It’s 4:30am on Sunday morning when I wake up to check the results from the English Premier League games played overnight. As the results load on my iPhone, I am beset by nerves. After a tense few microseconds, I see that West Bromwich Albion has beaten Southampton 1-nil.
As I mentally tally my ‘clean-sheet’ points, I am hit by a wave of emotion, equal parts ecstasy and relief. I struggle to go back to sleep. This has been the most exciting part of my week.
* * * * *
I recently turned 30, left my job and became a new father within the space of only a few days. It’s fair to say there is a lot going on in my life at the moment. But, sadly, the thing that occupies my attention the most is English Premier League Fantasy Football.
For those unaware, Fantasy Football is a game where you select a team of footballers and receive points according to their respective performances. Good performances (goals, assists and clean sheets etc) attract positive points, while bad performances (goals conceded, penalties missed and red and yellow cards etc) incur negative points. The team with the most points wins. As the manager of your team you can transfer players in and out and choose the starting lineup. There are a lot of variables to consider when selecting team (injuries, fixtures, team performance, weather, luck) which make the game inherently difficult.
As it stands, this season I am doing phenomenally (and uncharacteristically) well. I am coming 243rd in the world, and 12th in Australia. Those standings don’t mean much to ordinary people, but in the world of Fantasy Football it’s a big deal. To put it in context, there are approximately 3.5 million people playing the game globally.
If this were the stock market, I would be the trader wearing the gauche pinstripe suit with gold suspenders who rings a large bell whenever he makes a big trade (which is often). I am not the 1 per cent, I am the 0.1 per cent*.
My success in this online world has coincided with me becoming unemployed. Now rather than waking at 4.30am to start work, I wake at 4.30am to start work on my Fantasy Football team. I may no longer be earning any money, but I still have the same level of dedication to my profession.
And yet my success is causing me angst. I am addicted, yet conflicted. I am at once proud and ashamed.
* * * * *
Fantasy Football is ostensibly about football, but it is far removed from the reality of the sport as possible. It has nothing to do with kicking a ball; it has everything to do with statistics and calculated risks.
Being into Fantasy Football is kind of like collecting stamps. The people involved are really into it, and if you happen to be one of those people, it’s best to avoid discussing it in public.
Strictly speaking, the game is for nerds, not jocks. This makes me a nerd, a label I am uncomfortable with.
Sitting awkwardly next to my shame, is my pride. Privately, I am overjoyed at my Fantasy Football team’s performance (named 3-2-1 VLAAR-ST OFF, an awkward pun on Ron Vlaar, the Dutch defender from Aston Villa).
Each week my emotional state is inextricably linked to whether I got a green arrow (a joyous rise in the rankings) or a red arrow (a devastating fall in the rankings). The arrows mean nothing to everybody else; they mean everything to me. My ego is now wrapped in fantasy football.
Like a dirty drug addiction, I try to hide my habit from my loved ones. But it’s hard to conceal it from your partner when you’ve spent the past two hours on the laptop evaluating the relative prospects of Stoke’s Jon Walters and Crystal Palace’s Jason Puncheon.
I have let people down because of my addiction. Once I forgot I had dinner in the oven because I was looking at how Sergio Arguero has performed in previous outings against Newcastle United. The results were burnt salmon, an annoyed girlfriend and a healthy return of 9 points for the Argentinean.
Unlike a relapsing heroin user, I haven’t once attempted to give up my crippling dependence issues. There has been no cold turkey, no rehab, and no painful cycle of using and drying out. I remain thoroughly hooked. I am still chasing the dragon.
And so I continue to occupy an awkward space: Immensely proud of my online life, yet too ashamed to tell people in my real life.
For now, Fantasy Football will have to remain that way: a fantasy world inside my head in which I am King (or roughly 242 places below the King).
By Ben Shine
*It should be noted that there is no real money at stake in Fantasy Football.