It seems people are becoming increasingly interested in disassociating themselves from the reality they’ve been handed. The rise of virtual reality, the prospect of wearing headsets that can transport us to malls, mountains and distant planets, or even online dating via holograms that eventually leads to a world where distant lovers would never need to deal with the fuss of actually meeting in person. Oh yeah, and porn. In March of 1999, The Matrix was released and it was then that the thought began to cross millions of minds that the world we’re born into might not even be real; and if this world isn’t real, then what’s the harm in living in other worlds that aren’t real? You can’t control when the sun rises and sets, but maybe this one corner of the world could be a product of your own creation, regardless of absolutes.
All of which is to say: You care too much about your goddamn fantasy football team.
On Sunday, millions of people across the globe panicked and protested as the NFL opened the floodgates on the 2016 NFL season with a slate of morning games. But these people weren’t in a tizzy over a bad call by a referee, a dirty hit on a star quarterback or even the hot button issue of the day regarding Colin Kaepernick and the National Anthem. Instead, the football world paused because of something that much like The Matrix, exists only in the ones and zeroes of the digital world:
The ESPN Fantasy Football app and website crashed.
Just as the early games kicked off, as countless fans opened went to open their fantasy team page even before many of them turned on the actual games, ESPN’s platforms went down and left people in the dark about what was happening with their teams; you know, the only teams in the universe that they were actually responsible for creating. A fan can root for the Kansas City Chiefs or buy season tickets for the San Diego Chargers (Hey, technically you could, Chargers fans), but they can’t run the show like Bill Belichick does in real life. If you want to brag about building a roster like Pete Carroll – and pray you don’t get a reputation for being a “Chip Kelly” – then nothing else can give you the same satisfaction as turning from a fan of real football into a player of fantasy football.
But fantasy football players en masse logged into their leagues hosted by “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” on Sunday and found out why they aren’t called “The World Wide Web Leader in Sports.” Error messages littered both the ESPN app and fantasy home page beginning at around 1 PM EST and continued into the late games. If there was any upside to the outage, it’s that at a time when nation is so divided during an outrageous election year, with the topic of racial inequality even making its way onto NFL sidelines to open the season, the country was finally standing together on a single issue for a few precious hours – that the ESPN fantasy app sucks and was ruining everything for everyone.
It’s the type of community-building American event that used to only be reserved for … actual sports that people play in real life.
Last year, a report by the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (an organization that apparently has to exist now), said that 74.7 million Americans were going to participate in fantasy football in 2015. Of those, 54 percent said they’d use ESPN for at least one league and two-in-five said they’d be in multiple leagues. Despite many of those leagues costing absolutely nothing but hours of your life, players said they would collectively spend $4.6 billion on fantasy football, while daily fantasy games like DraftKings and FanDuel dominated advertising and became as much of a part of the 2015 NFL season as Peyton Manning and Cam Newton; a report by the Boston Globe said those two sites alone collectively took in almost $3 billion in entry fees.
And remember, the season is only four months long.
One of the main reasons given for why fantasy football has become so popular is that it is seen as a “social game.” You are probably in a league with your family members, friends from high school, or co-workers. It’s almost like a competitive version of Facebook, though some people might just call that “Facebook.” Except that in many cases, you’re still seeing those people in real life just as much as if you were not in a fantasy league with them at all.
You might have seen people come together for “draft parties” on TV shows like The League, a comedy about friends in a fantasy football league, or Paul Rudd’s character sneaking away from his wife for a fantasy baseball draft in the movie Knocked Up. Less often seen in pop culture, because it’s depressingly real and boring, are the drafts that usually happen: a single guy laying alone in bed in his underwear, eating a bowl of cereal, throwing shade at strangers across the world because they drafted Jimmy Graham over Travis Kelce.
I only know it because I’ve lived it.
Coincidence or not, I find it interesting that right around the same time The Matrix re-wired our brains in the spring of 1999, Yahoo.com became the first major media company to begin offering free fantasy leagues. Their press release from August of that year read: “Fantasy Football is all about intense competition and community. It is a game perfectly suited to this medium, which brings users closer to each other and to the real NFL players than ever before.” The Matrix brought the concept of “living together separately through a digital platform” to the masses, and Yahoo! Sports sparked a revolution that basically did the exact same thing with sports. When the number one fantasy football app crashed on the biggest day of the year for that game, we saw the type of impact that it has on its giant contingent of users.
They felt helpless, blind, and unable to connect with the world they had created. Outside of that world however, in the place we all share even if we can’t always control what happens in it, the games went on.