Fantasy football (less commonly referred to as fantasy association football worldwide but known as fantasy soccer in the United States and Canada) is a game in which participants assemble an imaginary team of real life footballers and score points based on those players’ actual statistical performance or their perceived contribution on the field of play. Usually players are selected from one specific division in a particular country, although there are many variations. The original game was created in England by Bernie Donnelly on Saturday 14 August 1971 and is still going strong 45 years later. Fantasy football has evolved in recent years from a simple recreational activity into a significant business due to exposure via the internet.
An emerging variant is club-based fantasy football in which participants select players from within their own club. Participating clubs typically have more than one football team and adopt club fantasy football to increase communication and banter between teams. Some clubs charge a nominal amount for players to enter a team and either use the proceeds as a fundraiser or to fund the fantasy league prizes. Club fantasy football leagues tend to be less sophisticated than the national variety since most clubs run them on a spreadsheet. Niche sports websites now offer online versions with both paid and free versions available.
Most fantasy football leagues, especially those run by national newspapers, ask participants to select 11 players within a price budget. There is usually a restriction on the number of players per club; a typical selection would be to select 1 goalkeeper, 4 defenders, 4 or 3 midfielders and 2 or 3 forwards. Some games are squad-based, where participants choose not just a first eleven but also a set of substitutes. Normally you can only use max 3 players of one team.
In smaller leagues played by a small group of people, players are bought by bidding between the rival managers rather than for a set amount of money. This means a particular player can only play for one team, and thus any points he accrues are credited to that team only. Typically, most leagues offer the chance to transfer players in and out of the team as the season progresses, in case of injury, suspension or loss of form.
Points are then gained or deducted depending on players’ performances. Points systems vary between games, but points are typically awarded for some or all of the following achievements:
- Playing in a match (or part of a match e.g. at least 60 minutes)
- Scoring a goal
- Earning an assist (the pass or touch leading to the goal)
- Keeping a clean sheet (goalkeepers, midfielders, and defenders only)
- Saving a penalty (goalkeeper only)
- Goalkeeper saves three shots or more
- Win for the player’s team
As well as the above, points can be deducted for some or all of the following:
- Conceding a goal (goalkeepers and defenders only)
- Receiving a yellow or red card
- Missing a penalty kick
- Scoring an own goal
- Getting substituted
- Loss for the player’s team
The number of points each achievement or offense is credited with varies between different games. For example, in the Daily Telegraph league, three points are awarded for an assist, and five for a goal. Due to the emphasis placed on assists and goal-scoring, the value of players can differ greatly from real-life football, both in terms of individuals and position. For example, Claude Makélélé, a world-class central midfield player, was rarely considered a valuable player in fantasy football because he was not an attacking player, as evidenced by three league goals in eight years at Real Madrid and Chelsea, and none in 71 appearances for the French national team.
For this reason, some fantasy football games changed their scoring system to put a greater emphasis on real player performance instead of emphasizing goals and assists. For instance, the game KAISER uses player scores gained by computer analyses based on dozens of different criteria. These scores are supplied by the data provider OPTA.
The game Oulala Fantasy Football uses a sophisticated scoring system. With 70 different points scoring criteria, which includes a matrix of any action that a player can perform, the criteria of 70 rises to a total of 275 dependent on each player’s position on the field. Detailed actions include corners won, shots on/off target, successful dribbles and provoking an offside as well as many more others. These stats are sourced from Opta Sports and update in real time. Oulala ceased to exist in 2018.
Public vs private leagues
Most fantasy football games provide a choice of joining either private or public leagues. Public leagues are open to everybody and mostly there are leagues for each club or leagues for each country. League members then compete against each other and in some cases there is cash prizes for winning those leagues. Private leagues let the manager play with their friends only. Some games combine this with having unique teams in the leagues. This means that every Premier League player exists only once. As a result, there is a lot of activity on the transfer market where players are exchanged in between the community members.
At the start of the season, fantasy football leagues can be set up in various ways. For leagues with unique teams, i.e. leagues where every player exists only once, there are at least two different starter options. Option 1 is a player auction. Every player is auctioned and the manager of a community needs to bid for the players. Managers have a certain budget for the auction. Option 2 is a player draft. Each manager is allocated a certain number of players.
For leagues without unique teams, i.e. every manager can own every player if he has sufficient funding, there is usually neither a draft nor an auction but managers can pick their players until they have used up their budget.
Various fantasy football games with unique teams offer the option of a player auction. At the beginning of the season, players are put on a transfer market and manager can bid for them. Some games even continue this auction system during the season (e.g. kaiser.co.uk). Kaiser also offers the opportunity to take the league to the next season. In this case new leagues can be started throughout the season without making it less interesting.
The draft is an option to jump-start a league. This is especially interesting for leagues that are set up during the season. From day one, managers can line up their team for the next match day and trade players with other community members or using the computer. The draft is a common feature for National Football League fantasy football games and the German Bundesliga. More than one Premier League manager game offers a similar feature.