The Wider World of Sports: Competitive Fandom as Participatory Culture

Erica Halverson, Rich Halverson

In 2006, the New York Times reported that fifteen million people spend $15 billion annually playing fantasy sports games. Fantasy sports as a game type have emerged as a result of the cultural convergence described by Jenkins (2006), the place “where old and new media collide.” Sports fanatics have been accumulating professional players’ statistical information and competing with other fans to see who could choose players with the best statistics over the course of the season since the 1980s (New York Times, August 20, 1984). As technology has offloaded the storage and organization of large bodies of statistical information into automated processes, players no longer need to sit for hours on a Sunday poring over newspaper box scores to figure out which member of their league had acquired the most points over the course of a single week. Rather, players can spend their time strategizing and acquiring knowledge about baseball players and team management instead of performing basic statistical calculation. This has opened up fantasy baseball (and fantasy sports in general) to a broader population of players that crosses gender, age, and educational background.

We are currently studying fantasy baseball game play as representative of a convergent game type we call competitive fandom. Competitive fandom describes participation in fantasy sports play that is rooted in what we know about fan culture (Black, 2006; Ito, to appear; Jenkins, 2006; Lemke, 2004) and what we know about gaming communities (e.g., Gee, 2003; Squire, 2007; Steinkuehler, 2006; Steinkuehler & Williams, 2006). We argue that fantasy sports represents game play that is nested within the construct of a fan community. We adopt Mimi Ito’s (to appear) characterization of Japanese media mixes as:

  • A convergence of old and new media
  • Involving production through personalization and/or remix
  • Representing a unique genre of participation she terms “hypersociality”

In this session, we will present our initial study of three fantasy baseball leagues as we attempt to bring fantasy sports games into the dialogue around fan culture and gaming communities. In this work we will:

  • Characterize the complex game play practices that comprise fantasy baseball, emphasizing subtle rule structures that drastically alter how the game is played

  • Construct the dimensions of “competitiveness” and “fandom” as different features of participation in fantasy baseball play that together constitute expert practice

  • Document expert game play strategies and discuss how experts build analogies to other complex risk assessment practices

  • Document novice learner trajectories for several newbie fantasy baseball players

  • Build a picture of how individual fantasy baseball league communities are built over time

  • Move toward building quantitative models of individual expert strategies and test whether these strategies result in improved in-game performance over time

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