FANTASY FOOTBALL: THE GAME’S ORIGIN AND ITS JOURNEY TO IMMENSE POPULARITY WORLDWIDE

Fantasy sports are played by millions of people worldwide. Of all the games, fantasy football is the most popular globally. Have you ever wondered who invented it and when and how? Here you will get to know all about that. I’m sure you will be amazed at this saga.

When I had the first thought of fantasy football and its invention, I had a picture of 4-5 guys in their mid-forties sitting in a garage and brainstorming creating some fantasy sports. So, let’s see how reality was different from my imagination. There were three people sitting in a hotel room in New York. It was called Manhattan Hotel. Of these three people, the most important was Wilfred “Bill” Winkenbach. He was a businessman from Oakland, California. In 1962, he was sitting with his colleagues and thinking about making football more interesting and more popular. He was more interested in making his team Oakland Raiders more successful as the team had managed to win only three games out of all the seasons played between 1961 and 1962. Winkenbach had already developed a game around fantasy golf and wanted to do something similar for football. The idea of fantasy golf was to create a fantasy team of golfers. At the end of every tournament, they used to check their scores and the player who scored the highest would win the game.

So, these three people were awake all night in that hotel room brainstorming ideas of fantasy sports, golf, players, football and Oakland Raiders.

Winkenbach came back to the Bay area to start the first fantasy football league in 1963, named Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League, or GOPPPL in short. The first draft of the fantasy football league remained covered for next 6 years as the creators thought that it could be played by only those who had immense knowledge of football. So, football journalists, writers and administrators participated and filled the space with sports spirit and excitement.

The next chapter of fantasy sports began in 1969. Andy Mousalimas, one of the founding members of GOPPL, introduced it at the national level. He launched a fantasy football league at his sports bar, King’s X in Oakland. Within a few days, this game became a sensation in the Greater Bay area and people started crowding the bar. However, this popularity was short-lived as the score was calculated on the basis of actual performance of players, and at that time there were very few means to track the actual score. It was one of the biggest discouraging factors for fantasy sports players. The game was kept alive by a few people and it again started gaining popularity slowly.

After the introduction of fantasy football at the national level, it took the game another 2 decades to become popular internationally. The game that was ideated in one hotel room was refined, new games were introduced, new rules were indexed, and keepers, defenders, and rosters from the opponent team were added. People loved it and more than 10 lakh players started playing the sports. With the advent of technology, fantasy sports really started taking off.

It was in 1997 when the first version of the game was available to play free of cost and nothing could stop it from becoming a hit. It was just the beginning of making this industry a multi-billion industry. Other sports websites and competitors launched similar games. Suddenly, everybody in the US was talking about drafts, fantasy leagues and draft strategy. By September 2006, more than 18 million people were playing fantasy sports and competing with each other. In 2009, the NFL RedZone channel was launched. The channel showed every single update on the actual game so that fantasy sports players did not have to go anywhere else to get the updates on football leagues.

Fanduel, an innovative fantasy sports platform, had some breakthrough launches. Nigel Eccles, the CEO of Fanduel, pointed that the industry lacked innovation. Interacting with the media, he said in an interview that approximately 20 million people played fantasy sports annually and still there was huge scope of innovation. He mentioned that most of the fantasy football leagues required time commitment. When someone started playing, he had to play for the entire season without any break or pauses or holidays. Further, he stated that in the era of social media, instant gratification was what audience looked for. He started working on his idea, and we all are witness to this output, daily the fantasy football league. With the burgeoning innovations in the industry, users could now create a new team any day and win real money. This idea brought more than 10 lakh paid active users on Fanduel by the year 2015. The annual prizes were worth more than a billion dollars. The idea of daily games became the biggest hit and fantasy football sports players could not resist flocking to the game, eventually changing the dimension of this industry.

All the changes, updates and innovations have led us to where we are today. Approximately 80 million people in the US and Canada play this game yearly, and with every year, the number is increasing. We see commercials of existing and new game developers all the time. Hundreds of millions of people spend play fantasy sports and they enjoy every bit of it. Had it not been for Winkenbach and his colleagues who worked out this idea, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy this amazing game. Winkenbach had really great thoughts and he knew it was something special; however, he might not have expected it to go that far. Winkenbach passed away on March 7, 1993, just 6 years before the internet witnessed its first boom. So, when you play a fantasy football league next time, don’t forget to say thanks to Bill Winkenbach, the father of fantasy football.

For more information about the fantasy football league, stay tuned.

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