Clutching at Bannisters: A Heartfelt Review of Fantasy Football

slimy seeds, johnny big arm, tony the serviceable tight end, the idiot life
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[Following in the tradition of Brendan’s Rooky Errors or Leigh’s Month as an Assassin, it’s time for another article on an unusual corner of gaming. This time, the ancient tradition of Fantasy Football.]

Gav: It’s 6:45 on a Friday night, I’ve just got off a flight from Cologne to London and I’m attempting to tether the internet from my phone to my really old, really rubbish and currently really unresponsive laptop. This would be annoying enough if I wasn’t also attempting to manoeuvre through some horrendous London traffic in a beaten-up old jallopy. I know even using your phone (no less a phone AND a laptop) whilst driving is reckless and stupid but there’s an excuse for my idiocy: it’s the evening of my NFL Fantasy Draft.

Before I lose you, let me just say I know how you’re feeling, but stick with me as I explain why game fans will find a fantasy football league interesting.

I’ve been playing in a fantasy NFL league with the same 9 people for coming up to 5 years now and it’s only recently that it’s struck me how so much of the things that get me jazzed about it have in common with the things I love about games: a tight community, horrible back-stabbing, friendship-ending competitiveness, heartache-inducing waves of bad luck and a stressful meta game which I’ve genuinely lost sleep over.

If you don’t know how a fantasy football league works, here’s the basics in 90 words: People who play fantasy football are basically general managers/coaches of virtual football dream teams made up of real-life players whose real-life stats on actual fields earn points for the virtual teams.

It’s pretty popular in the UK with the English Premier League (roundball) but it’s actually a billion dollar industry in the US with their longer, egg-shaped balls. There’s countless TV shows and websites dedicated to fantasy NFL and fantasy stats are even shown in stadiums during NFL games so people can play along whilst watching live football. That happens, I’ve done it.

Clutching at Bannisters: A Heartfelt Review of Fantasy Football

The thing I love about NFL fantasy football more than the UK version though is that a football player can only belong to one manager’s team. So, that league favourite, Johnny Big Arm, who’s really good at lobbing the football down the field and scoring loads of points? He can only be part of one person’s team. How do you decide who gets Johnny Big Arm? With a fantasy league draft.

The draft is a live online event that leagues organise themselves before the season starts. It’s a way of divvying up the real-life players to the fantasy managers. Managers take it in turns to select a player until their roster slots (usually 16) are full. Obviously big players like Johnny Big Arm and Andy Catch-em-All will go first so planning which players you’ll pick at what stage in the draft can be agonising depending on where you are in the draft order. If you’re not picking until last in the first round then there’s a good chance you’re going to miss out on Johnny and Andy so you have to plan accordingly – maybe you can take old Vincey Bouncy Shoes instead?

There’s so much second guessing the other managers involved that trying to predict who will take who and when becomes a whole game in itself, as does attempting to influence the decisions of others via private messages and condescending Facebook posts. I’m not too bad at it but if you remember back to where we started – me tooling down the motorway screaming at my laptop – being behind the wheel of a car whilst trying to draft adds a whole other level of stress because this is what a draft looks like:

Clutching at Bannisters: A Heartfelt Review of Fantasy Football

There’s so much to keep an eye on: where you are in the picking order? Which players have already gone? Do you have your next pick lined up? If someone takes him, who are you going for?

When it’s your turn you only have 120 seconds to make your decision. So, that dude – Si-Si The Running Guy? The one you were going to pin all your hopes for this season on? Yeah, he just got picked up by your mate so now you have to rethink your whole strategy. And to top it all off, you have a chat window in the bottom full of nonsense from the other managers trying to influence your decisions. I like to think I give as good as I get here but there are some members of the league I annoyingly let get into my head and plant their slimy seeds of filthy doubt in my brain.

Clutching at Bannisters: A Heartfelt Review of Fantasy Football

The draft situation would be stressful enough sitting in a comfy chair whilst enjoying a lovely cup of tea and some hobnobs but take this situation and whack it into a Ford KA that’s doing 80 on a motorway and the situation becomes ever so slightly more tense.

Why didn’t I just reschedule the draft? If I knew I was flying home on that particular evening, why not just postpone the whole thing? We make the rules of our own league, surely it wouldn’t be a problem? Except of course it is, because we’re idiots who MAKE THE RULES OF OUR OWN LEAGUE.

The amount of silly rules and regulations we’ve come up with over five seasons is ridiculous but the one I currently hate is that after a draft date has been decided no player is allowed to change the date for any reason including illness, sadness or because they forgot they’d be flying into London Gatwick from Germany 20 minutes before the draft’s scheduled start time. Failure to comply with this rule results in expulsion from the league and that cannot happen because I need this league of jerks in my idiot life. So, it’s because of this stupid rule that I find myself hurtling down the M23 to my house in South London whilst screaming as I see that Si-Si The Running Guy has indeed gone to my league arch-nemesis. I might as well have banked the car there and then and started my new life underneath the dual-carriageway in Nutfied.

I managed to get home in one piece and finish the draft with some redemption in the form of beating several of the league’s “problem players” (see: players who routinely give me a thumping every season) to their 5th,6th and 7th picks resulting in some of the tastiest online chat I’ve seen since the days of mIRC. It was a glorious finish for my draft with the exception of one position: the tight end.

Timmy the Awesome Tight End is a good player because not only can he catch the ball, he’s also big enough to block the opposite side from moving down the pitch. I’d been left with Tony the Somewhat Serviceable Tight End who would’ve done OK for me had he not gone and injured himself before the season had even started; leaving me with a 6ft 5”, 250lb gap in my team. So what happens when Tony fractures his stupid hand (or worse still, if Si-Si The Running Guy gets knocked over the head) and gets ruled out of the rest of the season? Well, then you go to the Waiver Wire, which is essentially a bucket for all the sad football men that didn’t get picked to be on anyone’s team. I kinda think of it as the waiting room in Beetlejuice but with more people named Deshawn.

You’re free to swap your main roster of players with the ones in the waiver bucket as much as you want; again there’s an order to picking that’s automatically decided every week, but understanding that apparently doesn’t matter if you take my league’s Weekly Whatsapp Waiver Meltdown™ as evidence.

This year I managed to pick up a tight end named Gary Barnidge from the Bucket of Sadness. I thought “Well, he’ll do until Tony the Serviceable Tight End recovers from his idiot-related injury,” but then something happened. During the third game, Gary, who hadn’t scored a touchdown in 17 NFL games, only went and tumbled one in! Everyone sort of celebrated in the same way as when you hear someone’s passed their driving test on the 9th go; it’s not an incredible feat of human endeavour, it doesn’t affect you in any way but you’re happy for them.

Well done, Gary. Here he is on a camel:

Clutching at Bannisters: A Heartfelt Review of Fantasy Football

Gary and I were regularly smashing up the rest of the league, even ending another manager’s unbeaten start to the season – the second best record ever held in our league. Gary and I were unstoppable. So much so that whilst out late one night, I was offered a trade for my precious Gary from another manager. A straight-up one-for-one trade which would’ve seen me take one of the league’s top players.

Trades are a weird beast in NFL fantasy. In a previous season, I stupidly traded away one of my (and the league’s) best players for three absolute dirt players to someone who had correctly seen that I had two players in the same position injured that week and that I’d been at my work’s Christmas party the night before and could barely stand the next day, let alone read the conditions of a fantasy trade. He took to private messaging me about the trade, something that happens quite a lot.

“How’re you feeling buddy? Anything I can do?” “Rough, I can’t even type, I’m doing this all through Siri” “Just sent you a little trade that’ll cheer you up. Think you’ll like it. Should sort out all your injury worries” “Oh, cheers mate. I needed that”

By the time I realised what I’d done, it was too late. I’d traded my best player away. The manager in question went on to win the league that year and the rest of the managers rightfully despised me. This memory lingered as my finger hovered over the ‘Confirm Trade’ button in our Fantasy app but I just couldn’t do that to Gary, not after all we’d been through. I rejected the trade and though I probably would’ve fared much better that season had I jettisoned Gary, I felt better having him in my side and will stand by that decision until he or I die.

Clutching at Bannisters: A Heartfelt Review of Fantasy Football

The thing that keeps me coming back to playing fantasy football every week during the NFL season is the same reason I sometimes despise it: luck. You can have the best players in the league but even they’re going to have a bad game from time to time or Johnny Big Arm might snap his back and you’ll be without his lush arms for the rest of the season. Each week you decide which 9 players you’ll field out of your roster, another painstaking job that involves a disgusting amount of research and an even more annoying degree of second-guessing. Your 9 players then go head-to-head with another manager’s side and the person who scores the most points gets the win.

The one-on-one element is something I absolutely love. There’s a tense adrenaline rush involved when it’s just you against another person that I think’s hard to replicate in team-based games. The added element of luck also makes it slightly more enjoyable as you can always blame a loss on a poor-performing star player rather than be personally blamed for a loss entirely. That makes it more fun than if you lose a game due to being a bit rubbish.

I’ve been an NFL fan for almost ten years but watching games when you have something at stake completely changes the dynamic. I’ve rooted for teams I cannot stand and have no business supporting just because I happen to have their kicker in my lineup. I’ve actually done worse, and secretly hoped players of mine have missed tackles, slipped over or caught food poisoning from a particularly naughty hot dog before a big game just to get the upper hand over a manager. I’ve lay in bed staring at the ESPN Fantasy app until the early hours of the morning willing games to end while my opponent runs out a win in spectacular fashion to the point where I’ve had to start leaving my phone in a different room when I go to sleep on Sunday and Monday nights.

If all this sounds ridiculous to you, clearly it’s because I haven’t told you what’s at stake: A 2ft tall lump of wood with a spray painted football man on top. To you, it might look like something made by an inmate on Death Row, but to me it’s The Bannister.

Clutching at Bannisters: A Heartfelt Review of Fantasy Football

The winner of our league gets to hold this in their possession for a whole year and it’s awarded to them at a private dinner party held in the home-town of the previous year’s winner on the evening before the Super Bowl. This year I came the closest I’ve ever come to winning it (which is to say, not very close at all) but at this year’s prestigious dinner event I was awarded “Most Improved Player”. It didn’t matter that this was a framed photo with ‘Most Improved Playa 2K15’ written on it in sharpie. It genuinely did bring a tear to my eye.

Clutching at Bannisters: A Heartfelt Review of Fantasy Football

Winning that bit of wood and watching other awards (such as ‘The Golden Chicken’) being handed to my fellow coaches made all those horrendously bleary Monday and Tuesday mornings worth it, not to mention almost killing myself on the M23.

The plan to bring The Bannister home to South London next season has officially begun.

By day, Gav Murphy is a producer and presenter for IGN. By night he takes on the form of one quarter of The Regular Features podcast. For still more hot Gav action, check out our Let’s Play of Funemployed.