Using statistics to re-engage with reality. What can we learn from fantasy league participation?

I’ve played basketball since I was in the fourth grade. When I was in high school I played on my provincial team, and for a good part of the year I was playing at least five times a week. I’ve loved the sport for a long time and it was a huge part of my life growing up so it might seem sort of funny that I never really followed the NBA. Looking back on it now I think it probably had something to do with me not being able to entirely relate to the game those guys are playing. They can do things collectively and individually that I couldn’t even try to replicate on the court. The NBA basketball seemed almost entirely different from my basketball. I wouldn’t call myself the league’s biggest fan, but numbers and statistics helped me relate to the NBA and the game in an entirely different way. A few years ago I joined a fantasy basketball league with my friends and it changed my relationship to the sport.

I joined because my friends were short a person and I knew the game, but I didn’t have very high expectations for how much fun I would have. And I still didn’t really watch the games during the season. I even had a couple of players on my team whose pictures I’d never seen. All I knew about them was the information covered in the stats. And maybe an online article or two on how their game was looking or whether or not they were healthy.  I like winning, so I got pretty into the league and I had a good time trying to read the numbers and figure out what to do.

To me though the interesting part of this experience was after the regular season finished and our league ended. I ended up watching some of the playoffs and I couldn’t get enough of it. Even if I knew just a little bit about a player’s stats from the regular season I was way more interested in what they were doing and what it meant. Knowing about the stats behind some of the players made the experience of watching NBA basketball games so much more real for me.

Maybe having the NBA come alive for a person isn’t the most important thing, but I do think my experience points to a few fairly topical issues. One is the social phenomenon that is fantasy leagues. They’re so popular! Enough people are engaging in these extra-real, or maybe sort of pseudo imaginary, worlds, which are almost entirely mediated by statistics and numbers, to make me think fantasy league participation is an interesting thing to pay attention to.

In other words, fantasy leagues are interesting because they foster participation in a fantasy world in a way that makes it possible for the real world to mean more. And they do it using statistics. Paying serious attention to fantasy league participation might tell us some pretty interesting stuff about how people engage with their world, and it might offer some potential avenues for trying to inspire engagement with a particular topic.  


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