field position— the difference between forcing the opponent to travel ninety yards for a touchdown or sixty.

        The result of this misrepresentation of football’s mechanics? A system that only superficially touches on the necessary ingredients of winning football. A cheeseburger with unmelted non-dairy cheese, a patty without salt or pepper: a bad recipe and a customer-full-of-legumes who can’t tell this vegan monstrosity from the real deal.

        Adversely, the ideas managers in Fantasy Football learn when they play do not remain a part of fantasy. The rules the game employs, and the aspects of the sport it values, carry weight. Ian Bogost, videogame designer, explains that a game’s rules form the meaning of a game and that videogames can “make claims about the world” (Bogost). Games can convey values to their players through the affordances the have, the constraints of the space they take place in and project, and the decisions they have players take. Fantasy Football does foster important values in managers, like perseverance when facing one’s injury-ridden roster, or judiciousness when considering a trade proposed by a rival manager. The game places managers in difficult positions and demands resourcefulness to survive the season and, most like real football, revolves around competition. Yet ultimately, the game’s very structure, and what it values, distort the vital component of a winning team: team.

        Successful football teams have a special chemistry. Stats matter when building a team, but they are hardly the thing that tells the general manager whether they belong or not. A player who played in a similar defensive scheme as a professional team is a better fit than a player who did not. The same goes for the quarterback. There are simply other more qualitative assessments that are made to put together a group that functions as one unit. A head coach is another side of the equation— and also missing. Fantasy Football reduces players to mere stats and disregards other valuable skills and qualities like blocking, instincts, leadership, and experience. The disposability of players further enforces the view that the team is a group of individuals; in order to win, you only need a few individuals who score a ton of points. If your new acquisition does not score the projected fifteen points, you lose. The only notion of team that the game has is that they occupy one same roster, filling positional needs to contribute their individual efforts to what will hopefully amount to a win. Fantasy Football teams, unlike football teams, are nothing more than the sum of their parts. That does not cut it.

        Perhaps it is unfair to fault Fantasy Football for not accurately representing football. After all, its goal is not to teach people how to play football. It cannot be expected to communicate every essential value that the sport fosters. The NFL supports it as a way to attract fans and reach a broader audience and has embraced it wholeheartedly as a way to stay dynamic and cater to fans’ needs. However, this does not stop the game from bleeding into the fans’ perception of the league and sport. Insofar Fantasy Football exists, it will inform fans— especially new ones— of what goes on off the field as it relates to performing on gameday. The game fits snugly in the transmedia shoe, and its popularity does not seem to wane. Who can blame them? It is addictive. Precisely because of this, people who choose to engage in the phenomenon must be aware of the different values at the heart of the sport, and its fantasy counterpart.



Works Cited

Bogost, Ian. "The Rhetoric of Video Games." The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth,     Games, and Learning. Ed. Katie Salen. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2008. N. pag. Print.

Costikyan, Greg. "I Have No Words & I Must Design: Toward a Critical Vocabulary for Games." (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

Jenkins, Henry. "The Revenge of the Origami Unicorn: Seven Principles of Transmedia Storytelling (Well, Two Actually. Five More on Friday)." Confessions of an Aca-Fan. Henry Jenkins, 12 Dec. 2009. Web.

Watson, Jeff. "What Hockey Wants: Drama, Narrative, and Sports." Academia.edu - Share Research. N.p., n.d. Web.

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