An Unreal Sport: Mixing 'Fantasy Life' With Reality

Jul 16, 2013
Originally published on July 16, 2013 5:21 am

It's the fourth most popular sport in the United States and more than 30 million people play it in the United States and Canada. Around 13 percent of Americans played it in 2012. There are hundreds of variations across multiple sports, but football is by far the most popular.

And it's pure fantasy.

Matthew Berry is the senior fantasy sports analyst for ESPN (yes, that's a real job), and he wrote a book delving into fantasy sports game that's captivated millions. The book, Fantasy Life, looks at stories around the country of different people from all walks of life playing fantasy sports.

For those who are still lost, here's a basic rundown of how fantasy sports work:

1) You draft a team of real-life athletes in a particular sport for your "team."

2) Your "team" plays against other "teams" from your league each week.

3) The points your "team" receives for that week depends on how well the real-life athletes on your "team" fair in their real-life games.

It may seem as though there is a perception that only nerds and dorks play these fantastical sporting games, but Berry thinks that idea has faded as the game rises. From CEOs to kids to grandmothers to prison inmates, Berry tellsMorning Editionhost David Greene that everyone and anyone plays because it's fun and because America likes to root for things.

"And there's nothing better," he says, "than rooting for your own fantasy team."

Even senators play fantasy sports. One of the stories from Berry's book is about former Pennsylvania senator and 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum. Moments after Santorum announced his removal from the race, he drafted players for his fantasy baseball team over the phone on the ride home. But just like in the Republican candidacy race, Santorum only finished in second.

"It never occurred to me that I would have something in common with Sen. Santorum," Berry says. "And I had a great conversation with him all about fantasy baseball. It's amazing how fantasy sports can bring the most people together and sort of give them a common bond."

Stories Of Obsession And Heartbreak

Sometimes, people find it difficult to prioritize between fantasy sports and real life. Berry recounts the story of one man who, on the way to the hospital with his pregnant wife, stopped by a friend's house to make his draft pick. His wife was having contractions in the car.

"He delayed the birth of his child," Berry says, "for fantasy."

Another story is marked as a day of infamy in fantasy football. On Dec. 16, 2007, the Philadelphia Eagles led the Dallas Cowboys 10-6 with a little more than two minutes left in the game and were driving down the field. Brian Westbrook, the Eagles' running back, had a chance to score a touchdown, but instead elected to stop himself at the one-yard line and get tackled instead of scoring what would have been an easy touchdown.

While a strategical football play (it allowed the Eagles to run out the clock and end the game without giving the Cowboys another chance to score and win the game), Berry describes the play as "the most famous play in fantasy football history," because thousands of fantasy players who owned Westbrook lost because he didn't score.

"I heard from thousands of owners that they were down by five points and as he ran in the end zone, they're like 'I'm gonna win! He's gonna run in, I'm gonna get six points, I'm gonna win,' " Berry says. "And then he falls at the one. UGH! Heartbreak! It affected tens of thousands of leagues that had Brian Westbrook and lost by 5 or less points."

Berry met Westbrook years later and asked about the play.

"He [Westbrook] said, 'Not a day goes by that someone doesn't bring that play up and mention fantasy football.' "

An Untraditional Way To Watch Sports

Some people like watching a game simply to see which team wins and loses. Some just like the social aspect, the tailgating and bonding with friends and family. Some don't want to worry about which player scores a touchdown or which player catches the ball. For some, the appeal of rooting for individual players rather than teams is not attractive. But, Berry says that's the best part about sports.

"There's a lot of different ways to enjoy sports," he says. "So there's lots of different ways and reasons that people enjoy sports and experience sports. But one of them in a big way is obviously fantasy."

At ESPN, Berry plays in the "War Room League" with other NFL analysts. There are Super Bowl-winning coaches such as Mike Ditka and Hall of Fame players like Cris Carter who play in this league.

And then there's Matthew Berry.

Berry remembers trying to trade one of his wide receivers to another analyst, but the analyst rejected the trade. Berry later found out the analyst sent a text message to the receiver's real-life quarterback, who didn't like the receiver. Nevertheless, Berry ended up coming in first place that year.

"That was a big moment for me because all these guys here are super smart about football," he says. "And I'm the dorky little fantasy guy."

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We're going to hear now about one of the most popular sports in the country. It's one in which players need never touch a bat or a ball, or set foot on a field or a court. Sounds kind of like a riddle, doesn't it, Renee?


Well, actually, it sounds a bit like a fantasy to me.

GREENE: Fantasy is right. This is fantasy sports, where you are the owner of a virtual team made up of real-life athletes.

MONTAGNE: So, OK. For fantasy football - which I never played, but I'm certainly game to try right now - pick maybe, I could pick a quarterback from the New England Patriots, let's say.

GREENE: You could, but if you did that, I would take my running back from Pittsburgh.

MONTAGNE: Nice try, Steelers fan.

GREENE: That's right. Yeah, the fun of fantasy sports is tracking the stats of players you choose based on their performance in real games, and you hope your combination of players fares the best against other fantasy team owners. People usually play in leagues of maybe 10 or 12 people, and you can play in all sorts of sports, even baseball and golf. And we wanted to learn more. Matthew Berry is the senior fantasy sports analyst at ESPN, and he just wrote a book called "Fantasy Life." And I was surprised to learn how many people play fantasy sports.

MATTHEW BERRY: Recent studies suggest over 30 million people in the United States and Canada play some form of fantasy sports. Thirteen percent of all Americans played fantasy sports in 2012, and football is by far the most popular.

GREENE: Dare I say there is a perception among some that nerds and dorks are the ones who are playing fantasy sports?

BERRY: There used to be. Certainly, that was one of the big perceptions. And I'm not going to lie: not everyone who plays fantasy sports is the coolest guy ever, OK? I mean, listen, I'm a...

GREENE: Let's get that out of the way.

BERRY: Yeah. I'm a geek. Having said that, it has now become so mainstream and so widespread, I actually think the dorks are the people that don't play, because it's all walks of life, you know, CEOs, doctors, lawyers, kids, grandmothers, Playboy playmates, prison inmates, you know, men overseas fighting for our country.

GREENE: That's quite a list.

BERRY: Like, it's everyone and anyone. And the reason people play it is because it's fun. We are a country that likes the root. And there's nothing better than rooting for your own fantasy team.

GREENE: Yeah. I raised my eyebrow when you wrote about Rick Santorum, the Republican presidential candidate, working his fantasy sources the day he dropped out of the presidential race.

BERRY: So, Senator Santorum, he is a hardcore, long-time fantasy baseball player. He does an American League-only league, so that he doesn't have to pick against the Pirates or...

GREENE: The two National League teams in Pennsylvania, Pirates and Phillies. So he only does American League.

BERRY: Yeah, right. He didn't know what it was. He joined it because he thought it would be good for office camaraderie, and then he got super into it. So, the day he dropped out of the presidential race was the same day as his draft. So, he had the press conference, he announced he was removing himself from the race, and then in the car...

GREENE: An emotional moment for him.

BERRY: Right. And now he's got to draft a fantasy baseball team. And he did it on the drive home. Like, he's being driven and he's doing it on the phone, which is not an easy way to draft to begin with. To his credit, though, he ended up finishing second that year. It's weird, David: It would never occur to me that I would have something in common with Senator Santorum, and I had a great conversation with him all about fantasy baseball. It's amazing how fantasy sports can bring the most disparate people together and give them sort of a common bond.

GREENE: But also complicate things like marriages. There were some stories about guys who were trying to do their draft, even when their wife was giving birth.

BERRY: There's a lot of stories that I found that were stories of obsession. One guy - his wife is being induced. So the plan is that he's going to do the draft, and then he's going to pick up his wife. They're going to drive to the hospital, and he's going to finish the draft on the phone while he's driving his wife.

GREENE: And had this whole plan worked out.

BERRY: So, he goes, he picks up his wife. Phone rings and, like, dude, you're up. And he's just, like, I thought we were going to wait until I get to the hospital. You know, like, I'm not even past you guys' house yet. And at this point, she's started her contractions. And they're, like, well, just come by and make a pick. Come on, you're holding the draft up. And he's just, like, well, it is on the way. Honey? I can make a pick. Honey? So while his pregnant wife is sitting in the car, he stops there, he makes his pick, and then gets back in the car, drives to the hospital. Now, she was being induced. The contractions were still far apart. But understand this: He delayed the birth of his child for fantasy.

GREENE: Matthew Berry is talking to us about his new book "Fantasy Life." And, Matthew, you have a lot of these dramatic, game-changing plays in the book that caused people playing fantasy a lot of heartbreak. And one that stood out to me: 2007 - the Philadelphia Eagles playing against the Dallas Cowboys. Remind me what happened.

BERRY: It's the Brian Westbrook play, and it's the most famous play in fantasy football history. The Eagles are leading with just about two or so minutes to go. And Brian Westbrook breaks free, and he's heading to the end zone, and he can easily score. But he does the unthinkable. At the one-yard line, he downs himself. He basically falls to the ground and allows himself to be tackled. And the reason...


BERRY: Well, because they didn't want to give the ball back to Dallas. If they had scored, the Cowboys would have had the ball back, and they could have potentially come back and won. But by hanging on there - and they were only up by three points at the time - the Eagles were able to run out the clock and get the victory.

The problem is, is that for people that owned Brian Westbrook in fantasy, that drove you crazy. I heard from thousands of owners that they were down by five points, and as he ran to the end zone, they're, like, I'm going to win. He's going to run in. I'm going to get six points. I'm going to win, and then he falls at the one. Heartbreak. It affected tens of thousands of leagues that had Brian Westbrook, and they lost by five or less points, that had he just walked into the end zone like anyone would have, they would have won their game. It's interesting. Years later, I met Brian Westbrook, and I asked him about that play, and he just laughed. He says not a day goes by that someone doesn't bring that play up and mention fantasy football.

GREENE: You know, I have to say, this is one reason that I haven't become addicted to fantasy sports. If I'm watching a game like that, I'm watching to see who wins, who loses. I don't want to worry about what one individual player's doing versus the other. I don't want to worry about, you know, which receiver's going to catch the touchdown pass. I mean, are there some people who just would rather look at sports in the more traditional way?

BERRY: Of course there are. The great thing about sports is that there's a lot of different ways to enjoy sports. Some people enjoy it for the reasons that you just said. Some people enjoy the social aspect, and they like going to the game and tailgating and hanging out with their friends. And some people like it because it bonds them with their family. So there's lot of different ways and reasons that people enjoy sports and experience sports. But one of them, in a big way, is obviously fantasy.

GREENE: And a lot of the book is not about millions of other people, but it's about you, your life, your career. And I wonder, what's the, I don't know, single-best play or moment in your fantasy life?

BERRY: It's been amazing. We have a league here that we call the War Room League. And it's with all of the ESPN NFL analysts. So all these people that are, you know, former players, Super Bowl winners and me. And I remember one time I was talking to one of the guys in the league, I was trying to trade him a wide receiver. And he said no. I said, why don't you like him? He says, well, I texted his quarterback. His quarterback doesn't like him. You know, that doesn't happen in most leagues, where one of the guys literally text the real-life NFL quarterback and say, like, what do you think of this wide receiver?

And last year, I won that league, and so that was a big moment for me. Because all these guys here that are super-smart about football, and, you know, I'm the dorky little fantasy guy and they're so - they're Super Bowl winners. They're all former NFL players, or in-deep insiders, and they all think they know fantasy, too. So, that was cool for more to win that game last year - win the league, I should say.

GREENE: Matthew Berry. His new book is called "Fantasy Life." And Matthew, thanks so much for coming on.

BERRY: My pleasure. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.