Discussing Mental Health within Fantasy Football
“Load of rubbish imo. Fantasy football and mental health shouldn't be in the same sentence. Is that how things are now, where mental health needs to be mentioned everywhere?”
Back in March of this year, I led a research project that aimed to be the first of its kind to explore the impact that fantasy football may have on our mental health. We were fortunate enough that FantasyFootballScout advertised our work, leading to almost 2,000 fantasy football players from all over the world taking part in the questionnaire-based study. The above quote is from the comments section for that advertisement article – and I think it nicely summarises why I believe this work – and this topic in general – is so important.
The logic behind the above individual’s sentiment was that there are more important things that should be studied with regards to mental health, and that applying it to fantasy football downplayed “more serious” issues that people may experience. Of course, the list of life events that can cause significant distress and negatively impact someone’s mental wellbeing is long; divorce, bereavement, financial worries, ill health, are just a few such examples. But research is not a zero sum game. One person studying one thing does not stop another person studying another. Or as one of the responses to this comment nicely stated: “Studying this in no way diminishes whatever you are referring to as the serious mental issues. Just like studying paper cuts doesn't diminish (the) research or seriousness of cancer”.
Mental health is a deeply personal experience. It is unique to you and nobody else can truly appreciate it, no matter how hard they wish to empathise. What affects one person may not affect another and understanding that is an important step in helping reduce the stigma that still exists towards mental health.
For sure, fantasy football is supposed to be “just a game”. But we get upset, angry, and anxious about “games” all the time. I remember throwing a SNES controller on the floor because I couldn’t get past the boss in the original Super Mario Bros. And rage quitting on Champ Man 01/02 because try as I might, I could never turn Villa into a dominant European force. And don’t even get me started on the ProEvo 6 tournaments that my friends and I played back in college – many a strong word was said when Adriano inexplicably rifled one in from 40 yards.
The research study that we carried out came about because I was seeing the fantasy football versions of these scenarios play out on Twitter at a growing rate. Initially it was just one or two tweets from time to time, with players complaining about their bad luck or rueing others’ good fortune. Then (and it is likely that this was my increasing awareness as much as an actual upward trend), it would be once or twice a week. Then four or five times a week. And it seemed to be getting more intense too. Long, caps-locked rants about how people were “done with this game” and that it was ruining their weekend. Yes, this was a game, but people were definitely experiencing strong, negative emotions towards it.
We looked to see if there had been any research exploring this area. There hadn’t. So we did what any fantasy football-loving academics would do, and we decided to study it ourselves. Without boring you with the specifics of the methodology, we essentially took various existing questionnaires from the world of psychology and asked participants to respond to them within the context of fantasy football. This led to us obtaining data on anxiety, low mood, functional impairment, problematic behaviour, and multidimensional emotions (definitions of these can be found at the foot of this article). We then also asked a variety of questions to gauge fantasy football behaviour and engagement. For instance, how long (in seasons) the individual had been playing the game, how many leagues they were currently involved in, and how long they spent per day on average playing/researching/thinking about the game*.
*This last question was, admittedly, not the easiest to answer. We are, as humans, notoriously poor at self-reporting our own behaviour, particularly for an activity that varies depending on the day/week/month of the year.
With the help of FantasyFootballScout, Fantrax, and many of the wonderful individuals within the fantasy football Twitter-sphere, we were able to share the questionnaire such that 1,995 players from 96 (!!) different countries completed it. It was an incredible response and one that I think speaks volumes of the community that has been created around the game.
In discussing our results, we will start by detailing some of the main statistics.
80% of players experienced no anxiety towards the game. Of the remaining 20%, the majority were classified as having “mild” anxiety, with only 3% classified as having moderate or severe anxiety towards the game.
75% of players experienced no low mood towards the game. Of the remaining 25%, the majority were classified as having “mild” low mood, with only 2% classified as having moderate-severe or severe low mood towards the game.
86% of players experienced no functional impairment as a result of the game. 11% were classified as having a significant functional impairment, and 3% as a moderately severe or worse functional impairment due to the game.
83% of players were classified as having no problematic behaviour towards the game. The most common problematic behaviours that were experienced were preoccupation (e.g., being unable to keep your mind from fantasy football) and immersion (e.g., disassociating your awareness from the physical world).
These numbers are, by and large, a positive reflection on the game of fantasy football. The majority of players experience no mental health concerns, and this makes sense both intuitively and when we look at research carried out in a related field such as that of video games. Not only will fantasy football, for most people, not lead to negative feelings such as anxiety and low mood, but it may also have several beneficial effects. We are currently in the middle of an interview-based study that allows us to dig deeper into the emotional experiences of fantasy football players and many often speak of how the game offers an escapism from real life, allows them to maintain existing friendships (or create new ones), provides a routine to their week, or helps them to learn more about the sport itself. In short, there are a lot of positives to the game, and this is reflected in the majority of individuals.
It is important, however, that we still consider the minority – the 20-25% of players who do experience mild anxiety or low mood towards the game. Whilst only 3% of participants were classified as having moderate or severe anxiety towards fantasy football, in a sample of almost 2,000 individuals, this still equates to nearly 60 people. In a game likely played by at least 10 million people worldwide, that could be 300,000 people experiencing moderate or severe anxiety due to fantasy football. And these numbers, unfortunately, get worse when we take a look at the second step in our data analysis.
From the questionnaire we were able to categorise players in terms of their fantasy football experience and fantasy football engagement. These categorisations can be seen in the table below. (Note: “playing” refers to time spent on the official app or website of the fantasy football game; “researching” refers to any activity undertaken with the primary aim of improving fantasy football performance (e.g., listening to a podcast, browsing online resources). Participants were asked to estimate an average, thus hopefully factoring in the fact that the number will likely be higher at the weekend and lower during the week).
There were “significant” differences (a term we use when the data has been analysed by statistical testing methods) in almost all mental health measures when comparing fantasy football players of different experiences and engagement levels. Specifically…
Those with high engagement had highest (“worst”) scores for low mood, anxiety, functional impairment, and problematic behaviour towards fantasy football.
Those with low engagement had lowest (“best”) scores for low mood, anxiety, functional impairment, and problematic behaviour towards fantasy football.
44% of high engagement players were classified as having at least some low mood towards fantasy football compared to just 10% of low engagement players.
34% of high engagement players were classified as having at least mild anxiety towards fantasy football compared to just 9% of low engagement players.
Those with low experience had highest (“worst”) scores for low mood and anxiety towards fantasy football.
Those with high experience had lowest (“best”) scores for low mood and anxiety towards fantasy football.
So what we are seeing is that the more you engage with fantasy football, the greater the concerns towards your mental health, BUT…the more experienced you are in the game, the fewer the mental health concerns. The first half of this is, again, logical. Engagement reflects investment, which generally indicates importance. When something is important to us, we are going to experience more intense emotions towards it. Fantasy football is a game that is almost impossible to win. In the traditional format, you are essentially competing to be number 1 from over 7 million participants. And in the draft and/or head-to-head format, whilst it may be easier to finish on top spot, it is unlikely that you will do so by winning every game. And even if you do win far more often than you lose, it does not mean that the feelings of low mood and anxiety are non-existent at some point during each gameweek.
The second part, though, may be slightly more surprising. Increases in fantasy football experience were a good thing for your mental health. Why this is the case is, as yet, unknown. It may be that people who experience too many anxieties and low mood towards fantasy football tend to quit playing in the long run, leaving only those with fewer mental health concerns (“survivorship bias”). Alternatively, it may be that continued playing of the game develops (perhaps naturally, perhaps deliberately) coping mechanisms that reduce the potential negative emotions. Finally, it could also be that the impact of fantasy football is transient, and that the emotional novelty simply “wears off” over time. These are all ideas that we aim to investigate in the future.
If you are reading this article, then the chances are that you are someone with at least a moderate-to-high engagement in fantasy football (don’t worry – I am too!). So the question, then, is what can we take from these findings and how can we apply it to our lives? Here are a three of my thoughts…
1. Increase awareness. Try to become more aware of the time that you are dedicating to fantasy football. If you are winning games, this time isn’t a bad thing (we actually have data that shows high engagement also leads to greater positive emotions experienced, though that work is yet to be published). But every fantasy team is just one long-term injury, slice of bad luck, or dip in form of star player away from losing, and when that happens, the high engagement can turn negative.
Most smart phones now have functions which record the time spent on certain apps. Whilst this is far from being an ideal indicator of the time spent playing the game, it may at least give you a figure that you can track over time to see any changes that are occurring.
2. Impose limits. If you believe that you may be spending too much time on fantasy football, try to impose limits on yourself. This isn’t easy, of course, but even self-imposed limits that are broken 50% of the time are better than no self-imposed limits at all. Restricting yourself to 2 hours of research on Saturday, 2 hours on Sunday, an hour of gameweek prep on Monday, and an hour of the Key Pass Collective podcast on Thursday would still keep you below that “high engagement” threshold.
Again, many smart phones now enable you to impose a time limit on your apps, so this could perhaps be a useful approach for some.
3. Embrace then forget. A little tip that many sport psychologists use with athletes – and which the legendary golfer Tiger Woods is reported to use himself – is the idea of allocating yourself time to embrace the negatives. For Tiger, he would let his rumination last for 10 steps. Once he took that 11th step, the bad shot was forgotten, and the focus was on the next shot. (I actually prefer this scene from the even more legendary TV Series, Lost, which essentially demonstrates the same technique).
Perhaps you’re having a bad gameweek. Nothing’s gone right and the frustration, annoyance, and worries (albeit mild perhaps) are on the verge of surfacing. Let them. Allow them in but give them a curfew. You can embrace the negativity, but as soon as the clock turns to 7pm, it’s kicking out time.
Hopefully you won’t need to use these. Hopefully you are part of the majority that still experience no mental health concerns even though they are in the high engagement groups. But it can’t hurt to know these sorts of strategies. One person on Twitter recently DM’d me saying that they appreciated the work that was being done on mental health in fantasy football, not because they themselves had experienced anything negative, but because they knew a few people that had. It’s likely we all know someone too. Given those statistics reported earlier, even in a league of low engagement managers, the chances are that one of them will be experiencing mild mental health concerns. Whatever we can do to help these individuals experience the many positives that fantasy football brings, we should do. Mental health research is not a zero sum game.
On behalf of the research team behind this project, I would like to offer my endless thanks to everyone who took part in, and helped advertise, this work. The fantasy football community is, for the most part, an incredible one – there are not many groups of people who give up their time and energy to help others without receiving anything in return, like many of these do. We believe that this topic is one that is not only important but is growing in significance every day. As such we are continuing to carry out research in the area and have numerous projects ongoing or in development. If you would like to be involved in any of these, or would simply like to chat about the work being done, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you again – we really do appreciate the support we’ve received and continue to receive.
If you wish to read the published research article in full, please follow the link to the Human Behaviors and Emerging Technologies journal here. The research was also discussed on the Key Pass Collective podcast, which can be accessed here.
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