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Have number-crunchers broken fantasy sports?

The mysticism of pretend leagues is getting thwarted by algorithms
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ANDREA ZHAO/THE VARSITY
ANDREA ZHAO/THE VARSITY

Are fantasy sports nerdy, or are they a great way to stay in touch with your favourite sports? Can they be both, or have they become neither?

As the online world has expanded, so has its influence on the way that fans consume sports. Sporting events have grown in size, speed, and outreach with once-national TV broadcasts becoming international ones due to mass streaming. Because sports have become so much more accessible, staying acutely informed has become easy for anyone who has a few spare minutes.  

Instantly tweeting a highlight hot off your TV screen, live betting, and same-game parlays: it’s all instant, and it’s all in front of our noses. Because of the internet, everything in sports is live in real time. And depending on the sport, performance is completely quantifiable — cue the reel of slow-motion playbacks and real-time graphs of football plays and positions.

The same can be said for fantasy sports. Remember when you had to check the newspaper for the previous night’s box scores, tally up the totals from every man on your roster, and then find the average? Remember when you would crunch your own stats, and then jot them down in a notebook every week? Maybe, you’d call up your friends from the league to see how their teams stacked up compared to yours?

Of course you’ve never done that! This isn’t 1996; this is 2021! Fantasy sports aren’t about connecting with your friends anymore. They’re about finding the most advanced algorithms out there, picking players based on who would earn you the most points, and competing against 50 people, most of whom you’ve never even met.

Fantasy sports have become more about winning than anything. Now, you could argue that these changes have opened up the world to many people who don’t have the time to just be obsessive sports fans, but it’s also allowed number-crunching, money-hungry mathematicians to take over a medium that was meant for people who loved sports.

Consider Larry Schechter. He is a two-time champion of the CDM Sports national challenge, a six-time champion of the renowned Tout Wars experts league, and author of the book Winning Fantasy Baseball: Secrets and Strategies of a Nine-Time National Champion.

Schechter uses rules, numbers, and probabilities to build the fantasy team most likely to win — essentially ‘solving’ fantasy sports.

Maybe using the top-of-the-line information has always been what it takes to win in sports. Schoolhouse Rock! taught us all that knowledge is power, but when the champions of the sports world can win our leagues without watching a single game, what’s the point?

Fantasy sports can still be fun: smaller, more intimate leagues, free flowing sports with less quantifiable aspects and irregularities — all of it. I still play. I still love it. But the whole point of fantasy sports is that it should be fantasy: it should include the fantastical, the ‘what if,’ the byproduct of loving the game. Fantasy sports are only enjoyable if one truly loves the sport they’re competing with.  

As for those who use math to break the system and place winning above enjoying the game and the community? They don’t love the sport, they love winning.