"Fantasy sports" originated as a baseball management simulation game commonly attributed to sportswriter and editor Daniel Okrent. In the early 1980s, Okrent and friends created and began play within the Rotisserie League Baseball at the La Rotisserie Francaise restaurant on East Fifty-Second Street between Lexington and Third Avenues in Manhattan. Through subsequent commercial publication of the league's yearly competitions, the Rotisserie baseball (roto-baseball) game system proved widely popular and spawned similar game systems based on many other real-world competitions.
The original Rotisserie baseball rules allowed the Okrent group to simulate the activities of major league baseball team owners in the evaluation, purchase, and trade of professional baseball players. Within the game, the projected season performances of major league baseball players were assigned ordinal rankings within eight performance categories; these professional players were then "purchased" by team owners using a limited supply of funds. The owner purchasing those players who scored highest in the game's performance categories at the end of the professional baseball season won the game.
The appeal of this simulation involved both the quantitative analysis of athletic performance and, more innovatively, the social play that took place within a fixed group of ten to twelve owners. Prior to 1980, many games based on the quantification of athletic performances had been available for individual and group play (e.g., Strat-O-Matic Baseball, created by Hal Richman in 1948); Okrent's system, however, was the first widely accepted method of formalizing the related social play within a small group context.
Since the 1980s, the basic mechanics of the Rotisserie baseball system have been adapted to the simulation of other sports, such as fantasy football and fantasy basketball. This related group of simulations is then characterized as "fantasy games." In all such simulations, game players adopt the fantasy role of "owning" the quantitative performances of popular media figures (professional athletes, rock stars, and others) in order to compete and interact within a community of fellow players/owners.
The original Rotisserie baseball game's eight performance categories—batting average, home runs, runs batted in, stolen bases, wins, saves, earned run average, and pitching "ratio" ([hits allowed + walks allowed] / innings pitched)—spurred widespread interest in statistics and the statistical analysis of baseball. Statistical analysis had long been a part of baseball fan discussion, with well-established, fan-related organizations devoted to the topic—such as the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), begun in 1971. However, Rotisserie baseball was instrumental in introducing a great variety of statistical terms and concepts to a broad audience; these terms and concepts have since become an integral part of mass media coverage of the sport.
On-base average, slugging percentage, and other statistics more meaningful and valuable to predicting player performance than the original eight used in Rotisserie baseball were first popularized and promulgated by publications catering directly to fantasy baseball players. Two of the most influential of these publications during the early development of fantasy baseball were the yearly Bill James Baseball Abstract (1982–1988) and the Elias Baseball Analyst (1985–1993); these and similar books, articles, and newsletters supplemented (and often corrected) the more whimsical analyses published annually in Rotisserie League Baseball (Bantam Books), which was written by members and, later, descendants of Okrent's proto-league.
Clearly more compelling—and innovative—than the quantitative precision of the original Rotisserie baseball rules was their dramatic intrigue. The social interactions and play among the owners within Okrent's league provided models for thousands of owners who, like the colorful cast of characters in Rotisserie League Baseball, spent more time on the art of the deal than the science of player evaluation. By reconstituting the intimacy of the relationship between mass media sports figures and their fans, fantasy games such as Rotisserie baseball benefited both producers and consumers of mass media sportsrelated entertainment content.
The social interactions within small groups of fantasy sports players gratified and sustained fan interests by providing a more personalized and active form of participation than any other available to fans of professional sports that were increasingly shaped by media demands, political concessions, and financial concerns. Simultaneously, fantasy sports remained dependent on those professional league competitions they simulated; and, through the use of standardized rules, fantasy sports play both maintained a mass audience and sustained a mass market for the consumption of sports-related products. Each of these outcomes benefited the sports entertainment industries, and, over time, these industries have become increasingly supportive of fantasy sports play. Even peripheral (and seemingly dysfunctional) outcomes of fantasy sports play—such as fan interest being transferred from local teams to individual athletes—are consonant with professional leagues that commonly promote and market star players and performances while reassigning and reconstituting local teams.
The popularity of fantasy games grew rapidly during the 1980s, creating a cottage industry of writers, editors, analysts, and statisticians—most devoted to fantasy baseball. The baseball strike of 1994 put many of the original fantasy game services out of business, and, aided by the increasing commercialization of the Internet, fantasy games have since largely migrated to online, fee-based services. Yahoo! is now the single largest provider of fantasy sports leagues, with more than 5 million registered users during the 2001 baseball season.
In several instances, the small group context so fundamental to the original Rotisserie Baseball rules has been modified by online, commercial versions of fantasy games (such as the online offerings of ESPN, CBS Sportsline, and Fox Sports) that are designed to maximize the number of players/owners participating. Some of these games, which have little or no social interaction among very large numbers of players/owners, are better classified as betting games or, more generically, as games of chance. Similarly, simulation systems that pit only two players/owners—or two player/owner teams—against each other are better classified as either strategy or war games, depending on the mechanics of the simulation involved. Fantasy games as a separate genre of play require both competition among a small group of players/owners and a set of rules guiding their social interactions within the fantasy (simulated) context.
Elias Sport Bureau. The Elias Baseball Analyst. New York: Collier Books. 1985–1993.
James, Bill. The Bill James Baseball Abstract. New York: Ballantine Books. 1982–1988.
Waggoner, Glen, ed. Rotisserie League Baseball. 1st edition. New York: Bantam Books. 1984.
Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Games. 2002. Available from http://fantasysports.yahoo.com.