"Spend your money on running backs this year. You can wait on quarterback and wide receiver." That’s Matthew Berry—"The Talented Mr. Roto," ESPN’s Senior Fantasy Sports Analyst—with some advice about how to plan for a fantasy auction league this year. "I would spend all my money on running backs, and I’ll go cheap everywhere else. There’s depth at every other position."
It seems unfair to start a story about fantasy football without offering at least one solid tip, but Berry—whose new book, Fantasy Life: The Outrageous, Uplifting, and Heartbreaking World of Fantasy Sports From the Guy Who’s Lived It, is full of advice—has more to talk about than just what’ll win you your league this fall. The book is packed with stories about the craziness that ensues when fans are able to channel their passion for the game into the weirdly creative world of fantasy sports leagues. For instance: prizes and penalties.
"There’s a guy who got some money for winning his league, but the same day, his wife called him up and said, ‘Don’t be spending that money. Our washing machine just broke.’ So what does he do? Goes out, buys a new washing machine, and on the washing machine there’s a plaque: ‘2010 Tech-FFL Championship, the guy’s name, and ‘Washing Away the Competition,’" Berry says. "He made this washing machine his fantasy football trophy."
The creativity of fantasy football players—both the winners and the losers—is definitely worth noting. And, according to Berry, there are other benefits to being in a league besides the joy of victory (though that’s nothing to scoff at, either).
The NFL realized that fantasy football was very good for its game years ago. "The average sports fan watches three hours of football a week," Berry says, "but the average fantasy player watches six hours. Once the NFL heard that stat . . . " But fans aren’t just into it because it gives them a chance to watch football. According to Berry, playing and loving fantasy sports is something that people get immediately after they give it a shot.
"I always liken it to a Springsteen concert," he laughs. "You might be a fan of Bruce Springsteen. You certainly know he’s popular. You’ve heard songs on the radio before. But until you go see him in concert and you see this guy for three-plus hours, never tiring, giving it a hundred and ten percent on the stage—it’s unbelievable. Until you see him live, you don’t get it. I feel like fantasy sports is kind of the same way."
Berry attributes the game’s extreme pull to the tension between a player’s ability to control the game and the things that are just outside of anyone’s hands: the combination of drafting a great team and then leaving some things up to luck and fate. "There are so many things that it combines," he says. "Everyone wants to be smart, and this is a way to do that. Everyone loves competition, so you want to beat your buddy. It gives you a rooting interest in football."
Berry mentions proving that you’re smart is part of the appeal of fantasy sports, and what he’s talking about is the ability to predict the future by scouting a long-shot player as a potential star. (Everybody who drafted Russell Wilson in a late round last year, raise your hand and claim your gold star now.) For some players, that’s coming up with a Moneyball-style combination of guys that’ll combine for a lot of points each week. For others, it’s identifying a rising talent.
Berry comes off like a humble guy, but one of his examples of picking a long-shot that pays off is from his own experience. "You have players that you just love after you pick them up, especially if it’s some backup that you discovered, that you had a feeling about: ‘I liked this guy in college.’ I feel that way about Arian Foster," Berry says of the Houston Texans star running back. "His rookie year, he was a guy I identified and really liked, and I actually got some grief about him. The very first start that he had for Houston his rookie year, I recommended him and he went out, fumbled, and got pulled immediately. People gave me tons of grief, and I was like, I believe in this guy, I’m telling you. He’s a really good running back. Obviously, the rest is history there."
"There’s a league in Omaha, Nebraska, where the loser of the league has to get a tattoo—a permanent tattoo—chosen by the winner," Berry begins."They’ve done it for three years. They all sign a contract. In the first year, it was a unicorn with a rainbow over it. The second year, it’s a bunch of Care Bears—and one of them is Tebowing. The third year—this past year—was the worst one. The guy’s got a tattoo of Justin Bieber’s face. It says ‘Fantasy Loser #yoloswag." It’s fucking great."
The creativity of humans when they’re torturing each other with terrible tattoos is impressive, but so are the things that people come up with when they’re trying to find a way to let fantasy sports bring them together. As hilariously goofy as Mr. #Yoloswag probably feels whenever he looks at his leg, those same impulses lead to some sweet—and still funny—moments, too.
"I got a guy who, two hours before his draft, was called into work. It’s the day before the season, the only time all the guys can get together, so what are they going to do?" Berry recalls. "The guy’s like, ‘I’m sorry, I need this job, and the other guy called in sick. What am I going to do? I have to work.’ So they’re like, ‘Screw it, we’ll go have the draft at your work, while you work.’
"Where he worked, of course, was at Red Robin restaurant, where he was dressed as the Red Robin," Berry laughs. "There’s nine guys, and the tenth is dressed as the Robin. He’d waddle over to see who’d been picked. ‘As it turns out, a cheat sheet taped inside my beak is not ideal.’ But they still got it done."
There was an ESPN commercial a few years ago that featured a bunch of jocks at the cafeteria, poring over their fantasy teams, when a group of Dungeons and Dragons players walk over to them and start making fun of them for being nerds. It’s a funny bit, and it does speak to some of the similarity between one kind of fantasy-based obsession and another—but the difference between D&D and fantasy sports is that fantasy sports are damn near ubiquitous.
"I’ve got an 87-year-old grandmother that plays," Berry says. "Jay-Z plays. Whatever definition of ‘nerd’ you want to use, Jay-Z ain’t it."
Berry is even more effusive about the potential of fantasy sports to bring people together. He recalls being a teenager who moved around a lot, and the way that fantasy leagues helped him find friends quickly (that league, Berry adds, is still going strong and will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year). He talks about a college roommate who learned to relate to his distant father by playing fantasy football and fantasy basketball, and was suddenly able to talk about the Celtics and the Patriots with him. And he talks about the business and networking opportunities that happen as a result of fantasy leagues.
"It’s unbelievably good for work," Berry says. "It improves company morale, employee morale, and it gives you a reason to talk to people that you might not normally talk to. The marketing guy is talking to IT who’s talking to HR who’s talking to accounting, because all of a sudden you have a reason to."
He recalls a particular story from his own career: upon first landing with ESPN, he was asked to be the auctioneer for the company’s then-President George Bodenheimer’s personal league, which resulted in three hours of face time with a number of members of the company’s upper management. "Who gets that?" he asks.
"The fact of the matter is, without fantasy sports I’d have no reason," Berry recalls. "That was my entrée into having a relationship with the guy who ran all of ESPN. And I hear stories like that all the time. It’s an entrée in. You can send a trade offer. It gives you a level of interaction that you wouldn’t normally have. It’s a common language, and it breaks down some of the barriers between upper management and low-level guys that might not otherwise have the guts to speak up."