Retrogamer: (Final) Fantasy Sports

Not every morning, but often enough, I wake up at 6 am to run. Often I run with a friend, Luke, but just as often I run by myself. There’s comfort in making my body move, in tracking accomplishments in minutes, miles, and sweat. When Luke and I run around the neighborhood, we chat. Or he chats and I huff and puff and throw words in his direction. He’s in better shape than I, so words come easier to him. But I’m getting there. We talk about writing, as he’s a English professor at a nearby university and a fellow writer of fiction. We talk shop, but also sports and the harmony between fitness and writing, fitness and anything really. Many of our writing peers don’t see the utility in “activity” or what the point in sports is. I get where they’re coming from. But as anyone who’s read this column knows, I have a streak of interest in sports and it bleeds into the gaming.  

In addition to running, I work out. In my basement: free weights, an exercise bike, a heavy bag, a yoga mat, an elliptical. I own baseballs and baseball mitts, soccer balls and hacky sacks. My in-laws bought me a tennis racket but I can’t really swing since my shoulders are (still) jacked up from collegiate swimming. I don’t often get in the pool these days, but another writer-athlete and I got wet only last week to read poetry and then race for charity. She smoked my ass, since this particular poet raced for Rutgers University, a Division 1 school, and is also in crazy ridiculous shape. But winning was never the point. Moving was.

Hemingway might have said, “Only pussies sit at their desk all day.” He didn’t but he might have because he was not PC and that’s a super non-PC way to convey a certain sentiment. What’s the point of living if you’re not living and living actively? At least five days a week, I try to do something, whether it’s a long walk or a game of kickball or dancing. If I don’t move, my body feels coated in sludge.

This is a problem, because many of my interests are sedentary. Writing. Chess. Movies. Reading. Video games. Especially video games. But we’ll get back to that.

The good news about  staying active is that, in addition to the physical benefits (incidentally, I’ve lost 35 lbs in the last 4 months), it’s also social. I have my aforementioned  running buddy and friends who come over and lift with me; Leigh does yoga alongside me; I have dance partners to swing dance with or go to 80s nights at shitty coke bars in the heart of Baltimore; a friend and I have bi-monthly pickup kickball games. And of course, I have people to play softball (never baseball these days) or soccer or sometimes touch football. Hours of activity with fellow 30-somethings and then we often retire to a bar or restaurant, sometimes to a friend’s porch for day drinking.

It’s community. It’s communion. There’s not much else like sitting around in an afterglow of muscle burn, the endorphins shooting through veins like electric butter, bullshitting with friends about whatever the hell we’re talking about. The content doesn’t matter. It’s the context. It’s a connection I’ve always been into, since Little League and my early swimming days. For a weird, introverted nerd like me, being able to smash a home run or eke out a win in the 200 free, well, it’s a way I’ve been able to sneak into another world.

Of course, being able to play sports doesn’t necessarily translate to navigating daily life. Because outside of athletes, bench presses and racing starts don’t get one far in conversation. And if there’s one thing I’m still bad at, probably always will be, it’s meaningless chit chat.

In other words, I find it challenging: working in an office, talking to a friend’s spouse, even being out and about, you run into these situations all the time. And how do I relate to a person I have nothing to talk about with? Most times, we can retreat to sports.

But not the act of playing sports. I live in Baltimore with the Orioles and the Ravens. I’m close to DC and Philly and New York, with a dozen other professional teams, maybe more. And if there’s one thing people around here like, it’s talking about their team doing this and that and the other.

But the problem, again, is that I don’t care about other people sports. To paraphrase pop culture writer Chuck Klosterman about his dichotomous feelings for the Boston Celtics as a child and as an adult, “The coaches are different, the players are different, the colors are different. The only thing the same is the flooring. I’m not rooting for flooring.” Yeah, I abstractly like the Orioles, but I know the players don’t care about me, the owners are in it for money, it’s all ra-ra nonsense. And talking about football is even more problematic.

Professional sports culture is kind of wack. Many professional athletes seem like one-dimensional creatures who ball so hard, but fail at the rest of life. Sure, there are exceptions like this dude who is a genius or like this dude who understands business and politics and being a movie star, but mastering a sport requires the forfeiture of being well-rounded. Exceptions stick out.

And the correlation of athletes to sociopathy, well. When winning is the only thing that matters, allowances are made for lapses in character. And even when they’re not bad people out raping and murdering and upper-cutting their wives, hyper-competitiveness comes out in weird ways, like Michael Jordan’s alleged gambling problem. And MJ seems like an OK dude. Let’s not chat about Pete Rose, eh?

In other words, athletes are weird people to root for. And besides them, there’s an industry set up to exploit them. The NFL has known about the Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (aka: how multiple concussions is awful) for a long time and has resisted efforts to minimize damage to players until only recently. And the efforts of universities to make millions off of college athletes while keeping them indentured servants, i.e. making it “illegal” for them to make money. There are many examples, but to keep it simple: the sports are weird, the players are weird. It’s all strange. So yeah, I like to play sports, but watching it? Caring about individuals who comprise a team? I don’t know about that.

That cognitive dissonance between liking sports and talking about collegiate/professional sports creates a barrier for me. And even though talking about sports would create an easy passage to chit-chat, how could I get over the hump? The answer proved to be video games: fantasy sports.

Since I couldn’t actually get into the players or the idea of liking sports, I snuck into the back door of it: fantasy sports, years and years after the rest of the world started playing. The first fantasy baseball team started around 1980. I knew people in college playing fantasy basketball. Leigh’s fantasy football team, the Illegal Eagles, won her family’s league in 1994. It’s been around, this video game for people who don’t play video games.

And, in 2013, despite my reservations, I decided it was time for me to give it a shot. Better late to this party than never, I suppose. I came to the party, not because I was super into the idea of playing a fantasy game, but because I wanted a shortcut to everyday office chit chat. I wanted to be able to connect with people I don’t know how to connect with. And I like video games and stats. It seemed like a win-win.

The thing is, it was a win-win. I started a football league and recruited a few colleagues, most of whom had never played fantasy. And we all got into it, started talking about our favorite players, teams we discovered that we liked, even the numbers game. And for me, I started envisioning my fantasy team in RPG terms.

See, in fantasy sports (let’s just focus on football), one has to recruit a bunch of players. The running back (RB) is handed the football and then, you know, runs with it. A fantasy team needs two of these. The wide receiver (WR) catches the football from far out; a fantasy team also needs two of those. The tight end (TE) is kind of like a wide receiver in that they also catch the ball and go with it, but they’re bigger and slower and are also used defensively (though that doesn’t play into the fantasy aspect), consequently they receive less points than the WR and most leagues only require one. Only one kicker (K) and defense (D) are required and they don’t have clever names: they do just what they say, kick the ball and defend against it, respectively. Finally, the quarterback (QB) leads the team and gets all the points. Only one required.

A team, once recruited, looks something like this:

To bring it home, an RPG party, once recruited, might look something like this:

Or this:

Of course, the metaphor breaks down the deeper one digs. But to me, the connection is clear. The focus on stats, the recruitment of characters and management, playing the rock-paper-scissors game (Tifa is a physical fighter and effective against mages; Colin Kaepernick is a mobile quarterback and the Rams are weak against running quarterbacks). It’s all interconnected and one skill informs the other.

I’m good at looking at lists of available players in the “free agent” pool (those are characters anyone can recruit, they’re often generic) and identifying ones with outlying stats. Making sure all my slots are full or, if needed empty, comes easy to me, considering I’ve spent countless hours playing strategy games and doing the same thing. Marrying strategy and stats with video games: the obviously natural progression in my life.

As a child and teenager and college student, I split my time evenly between introverted activities and sports. The sports kids never understood what the hell I talked about half the time, but they accepted my minimal talents. And conversely, my nerd-friends with whom I did theater, played Magic the Gathering, and video-gamed out couldn’t grasp why I would want to run around with jocks and get sweaty and nasty. The two worlds never converged.

Fantasy sports are many things–lame, nerdy, pointless maybe, culturally problematic certainly–but they also marry two obsessions of mine, and I took to it with more gusto than I expected. I wound up winning my first league and starting another. Now I run a friends-league that’s been going on for a couple years now. And I recently launched a friends-league for baseball. I’m in the midst of the season now and while it hasn’t dug into my need for physical activity, it has cut into my video game time.

I mean, I’m playing already one daily video game (162 games in baseball, kids). It’s okay that I don’t have enough room for more. I’m playing with friends and family, I’m able to talk knowledgeably about teams in other cities and states to whomever I need to. The experiment worked, even if the experiment makes me feel a little icky when I think about the larger picture.  

And watching my team of baseballers compete and perform excellence on the field has reawakened my own desire to be physically active. Working out daily, running, came after fantasy sports, not before. It’s all connected.

I like manipulating my teams (I Wanna S(c)hoop and Darren’s Autograph, respectively) and adding to the roster based on whoever’s hitting the hardest or hits a weakness. And, much like a baseball utility player or a solid FLEX play in football, my fantasy video games are checking multiple boxes. I’m reading more, hanging with friends more, working on my novel, spending less time by myself in front of a television.

Of course, in the long run, I’m not sure if it’s sustainable. I don’t know if I can really wrap my head around sports fandom. I don’t know if I can latently prop up inequitable systems like the NFL and MLB. In the short-term, I can will away my scruples. In the long?

For now, I can chat with my friend’s husband or the rando at the airport about things I kind of care about. I’m able to have content-based debates at work about Odell Beckham Jr. and Colin Kaepernick (both of whom I support, for the record). And simply paying attention to sports and seeing athletes run and jump, physical exemplars, it inspires me to keep fit and active. Even if there’s cognitive dissonance with the whole experience, there’s nothing complicated about my own health. I’ve lost thirty-five pounds since I’ve begun the latest season of fantasy sports. I’m running faster, breathing better, and feeling more alive than in a long time.

Maybe there’s something good about the whole thing.