Is Fantasy Football an Electronic Game?

Autum LeavesAutumn in upstate New York is not my favorite season. I’m a summer guy. I enjoy the heat, swimming, golfing, landscaping, fresh air blowing through open windows, and light clothing. Autumn abruptly ends all of these things, and each year I suffer more than your normal New Yorker from Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Sure, I love the autumn leaves and landscape, the first batch of chili, and Halloween. However, these are small consolations as I count the many days until the return of summer, and endure the inevitable rain, sleet, snow, and constant gray skies characteristic of the other three seasons in this region.

The one aspect of autumn that I truly look forward to and that provides some glimmer of hope is football. My schedule is carefully planned around various college and NFL games, attending some and watching the rest on television. My greatest anticipation is watching my pro team once again take the league by storm, week by week, through their failures, victories, injuries, various coaching decisions that make or break each game, and consequentially each season. This emotional roller coaster provides a great deal of entertainment and satisfaction.

BUFFALO BILLSNow, because I am from upstate New York you might think the pro team I’m talking about is the Buffalo Bills. Then again if you have any historical perspective of the Bills over the last decade you’ll know this isn’t the case. Whereas the Bills haven’t reached the playoffs in a decade, my team of chiseled athletes has made the playoffs several times, taking at least one Superbowl victory in the last decade and placing in the top four spots almost every season. I credit this success to the sheer genius of the coaching staff.

At this point, you may be wondering what this has to do with electronic games. Quite a bit actually, as my favorite pro team is my fantasy football team and the genius coach responsible for the success of the team is me.

AtariFootballAs we look at the history of various electronic games related to sports, especially football, many come to mind. We might think of classic arcade games such as the Atari Football arcade game of 1979 (available to play in our Videotopia exhibit), Nintendo’s 10-Yard Fight, TV Sports Football, Tecmo Bowl, and of course Electronic Arts’ Madden NFL. I could devote a series of blogs to the evolution of these games alone, but despite their popularity they can’t compare to the societal penetration and popularity of fantasy football (29.9 million people age 12 and above in the U.S. and Canada played fantasy sports in 2007).

MaddenNFLIs fantasy football an electronic game? I guess that depends on your definition of electronic games. Fantasy football, like all fantasy sports, was originally played without computers and Internet technologies. The popularity of fantasy sports, however, was greatly propelled by the information age and the ability of networked computer systems to keep track of individual player statistics, calculate scores, mediate transactions, and emulate the game play of fantasy teams in a graphical manner. In Concentric Circles: A Lens for Exploring the History of Electronic Games, we at NCHEG define electronic games “broadly to include video games, computer games, console games, arcade games, handheld games, and toys that combine digital and traditional play.” Fantasy football surely meets these criteria, as it combines digital and traditional play in a unique way.

In the taxonomy of electronic games, it might be more accurate to classify fantasy football as an alternate reality game (ARG), or those games loosely defined as “an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants’ ideas or actions.” I have trouble thinking of any ARG that incorporates the vast amount of media that fantasy football does: magazines, newspapers, television, radio, multiple web sites that host the game mechanics or player resources, and mobile device applications. Surely the player actions influence the millions of story lines that make up fantasy football seasons worldwide, and surely this is an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform.

Fantasy football adheres to the basic design principles for ARGs in every aspect, yet very little supporting research or analysis of where fantasy sports fit into games taxonomy exists. A wealth of evidence leads me to believe that fantasy sports are the most successful and prevalent form of ARGs

As ARGs become more popular in the future, we at NCHEG will continue to look at the role of fantasy sports and other ARGs. How do we begin to collect and interpret this form of electronic game play when the media is distributed so widely? How do we interpret the game play and cultural significance when the very nature of game play by individuals changes the game itself? I would personally love to hear your opinions concerning the role of fantasy sports in the world of electronic games. Is fantasy football an electronic game? Is it an ARG? Is it a Role Playing Game (RPG)? Or is it a unique combination of all of these?