As with most movements in popular culture, I came a little late to fantasy sports. I didn’t relent to the draw of fantasy basketball until a friend of my insisted that I join a league just prior to this NBA season. Within a few short days of my first fantasy draft I had joined a total of seven leagues. The appeal of fantasy sports is obvious: Collect a group of players that you like for one reason or another, assign point values to most things that said players do over the course of a game, tally points and compare your group to other groups. The epitome of sport neatly packaged for consumption by even the most casual of fans.
Ironically, however, fantasy basketball has completely changed how I view the game. In years past, I had one choice team usually favored due to geographic proximity. I then had one or two second tier teams that were fun to watch, though did not fall victim to the insufferable quality of winning too often (i.e., modern day Lakers, 90’s era Bulls). This year, those teams were to be the Charlotte Bobcats, the New York Knicks, and the Washington Wizards. All three teams would be vying for a low seed in the playoffs (meaning most regular season games should count for something). All three teams had a healthy mix on intriguing young talent and veteran stars. All three teams were facing significant questions after offseason changes. How does D.J. handle being a starter? How do Felton and Amar’e pair together? Will a backcourt with Gilbert and Wall work? Regardless of the answers, each team is fun to watch.
Something changed when my fantasy teams entered the picture. My fandom had limited me to following a maximum of three teams in the past. Fantasy basketball, however, has now expanded the scope of my basketball consumption exponentially. I’d never been so impressed with what Monta Ellis can do with a basketball until I picked him up on one of my teams. I’d always watched Joakim Noah’s awkward yet enthusiastic game with a bit of a yawn until he became one of my team’s top scorers (in terms of fantasy points). I never realized how much I under-appreciated D.J. Augustin until I failed to pick him up on waivers after he went undrafted.
I imagine the above reaction is fairly common, yet my transformation goes deeper than merely waking up to players on teams that I don’t generally follow. My investment in seeing any one team win or lose has diminished considerably. Competitive interests haven’t been completely wiped away. They’ve partially shifted to the management of my fantasy teams (teams over which I have direct influence versus real teams; where agency simply does not exist for the fan). The portion of competitive fandom that has been lost, however, has been replaced with a liberated view of the game. I’ve never watched a basketball game with such a purely aesthetic appreciation. The old archetype where one team should win (the good guys) and one team should lose (the bad guys) seems less important now. The morality play that sport previously represented is fast becoming an interest in sport simply for the sake of sport.
This isn’t exactly a new idea. Contributors from freedarko.com have written about "liberated fandom" for years (again, I’m late to the game). Further, I don’t mean to suggest that I’m completely uninterested in the relative well being of the Bobcats. I hope for the playoffs this year and championships in the future. I just mean to say that this goal seems less important as I grow as a fan.