As much as the Premier League is now a staple of the sporting calendar, so too is Fantasy Football. The concept of challenging your mates to test your knowledge and build the best squad possible is a long standing tradition of any footballing season and has transformed drastically from its small beginnings. Now Fantasy Football, particularly Fantasy Premier League, is a football phenomenon with no signs of slowing down. With over 11 million players worldwide, FPL has developed from a small hobby into a mainstream sensation. There are weekly television shows, blogs, newspaper articles all dedicated to helping fans find the best options to build their team and climb up the table. The game’s popularity and importance to football fans has surged in years gone by, so much so that for some, maximizing points in a gameweek has become more compelling than the success of their clubs. The game continues to grow too, not just here in the UK, but around the world. So how did we get here? How did a football fan’s niche pastime become a global juggernaut?
To understand how far the game has come we have to go back to its inception in the 1990s. Fantasy sporting leagues had existed in the States but the phenomena only reached across the Atlantic when Computer Programmer Andrew Wainstein stumbled across the concept and decided to adapt it to the beautiful game. Inspired by his love of football and fondness for statistics he compiled a database of top flight players in 1991. He then established a suitable, easy to understand scoring system. Points would be awarded for clean sheets, assists, goals, all of which are fundamental aspects of the game we enjoy today. After the format was created, then came the tricky part. With no internet, it was entirely up to Wainstein to spread word about his new innovation. He placed ads in football magazines to attract prospective players who would then send in their subscriptions in return for information packs detailing how to start their league. As there was no internet access, players from the leagues would be required to meet where they would hold in-person auctions for the players they wanted in their squads. As is the case today, the concept was trying to balance the quality of your squad with a limited budget to see who could come out on top. Without the internet, the organisational nightmare that ensued would be unthinkable today. The leagues would send off their teams to Wainstein, who would then record points, update sides with substitutions and confirm teams before that weekend’s deadlines. He was often inundated with calls and faxes on Friday evenings to make sure everything was in order before kick-offs on Saturday. But it didn’t stop there. With hardly any statistics available, he would have to watch all of the Match of the Day highlights as a means of recording the necessary details to attribute points to players for that week. It would take an inordinate amount of time to update the league tables but regardless the game was a hit.
The inaugural season for the league drew around 700 players but once the concept gained notoriety through BBC Radio 5 shows, the popularity of the game exploded. In 1994, the Telegraph created the first mass market version with help from Wainstein and after the ‘Fantasy Football Show’ presented by Frank Skinner and David Baddiel (the comedians who famously created the ‘Three Lions’ anthem) hit our screens there was no looking back. Thousands started playing and it was estimated that over a third of all Telegraph readers took part at the time. Other newspapers inevitably created their own versions as a means of tapping into the market to stir up further interest. Amidst a surge in popularity Wainstein eventually decided to take the game online in 1996 and little did he know it but that was the moment where the potential for growth became limitless. The online version was so successful, the Premier League itself had to get involved and in the 2002/03 season decided to introduce its own version and is today the most exciting and popular fantasy football league in the world. A lot of people think of Fantasy Football like free bet offers where you can enhance your excitement without paying. Famous celebrities and sportsmen are known to indulge in playing the game, even Premier League players themselves but the game has had to innovate over the course of those 20 years to maintain its intrigue and playability. 38 games is a long time to maintain a team and so the game continues to provide concepts such as the draft format, triple captain, free hits, and bench boosts to halt waning interest as the season goes on. But its core concepts have remained the same and have been the reason for the game’s success over the decades. For die hard football fans it’s the closest they’ll ever get to managing their own team and that fact is why the game thrives and will continue to do so for years to come.