Fantasyland: playing fake rugby the right way

New Zealand – we're doing it wrong. No, don’t click off. Not just yet. This isn’t some inane piece of clickbait about not having pickled ginger with your sushi. This is important – and most of us really have been doing it wrong.

Fantasy sports. Namely ‘fantasy’ rugby. That’s what we’re doing wrong.

First, a brief explainer-cum-history lesson.

The most important thing to note right off the bat is that fantasy sports is not a tipping comp. That line has been blurred in New Zealand by the various pick-the-result-and-margin of matches entities that have passed themselves off as ‘fantasy’ sports options.

Real fantasy involves selecting a team and using the statistical deeds of its players to compete against rival fantasy players. It’s about predicting the future, with the success of those predictions measured in home runs, touchdowns, tries and tackle counts. It’s a way of showing off your sporting intelligence. Because not only do you stuff about sports that has happened, you know what is going to happen. It’s a route to the ultimate ‘I told you so’. But it’s a road paved with broken dreams.

Fantasy’s ground was first broken in the 1980s at a Manhatten restaurant called La Rotisserie Francaise, where sportswriter Daniel Okrent got together with a bunch of mates and invented the first fantasy league.

The friends held their own draft to select their teams, then used a magazine called The Sporting News to record statistics and measure their teams’ performance.

The prize up for grabs was bragging rights.

To this day, leagues styled on Okrent’s format are referred to as ‘rotisserie’ leagues – a nod to the name the pioneers gave their new sport, in honour of the place it was invented.

There’s an excellent short explainer on the history of fantasy sports here. The even shorter version is that by the mid-1980s the game had crossed over into American football. By 1988, half a million Americans were reportedly hooked on fantasy. A year later, the first dedicated fantasy sports magazine was launched. In 1992, national newspaper USA Today began running regular fantasy sports column. The game of creating fake teams for very real competition had entertained mainstream American life.

By 2003, 15 million Americans and Canadians were playing some form of fantasy sports. By 2007 the figure was 29.9 million.

Those sort of numbers, and that level of sustained growth, does not go unnoticed.

In New Zealand, major media companies somewhat belatedly became alerted to the potentially vast number of eyeballs and significant online engagement time fantasy could generate. For traditional media companies desperate to replace disappearing revenue streams, fantasy must have seemed a good bet.

In New Zealand, the omnipotent god of rugby was the obvious sport to tap into. It should have worked. But we did it wrong.

“For some reason people decided that a salary cap format was the way to go with fantasy rugby in New Zealand, says Bruce Wilkinson, the founder of Fantasy Rugby Draft. “To this day I don’t know why.”

Time for explainer number two.

There are many variants, but fantasy sports can be broadly broken down into two formats – salary cap and draft.

The salary cap method ascribes a notional dollar value to players in a sports league and invites fantasy players to select a team that fits under a uniform salary cap. This format allows competing fantasy players to own many of the same athletes in the competition. Beauden Barrett, for example, would cost a lot of money and take up a lot of cap space, but his ability to rack up scoring stats such as tries, goal kicks and linebreaks would make him a must have for many Super Rugby fantasy owners.

In the draft format, there is only one Beauden Barrett to be had. Players are selected via a formal pre-season draft, with members of the fantasy league taking turns to pick the player they believe is best still available in each position.

“The most addictive and enjoyable fantasy leagues are those that have a draft,” says Wilkinson.

Of course, as the co-founder of a fledgling Kiwi company seeking to establish a foothold in a highly competitive digital space, Wilkinson would say that.

His argument does appear to have merit. Media giant NZME’s Super Rugby fantasy vehicle, Dream Team, appears to have been mothballed. Once heavily promoted in NZME’s online and newspaper titles such as the New Zealand Herald, the competition’s website is now a single page informing visitors that “Dream Team has hung up its boots”.

While the exact reasons for the cessation are unknown, it’s unlikely it would have occurred had the platform been generating either significant revenue or web traffic.

Wilkinson believes Dream Team’s failure wasn’t down to a lack of interest among kiwis in fantasy sports – and rugby in particular – but rather to the less engaging salary cap format it employed.

"Fantasy rugby shouldn’t just be a game you play,” he says. “It should be entrenched in your everyday life from the water cooler at work, to your local pub, to your family Christmas dinner."

Is he getting carried away? Perhaps. But for many the obsession Wilkinson describes is very real. In his 2004 book Fantasyland, Wall Street Journal sports writer Sam Walker described his reaction to what otherwise would have been a fairly unremarkable incident in a 162-game baseball season – a grand slam home run by the light-hitting Chris Gomez off his fantasy team’s pitcher Kurt Shilling.

“As I try to stand up, preparing to do something violent to the television, my butt skids off the stool and I land on the floor. With the Skydome crowd screaming like a convention of mental patients, I fumble for the mute button and wrap my arms around the stool, hugging and moaning.”

He was still in that position when his wife returned home some time later.

Regular draft fantasy players have all been there.

The draft itself is a big deal. Decisions made on draft day, under the heat of a ticking clock, will make and break a campaign.

"The draft adds a different dynamic” says Wilkinson. “It tests to see if can you handle the pressure to make the right decision with the clock counting down. It also challenges you to discover hidden talent that no one else in your league has spotted, as well as mastering the dark art of constructing a player trade with your fellow league managers."

Wilkinson and chief technical officer Nathan Mossman launched Fantasy Rugby Draft in 2014, aiming to fill what they saw was a void in what is now a multi-billion dollar global industry.

“We know how passionate and knowledgeable Kiwis are about rugby and we wanted to create a fantasy experience that reflected that,” he says.

They largely operate the business for fun, but that’s not all they are in it for. The model for digital content ventures is fairly standard, with income streams initially fraught and the ultimate value reflected in the size of the online community. Put simply, if Fantasy Rugby Draft can attract enough users, Wilkinson and Mossman will have hit the jackpot.

Having initially concentrated on Super Rugby, they expanded in 2016 to include England’s Aviva Premiership, and are planning to offer leagues for events such as the Rugby Championship, Six Nations and world cups.

At present they have a “solid five figure” base of team managers, a figure they are hoping to increase dramatically by launching a Fantasy Rugby Draft App. To fund the app’s development they have launched a kickstarter campaign, which they hope will raise $15,000. That would cover an iPhone app. If they can double their fundraising target, they’ll also produce an Android app.

The vast majority of the funding, says Wilkinson, is likely to come from the competition’s existing team managers. Draft fantasy sports players tend to be loyal, highly-engaged and just a little obsessive.

"Fantasy leagues are like banks,” says Wilkinson. “You don't change them too often. They're usually made up of mates you made when you started playing fantasy, either out of school, university or your first job. Everyone is busy and has a partner, mortgage and kids so the draft is that one time a year where you catch up with your old mates when you might not ordinarily make the time. You go back to that time when you're young and carefree and tell the same jokes you told 10 years ago and hassle the same person for that ridiculous draft pick in 2002. There's nothing like draft day."

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