Mind Games

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For many Canadians, the Stanley Cup is the silver chalice closest to their hearts. However, this particular resident of the Great White North possesses another grail that—in his eyes—rivals Lord Stanley’s mug in majesty.

Although its material origin is merely a trophy store called “Showcase,” not far from downtown Victoria, it was forged into an object of great importance in the chasm of a good buddy’s living room. The idea to start a fantasy hockey league among friends spawned at some point during last August’s heat wave. But its function as a vital part of my social life didn’t take effect until October’s fantasy draft.

Nine of my closest friends and I combined to form the “Garrison Cup” (in honour of our favourite Canucks defenceman)—the world’s first. This past year, our league’s inaugural season, saw rivalries formed out of mouse, keyboard, and the desire to prove oneself a shining beacon of hockey knowledge. Our draft took place at a roommate’s flat, where chips and pizza (obviously) were shared between competitors ranging from age 19 to 50. As the selection process moved forward, our desperate trades shattered the barrier between fantasy and reality. A coveted pick was exchanged for a case of beer; a car wash coupon changed hands for Canucks centre Ryan Kesler.

Fast forward seven months. The playoffs changed our attitudes about the pool and how we approached each head-to-head matchup. Our friendships never faltered, but we hurled hilarious threats at one another on a daily basis, the experience offering a glimpse into what it’d be like to partake in the ruthless on-ice barrage of verbal abuse.

Dan Ostrovsky, a Garrison Cup hopeful, remembers a time that the boundary separating friend and foe was challenged.

“I was updating my roster, and a friend tried to mess with my head. He questioned every player on my bench and roster. I ended up tuning him out, but the trash talking he dished out really made me question my decisions.”

The banter didn’t stop with these two. One friend of mine went so far as to lie to me about the end of his relationship, preying on my caring nature, hoping that I’d lose on purpose to console him. Luckily, my insatiable appetite for victory allowed me to see through his manipulation.

Some say that fantasy drafting originated in New York, where two baseball-loving buddies engineered the inner-workings of a Rotisserie league (named for the seedy French restaurant they would meet at) on the back of a napkin. This being 1963, the Internet was unable to lend its services to expedite the process. Conversely, others have postulated the international phenomenon began with the rise of computer sports simulations in the 1980s. Regardless, the mystery surrounding its birthplace cannot but add to fantasy sport’s allure. Now, UVic students can connect with professional athletes in a way that past generations only dreamed of.

Consider that a recent study found that over 32.5 million people in North America had at least one team registered. That’s right, nearly the population of Canada logs in everyday to celebrate and curse professional athletes whose actual statistics translate into virtual points. What’s more, a large portion of these faux analysts ride a great deal of their real-world dollars on the players who inhabit these mock rosters. While the professional sports industry boasts a collective net worth that sits somewhere between $600 and 750 billion, its fantasy counterpart is worth upwards of $3 billion.

These leagues enable friends from all over the world to clash and unite in a season-long struggle to reach the finish line. The phenomenon is beginning to cross into the mainstream, as demonstrated by TV shows like The League. The show, in its fifth season on FX, has spawned new quips like “double entendre,” “rankings slave,” and “the Sacko,” that have worked themselves into the day-to-day lingo of both hard- and soft-core fantasy leaguers’ trash-talking vernaculars.

“I kept calling my mom a ‘recipe slave,’ because she refuses to cook anything without a cookbook,” Ostrovsky recounts. “It was a play on the term ‘rankings slave’ in the show, which makes fun of fantasy leaguers who draft their teams mainly using the preset host site’s player rankings list. She didn’t get it, but the next two hours of studying were made easier because of it.”

Tech-fueled competitions like fantasy sports have always featured irreplaceable offerings of drama; just look at the millions of dollars spent on video games like Madden NFL. As of 2012, consumers have spent over $20 billion on virtual avatars that represent real-world athletes. Thanks to technological innovation, the boundary between reality and fantasy has started to blur. Heck, just look at the laptop screens of sleepy university students. In a 200-person lecture hall, fantasy sports rosters jockey with class notes for screen time on student laptops.

Johnnie Regalado, the program director at CFUV 101.9, UVic’s campus radio station, has also been drawn into the fantasy sports phenomenon. As the most recent winner of his friend’s hockey pool, he admits how rewarding the sweet taste of fantasy victory can be.

“My initial response was definitely excitement and joy.” Regalado’s strategy was simply to take “the best available hockey players, no matter what,” he says. “To end up winning was extremely satisfying, because I felt like my strategy literally paid off. It certainly made it feel like there was more than luck involved.”

This level of passion has surged among “poolies” ever since that first Rotisserie baseball league started roughly 50 years ago; in short, fantasy sports have become a part of mainstream popular culture and appear to only be gaining momentum. Any intramural athlete who’s experienced Thursday night’s competitive ball hockey league or 3-on-3 basketball game can attest to the rush offered by a beautiful goal or game-winning basket. It’s not unlike witnessing a goaltender on your fantasy roster pick up a well-deserved shutout.

However, the poolies walking the halls of UVic aren’t just playing guessing games. Like high-stakes poker and blackjack, fantasy sports require analytical skill. Thankfully, there’s help. For starters, all online fantasy sports websites deploy an army of writers to keep up to date on the sporting world; analysts are paid quite handsomely to publish these coveted findings. However, these suited spectators aren’t soothsayers, a reality that has doomed countless well-drafted teams. Important sources include team sites, extensive fantasy guides and the colourful worlds of Sportsnet Connected and SportsCentre. For me, as someone who was raised on Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday night—putting five bucks into a fantasy pool is worth sacrificing the footlong sub that would’ve otherwise been purchased.

Of the many different formats in fantasy sports, three dominate. One is the head-to-head style used in the Garrison Cup, in which competitors are matched up against one another each week. This injects a refined brand of personality into proceedings, as each match up necessitates a healthy dose of the trash talking and conflict that you’ll find in real sports. Then, there are points-based competitions, which emulate the standings model used in professional soccer, in which each statistic has a points value. At season’s end, the team at the top of the table takes home the gold. Finally, there’s the rotisserie structure. In this format, most popular among baseball enthusiasts, the objective is to score the most in any given number of categories. Winning RBIs, for example, would garner 10 points, while having the third-most home runs would award six. It really doesn’t matter which variation is used; assuming that each player is in it to win it, the natural impulse of animalistic competition will take care of the rest.

After successfully repelling my friend’s twisted manoeuvre to use a fake breakup as competitive leverage, I found myself in the finals. Since our league’s format had us face off against one another in weekly head-to-head matchups, the seven days that followed introduced to me a blend of excitement and stress that I didn’t know existed. There were 10 columns, one for each of us, measuring statistics including goals and points. For me to win, my players would have to ensure that more than half the columns bore the name “ThunderGunninMachine” (a reference to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) by week’s end.

As Sunday approached, I led in only three of the columns. To my chagrin, the goaltenders I had played boasted less than stellar stats thus far. My chances were slim, and if my name were to be engraved on the Garrison Cup, the stars would have to align. My only hope rested on the well-padded shoulders of Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. The day progressed, and I avoided the online fantasy hub as if my very existence depended on it. The fear of defeat began to grip me.

A few lopsided trades favoured a certain treacherous character (a.k.a. a particularly manipulative league member), and pandemonium erupted in chat rooms and on message boards. The reason: he manipulated another participant into forgoing some quality players with a complimentary Instagram post. He lifted his trading partner’s mood, rendering him more willing to give up better players. The league commissioner was called to veto the trades, but they stood. The sense of betrayal felt around the league was suffocating. Ever since that day, the more devoted league members have kept a watchful eye on the player transactions tab.

Like Ostrovsky’s mother, not everyone shares in this love of fantasy sports. Recent UVic graduate Ben Fast, 22, lost interest in it as his homework intensified. In an email, he noted that the demands of an honours BA in history didn’t allow enough time to update his roster.

“I enjoyed the in-person draft aspect more than anything else,” he explained. “I think fantasy sports are only successful if they can keep your attention throughout the entire season, for the casual fan will not dedicate large chunks of time to regularly reviewing statistics.”

Study-time conflicts aside, the statistical aspect of fantasy sports can better one’s numerical literacy (calculating a goaltender’s goals-against-average is no easy task). Calculating Roberto Luongo’s save percentage is good practice for divvying up utility bills among roommates. Even though DeMar DeRozan’s field-goal percentage won’t surface on any UVic exam, the calculations used in determining that answer could transfer into the academic realm. A recent study assessing how fantasy sports knowledge can aid students found that “75 per cent of the teachers agreed that students understood math concepts more when they used fantasy sports.”

Many educational programs, including Fantasy Sports and Mathematics, combine fantasy sports with math concepts to provide elementary and high school students real-life statistical examples. Students are given the autonomy to draft and groom their own roster, both individually and as part of a team—two radically different processes that are designed to develop valuable attributes in middle schoolers. Blending education into the rampantly popularizing world of fantasy sports has demonstrated benefits to the development of time management, asset valuation, and communication skills.

Besides the educational advantages, the pastime offers an intersection between the rock ’n’ roll lifestyles of the millionaire athletes we fawn over and the manufactured realities that technology continues to develop both online and in video games. Granted, those who remain skeptical about this man-child infused betting game can successfully avoid participating with relative ease, but the medium continues to gain momentum, a predicament that has begun to affect the working world. As UVic students celebrate the end of another semester, those enjoying classroom success should note that career prosperity depends on much more than a finely tuned GPA. In fact, the term “it’s all about who you know” is true. Memorizing Tom Brady’s stat-line might just seal that internship, if the hiring manager is also a Patriots fan.

When I could avoid the game no longer, I tuned into TSN and found that Bobrovsky, my goalie, had recorded a shutout. I rushed to my MacBook, my face like an expectant mother in her 16th hour of labour. The fantasy gods had favoured me on this day. The stat-line for the goaltender’s goals-against-average (which tracks the percentage of saves a goalie makes for every shot they face) was tied, but my name remained in bold. I had won the category, and thus the Cup, by one-thirteenth of a save. To commemorate this good fortune, I’ve cut out one-thirteenth of a puck.