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Men’s Football Phones at the ready - Fantasy football returns

JAMES NALTON discusses the history of the widely popular game in his Fantasy Premier League season preview

IT’S that time of year again. Managers are scrambling around to see which players are available to them on opening weekend, deciding whether or not to risk those carrying pre-season knocks, while also having half an eye on how they can improve their squad before the deadline.

Should that new signing be thrown straight in, or wait for them to settle in their new team? And the most important choice of all — who to make captain.

These are the conundrums faced, not by Premier League managers and coaches, but by the millions gearing up for a new season of fantasy football.

The game, and more specifically the Fantasy Premier League (FPL) version of it, has grown in popularity season on season. The first year in its current guise was 2002/03, but it existed prior to that as an online game called Can You Kick It (CYKI), which ran a similar game for Euro 2000 as well as the Premier League seasons around that time.

The ideas for fantasy football have been around for even longer. They existed as dreamed-up teams of the best players from particular competitions or sports — especially in the United States where leagues would organise all-star games made up of the best players from each team.

This extended to the development of points systems and private leagues within groups of friends or organisations, often with wagers involved.

Newspapers in the UK introduced fantasy football games to their readers in the 1990s with the Telegraph running one of the first. Administration fees were collected via a joining fee and the cost of the weekly phone calls needed to make your transfers ahead of the next weekend’s games.

Other papers picked up the idea, running their own versions of these pen-and-paper, post, phone and print pre-digital fantasy football games. But they became really accessible with the growth of the internet and digital technology, where the format found a more convenient and more usable medium.

The CYKI game introduced an easy-to-use interface, relatively simple but effective scoring systems and, most importantly, something that was free to play aside from the cost of internet access.

Internet connections at that time were slow, so the graphics needed to be simple and the game needed to be mostly text-based. It remains as such to this day, which is probably handy for the game’s servers on those occasions when everyone logs on to make last-minute changes before a deadline.

In 2002 CYKI began to redirect players to an official Premier League game using much the same scoring system and user interface, and now millions around the world play FPL each season.

At one point last season the “total players” of FPL, as shown on their app and website, passed the nine million mark, and it could well pass 10 million this time around.

If Premier League managers think they have it tough, they should try running an FPL team for 38 gameweeks.

Of course, many FPL managers don’t last the full 38 weeks. It’s just too much. These managers will announce blithely, usually sometime around March or April when they are at the bottom of the league, that they gave up in August. Others will free themselves of all responsibility for their amusingly named team after one week. Are there prizes for the best team name?

Who knows if there are prizes for fantasy football at all? No-one you know has ever won anything beyond your private leagues.

Much like football itself, most participants will not win or do well. There is some entertainment, maybe even fun, to be had in being bad at the game, or at least unlucky. It’s very much the taking part that counts.

The players we sacrificed eight points to bring into our team didn’t play.

The players on the bench got more points than the starting XI.

The star striker somehow didn’t get a goal or assist in their team's 6-0 win against the worst team in the league.

Pep Guardiola (it’s always Guardiola) subbed your captain in the 58th minute after he’d been booked or, worse, brought them on for two minutes at the end of a game.

Logging in to pick your team on Saturday morning only to realise the deadline was Friday night.

The predicaments of the FPL manager.

Sometimes it feels like fantasy football is bigger and more popular than football itself, just as it feels like the transfer window is now more eagerly anticipated than the actual season. 

The two things are probably linked. They both foster the idea of the construction of dream teams away from the realities of day-to-day football, squad and player management.

On top of all this, the growth of publicly available football data has seen FPL become something of a science in itself. It is part of the marriage of stats and football, and somewhere theories and predictions can be tested. There are websites dedicated to it, experts in the field, fantasy football pundits and a whole branch of related media.

As the new Premier League season started last night (not Saturday morning — another deadline missed!) wholesale changes will already be being planned and starting XI choices bemoaned. We already know if our faith in captain Gabriel Jesus has been repaid or if Mikel Arteta really learned from Guardiola and subbed him in the 58th minute.

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