By Rob Hampton
It’s September 19, 1983—a Monday morning. After dragging yourself out of bed and fumbling for some breakfast and coffee, you grab the day’s paper so you can see how your fantasy football team performed on Sunday. After crunching the numbers, you decide you did pretty darn good.
Fast forward a few hours. Your braggart colleague Rob, your fantasy football foe of the week, informs you that you lost by three points. “Had Joe Theismann not thrown those two interceptions, I would be 3-0,” you mumble.
Fast forward to today. You’ve been participating in fantasy football—a competition in which fans compete against each other by forming virtual football teams made up of real players—for more than 30 years. Thanks to the technology of 2013, you can check scores on your iPhone during the game. You see that your player Robert Griffin III just scored another rushing touchdown. You then text Jason, your enemy of the week, for some heavy trash talk.
The first fantasy football league was started in 1963 by Bill Winkenbach and a few of his colleagues in the Oakland Raiders football organization. For the first 30-plus years, fantasy football grew slowly. People who participated in fantasy football had to scour the newspaper for stats from individual games. Some local papers didn’t cover all the games, so you had to wait for a national paper to arrive to find out that Rob outscored you.
Fantasy football’s popularity skyrocketed, however, when the Internet brought about instant scoring and stats. In 1997, CBS launched the first-ever online fantasy football application. ESPN, Yahoo and other major sports media outlets soon followed.
More than 20 million people play fantasy football today, thanks to the ease and convenience of live scoring and instant socializing. What was once a pencil-and-paper operation is now effortlessly at your fingertips.
Over the years, the types of leagues and scoring have evolved. However, the core concept remains the same: participation in professional rivalries and fierce but good-natured competition with colleagues, friends and family.
Here at The History Factory, fantasy football is a vital part of our fun, collegial office culture. Our league includes experienced players as well as dabblers. You don’t need any football knowledge to play fantasy football. It’s mostly the combination of luck, numbers and online accessibility that makes it so appealing to a wide range of people.
Throughout the season, we boast about wins and banter about losses. The best victories are within half a point, which translates to a quarterback or a receiver who couldn’t get that one extra yard or a kicker who missed a short easy field goal. The near-wins are always the most emotional. The blowouts are a close second. (Let it go, Rob. Let it go.)
Regardless of who comes out on top at season’s end, fantasy football is a fun, competitive hobby with a rich history. Today, major media outlets insert fantasy scores next to the actual score, suggesting that the game you’ve constructed with your fantasy league is nearly as important as the real game. Fantasy football is a billion-dollar industry and a part of popular culture, and the NFL went from keeping it at arm’s length to embracing it because it has drawn in so many people who participate as part of their office social circle.
The core concept and camaraderie haven’t changed since fantasy football’s inception. Technology’s contribution, however, has evened the playing field, heightened the drama and made the activity more accessible to more people.
One piece of advice, however: Don’t be the person who organizes, commissions and promotes your office league, and then win the championship in its inaugural year. Being Rob hasn’t been encouraging.