Drawing a Line Between Fantasy and Football
Who was the better player last season, Yaya Touré or Stephane Sessegnon? If your answer is Sessegnon, you’re probably either a Sunderland fan, or you didn’t watch the Ivorian powerhouse impose himself on the Premiership run-in – or maybe you’re just one of those contrary souls who think Spain are boring and Portsmouth should be signing players on £5,000 a week. Or perhaps you’re one of the 4.5 million people who play fantasy football in the UK, and for whom Sessegnon’s 36 appearances, 7 goals and 9 assists trumped Touré’s 31 / 6 / 6.
Those margins are purely statistical. They ignore that Touré was the driving force behind the champions, whereas Sessegnon was a (nonetheless excellent) contributor to a 13th place finish. They overlook how Sessegnon essentially played as a support striker, where Touré alternated between deep and advanced midfield positions. The goal margin was also pretty small – 0.2 goals per game for Touré and Sessegnon, and a very slightly higher assist rate for the Beninese.
In fantasy football terms though, the margin is closer to 20 points, depending on your scoring system – certainly enough to make the difference between winning and losing the title. Throw in the fact that Sessegnon is listed as a midfielder in many game setups, but plays as a striker, and the fact that he’s generally less expensive to buy for your fantasy football squad, and you have a strong argument that the Sunderland man is the better choice.
Fantasy football luddites are scoffing by this point (or more likely never clicked on this article in the first place). Clearly, fantasy performance doesn’t correlate to the quality or value of a player. If that was the case Luka Modric wouldn’t be worth 36 million euros (or 98 million if you’re Daniel Levy). He’d be labelled as a “banker-plus”, a player who plays every week, grabbing points for appearances consistently, and chipping in with the odd goal and assist. He’d be in a category with Jonas Gutierrez, Youssuf Mulumbu and Wes Hoolahan, not Bastian Schweinsteiger and Joao Moutinho.
Luddites beware though – some fantasy sports have infiltrated fan perception of players to such a great degree that, while talent evaluators within the sport stay on an even keel, the fan popularity, and thus marketability and potential earnings, are driven largely by how much players can pad the stat sheet.
The best example is in American football, where the sport’s popularity is at an all-time high, in part because of an influx of new fans who have come to the sport through playing fantasy games. The “fantasy fan” sees the real game through a lens where yardage and touchdowns are paramount, and some entire position groups like the offensive line, who produce no stats but without whom no play would be possible, are effectively ignored. A case in point: for many seasoned observers recently retired Jacksonville Jaguar Fred Taylor was one of the finest running backs of the last 15 years, yet in terms of star power, national recognition and marketability, he has been dwarfed by his successor Maurice Jones-Drew. Taylor sits 15th on the all-time rushing list, and was feared by his peers and opposition coaches for his unusual and game-breaking combination of power and breakaway speed. Yet his style never suited the role of the goal-line back, the NFL fox-in-the-box who was able to convert touchdown chances from short range. He finished his career with 66 rushing touchdowns, whereas Jones-Drew, still only 27, has 62 already.
Jones-Drew is certainly one of the league’s best running backs, who early in his career was capable of Taylor-esque long TDs, but whose real hallmark is short, punishing runs where he breaks several tackles. He is the ideal goal-line back, but he isn’t the rare, graceful, intimidating athlete that Taylor was. Yet Jones-Drew has made the previous three Pro-Bowls, the all-star game where selection is in part determined by fan voting. Taylor only made one in his entire career.
So, proper football fans, would you rather have a striker score 22 goals in a season or 18? If you’re a fantasy football fan, the answer is easy because it ignores the context. It ignores how the player plays, how the team plays, and how those two complex, beautiful and frustrating events co-exist. Fantasy football is simple, but football isn’t. Patrice Evra had a stunning fantasy season last year, but most Man Utd fans are calling for a back-up to challenge him. But hey, he played a lot in a team that kept a lot of clean sheets, and he bumbled forward enough to pick up a very decent haul of assists, so he must have been great.
The last thing football needs is more simplistic analysis, and the second last thing is for fantasy football to start infiltrating mainstream media’s take on the game in the way that it does with American sports. I love fantasy football. It gives me something else to think about rather than pounding the sofa as Spurs lose 1-0 at home to Wolves. It lets me pretend I could be a manager, and it lets me pretend I’m cleverer than my friends. But I know it isn’t the real thing, and as long as we all keep that in mind, that’s fine.