The Meta-Games People PlayNov 16, 2009 · psu · 5 minute read
Stricken by a mean stomach flu, I spent Sunday sprawled on the couch watching football. What I was hoping would be an enjoyable diversion while I was sick on the couch turned into a horrible psychological buzz-kill. First, the Cincinnati Bengals beat up the locally beloved Steelers, sweeping the season series for the first time in more than ten years. Then the Cowboys and the Packers played a mostly uninspired game, with the Cowboys being much more uninspired than the Packers. Finally, my beloved Pats were going up against the Colts in the late game. But more on that later. First, I have to talk about why I spend time watching some games that I have no reason to care about.
My predicament stems from a whimsical decision I made at the beginning of the season. Feeling that it “might be fun” to have a little extra football-based diversion on top of the normal three to six hours of television on Sundays, I convinced myself to join two different games about Football. That is, games you participate in not by playing football, but rather by thinking about the people who are actually playing football.
The first one was the ESPN Pigskin Pick ‘em game, and is fairly straightforward. Every week they tell you the gambling lines on all the games. You pick who will cover the spread or not. You see if you can pick better than Bill Simmons. It turns out that I’m really bad at this. I might as well just check the boxes at random. But, the true humiliation is that just making a pick, and not even betting any money on it, is enough to keep you interested in the Oakland vs. KC score for most of the afternoon, even though no rational human being should care about that game. Oh well.
The second sort of meta-game that I got roped into is Fantasy Football. If you don’t know how this works, go study the wikipedia page. The basic idea is that you “manage” a team. You pick players on the team to “start” or “be on the bench.” Then when those players play in their real game, you get points based on their performance. The scoring systems vary, but you typically get points for yards, touchdowns, and so on. You get negative points for fumbles, interceptions, and so forth. Every week your fake team goes up against your friend’s fake team and whoever gets the most fake points wins. Here are the two intolerable facts that I have learned about Fantasy Football.
1. Week to week it does not matter who you play. You could pick teams completely at random, and your average score would not vary significantly from someone who took this very seriously. I’m convinced of this. I think some outfit like Football Outsiders should do a detailed statistical study of the performance of all the fantasy “analysts” to definitively show that they are no better than coin flips. There probably isn’t even a Fantasy Football equivalent of Warren Buffet who against all odds is able to beat the probabilities and win consistently. Let me be clear: there is no reason to take these games seriously. Your input has no impact on the final results.
2. Even given (1), I lose every week anyway.
Clearly, my participation in these auxiliary football activities has done nothing to increase my enjoyment of the actual contests. Instead, all I do is watch games I don’t care about and then become upset when the wrong team covers, or Kurt Warner goes unconscious and outscores my entire fantasy football team single-handedly. And yet, the brilliant mind control marketing of the NFL will keep my playing these games. I don’t know what’s good for me anymore.
With this background you should be able to understand the depth of my shock and dismay when I say that when the Colts stole a 35-34 win from the Patriots in the last two minutes of the game, I didn’t even think about my fantasy team for a good hour (ironically, my opponent had Peyton Manning, who in winning the game yet again destroyed any hope that I’d win a game). Let’s be clear, this was a failure of Red Soxian proportions. It’s not every day you can blow a 31-14 lead in one quarter.
Today the Patriots Media are up in arms about “the call” on 4th and 2, but the truth is that the game was lost long before that call. Before that call, Peyton had been able to get the ball and march down the field so fast and so effectively it was like he was playing Madden 10 and he knew the money plays. So, bitch about the call all you want, but the most mortifying thing about this loss is how well it illustrates the complete psychological collapse of the Patriots fan over the last couple of years. Beaten down by the 2006 AFC Championship game (lost a 21-3 leads to lose… to the Colts) and the Helmet Catch, here is what we are thinking when up 34-21 with four minutes left against Peyton Manning: 13 points is not enough.
The entire last four minutes of this game all I could do was think back to when Peyton had shredded the Dolphins in exactly this way earlier in the year, and I knew that we were the new Dolphins. This state of mind is bothersome. The Pats have been the one sure thing in Boston Sports for the better part of this decade. But we might have to face the fact that the run is coming to an end… or at least that it is a bit past its peak.
So, that’s what I brooded over last night after Reggie Wayne caught that last pass. I finally didn’t even care that I had somehow lost my fantasy game by 30 points again. Instead, for once, I wondered how my real team had failed so badly. Then I went to bed too late, my stomach still rumbling with discomfort. Maybe football is bad for me. Meta-football certainly is. Gonna give it up next year.