The gambling industry comprises various forms of entertainment; what most of them have in common is the thrill of relying on Lady Luck’s whims. The dice roll, the cards are dealt, the roulette spins, and there’s no way to predict the outcome. However, some players look for a different kind of diversion.
For them, the excitement comes from using analytical skills and sports knowledge to come out on top against other players. Today’s article is about a unique alternative to sports betting: fantasy sports.
What are fantasy sports?
In simple words, they are games based on sport statistical data. Players assemble virtual teams of real athletes, and the teams are evaluated based on the performance of these athletes in actual competitions. Players manage their team, not unlike real managers and coaches, by picking athletes who they think are going to perform well, analyzing their performance as the season progresses, making adjustments to the team, and participating in drafts.
While in the past scores were calculated manually, modern fantasy sports leagues can use computers to track the results. In its simplest form, the game can be played by a small group of people with a basic scoring system, but advanced formats allow for thousands of participants.
Over the last few decades, the game grew from a niche hobby into a global multibillion dollar industry ($18.6 billion in 2019) which is projected to grow by 120% in the coming years. According to the latest reports from the Fantasy Sports & Gaming Association, there are 59.3 million fantasy sports players in the US, and the average annual spend amounts to $653. According to the FSGA, the combined fantasy sports market is worth $7.22 billion, divided fairly equally between traditional and daily varieties ($3.27 billion and $2.91 billion respectively), with the remaining $1.04 billion deriving from ancillary services.
The origins of fantasy sports can be traced as far back as 1950 in two baseball-themed board games: American Professional Baseball Association (APBA) and Strat-O-Matic. Players used a combination of dice rolls and statistical data from prior seasons to determine the winners.
In the 60s, Wilfred “Bill” Winkenbach, then a partner in the Oakland Raiders, came up with the first fantasy American football game together with Scotty Stirling and George Ross, both sports reporters from the Oakland Tribune. Winkenbach had previously experimented with fantasy golf and baseball, eventually devising a ruleset that would serve as the base for the first-ever American football fantasy league, the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League (GOPPPL), based in his California home.
Given the lack of online resources at the time, stats were compiled personally by the ideator the old-fashioned way. Winkenbach would phone the sports decks of various periodicals that got their data by wire, asking them for the latest statistics. Over time, fantasy football (also known as “gridiron”, a name derived from the traditional grid markings on American football pitches) grew from a pen-and-paper pastime played among friends into a popular commercial enterprise.
In their early days, fantasy baseball leagues grew popular in various universities and colleges and were played by professors. One of the University of Michigan’s students around that time was Daniel Okrent, who would go on to invent the Rotisserie League Baseball rules.
Inspired by APBA and Strat-O-Matic, Rotisserie baseball (often shortened to “roto”) was played by a group of avid baseball fans who would regularly meet at Le Rotisserie Française restaurant in Manhattan. Unlike the aforementioned board games, roto was based on current data alone, disregarding statistics from prior seasons. Players (called “owners”) earned points based on the number of home runs, runs scored and batted in, successful pitches, saves, and other key stats relating to the athletes in their team. As the season went on, owners would drop or switch underperforming players according to the ebb and flow of statistics.
Fantasy baseball made its way to the mainstream during the Major League Baseball Players Association strike of 1981, when sports periodicals wrote about fantasy leagues in the absence of real competitions. By the end of the decade, fantasy sports attracted millions of players.
Another spurt of growth came at the tail end of the 90s, thanks to the advent of the Internet. Not only were more people able to connect and join fantasy leagues, but the sports data that the game relies on became much more accessible.
During the 2000s, fantasy sports became popular enough to serve as a basis for the TV show “The League”, which aired between 2009 and 2015.
How it’s played
The basic premise of fantasy sports games is something along these lines: a group of players decides to form a league, and, before the sports season begins, they draft players into their fantasy teams. They then track the stats of these players every week to determine which fantasy team performs better; to the winner goes the pot, a prize, or at the very least bragging rights.
Each fantasy sport variety has a unique scoring system, draft rules, and participation criteria.
Players manage their teams by dropping or trading athletes, and, at the end of the season, the top-scoring teams win.
Traditionally, fantasy sports teams are drafted anew every season, but, in “dynasty format” (also called “keeper”), a certain number of drafted players can be kept year after year.
In classic gridiron American football, each team is comprised of a set number of players in each role (only one quarterback, two wide receivers, etc.); the draft follows a simple format where each team chooses one player per round, with the picking order inverted at the end of each round. After the draft is completed, teams can trade players with each other and claim undrafted athletes.
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In some formats, drafting is limited by a budget, similar to how an actual team manager can only afford a few high-paid top players in his roster. For example, in Italy, where fantasy football is extremely popular, such a system is applied in the tournament organized by the country’s main sports newspaper, Gazzetta dello Sport. There, players have a limited number of “fantamillions” the currency used to draft athletes. Players are assigned points according to their athletes’ ratings, with bonuses for goals, assists, and saves, and maluses for conceding goals, bookings, and missing penalty kicks, among other things.
The tournament has a large jackpot, divided between weekly and season-end prizes (ranging from yearly subscriptions to the newspaper to a luxury car for the overall winner). For 2020-2021, the jackpot amounts to €244,929. The data provided by the newspaper can also be used to run a private league, separate from official competitions.
Contemporary fantasy sports, offered by companies such as Draft Kings and Fanduel in the USA, are played over shorter periods – days rather than weeks or seasons. Daily fantasy sports usually work as a contest where participants pay an entry fee, partly retained by the service provider and partly contributing to the pot. Albeit extremely popular, the format was highly controversial when sports betting was largely banned in the USA. While defined as games of skill in many American states, the shorter timeframe of this type of fantasy sport makes it so that participants are basically making a wager on athletes’ performance during a single game — a significantly less statistically controlled environment.
However, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, the majority of daily contests are won by a relatively small number of skilled players with knowledge of statistics and how to pick opponents.
Besides baseball, football, and American football, there are many other fantasy sport varieties: commonly played are hockey, basketball, and cricket, but also non-team sports like racing and golf.
Fantasy sports and virtual sports
Fantasy sports are often confused with virtual sports, but they are extremely different in nature. Virtual sports are based on Random Number Generators (RNG), therefore the outcome of every virtual competition is completely random. The experience is closer to that of a slot machine: the outcome of a virtual game or race is available instantly, and the player can make lots of bets within a short period of time.
Virtual sports do not depend on real-life events in any way and are marketed as an off-season alternative to traditional sports betting; moreover, they are a way to get punters interested in other casino games like slots or roulette.
However, the unpredictable nature of virtual sports makes them less appealing to traditional sports betting fans, as knowledge of the sport and experience simply don’t matter.
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Fantasy sports and traditional sports betting
For years, fantasy sports were seen as a way to bet on sports in the USA while sports betting was illegal. The bets were not made directly on the outcome of an event, but still provided an engaging experience for sports buffs as it rewarded extensive knowledge and analytical thinking while providing an opportunity to win money.
While the USA remains the biggest market for this type of gaming, the legality of daily fantasy sports is debated in many states: Arizona, Hawaii, Alabama, Iowa, Idaho, Montana, Louisiana, Nevada, and Washington State. As fantasy sports rely much less on statistical skills, their apparent randomness brings them closer to regular sports betting. Texas specifically singles out daily fantasy sports, considering them illegal, while traditional season-long fantasy sports remain allowed.
Outside the USA, the regulation of fantasy sports is generally patchy. In many countries, gambling laws don’t mention fantasy sports in any way, while in others they are uncomfortably ambiguous, leaving operators and players exposed to crackdowns.
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A few examples of the variety of regulations: in Estonia, fantasy sports are considered sports betting if there is a wager or a prize for participation; in Ukraine, where most forms of gambling were recently legalized, fantasy sports remain unregulated. In Japan, gambling is heavily restricted, but fantasy sports do not appear to be prohibited by the Penal Code. In Argentina and Brazil, fantasy sports are unregulated at the federal level, leaving it up to local authorities to decide whether operators can offer the service or not. The same is true in India, where fantasy sports are subject to local licensing in the states of Sikkimand Nagaland, while they remain unregulated in most other states and expressly prohibited in a few others.
Untapped potential of fantastic proportions
Fantasy sports remain an odd part of the gambling industry (and, in some countries, not part of it at all), but their growth in popularity and complexity since their inception is a good indicator of the potential of this unique and engaging form of entertainment.
In many countries fantasy sports are still little-known, and the industry is waiting for innovators that will take the concept to new heights and shake the market.
Here at Slotegrator we work with sportsbook and online casino platforms all over the globe and are always on the lookout for the next big thing. If your company is offering fantasy sports and you are interested in expanding to new regions, or you intend to take the industry by storm with a unique business model, have a chat with our sales department and explore the possibility of becoming a partner.