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How the AFL and News Limited got into videogames (and how they could exploit you if they wanted to)

Fantasy Football

Some interesting analysis of the financial side of videogames came through ABC’s Media Watch (of all places) earlier this week, when the program did a special episode on The Herald Sun, AFL and fantasy football.

Media Watch‘s interest in fantasy football came through the use of the game by two major AFL media outlets—The Herald Sun and the AFL itself—to draw in ancillary income and readership. The analysis (at about 8:20 of the above linked video) is pretty interesting stuff, and given the numbers involved (about 330,000 people play The Herald Sun’s SuperCoach, while 250,000 play Dream Team), it’s worth taking note of. Both games run on the same software, so it’s the scoring and ancillary coverage that differentiates the two (and for the record, I play both).

The catch is this: fantasy football is a game of statistics, and the best statistics are increasingly being moved behind paywalls by the AFL and The Herald Sun. The basic game is free, though players of both games must pay to access predictions about player behaviour, live scores, and a much more detailed database.

This year, some other points are changing—player injuries, suspensions and selections are only visible if you pay extra. On SuperCoach, live scores (for matches in progress) are behind a Herald Sun paywall—a separate fee than the SuperCoach payment.

Perhaps it’s a contentious thing to suggest that fantasy football is a videogame. I don’t think it is a particularly contentious point, and I’m not going to dwell on it, other than to say it’s clearly a game that finds computers at its core. It fits most useful definitions.

However, what’s not contentious is that fantasy football now clearly resides in the same space as videogames. It shares the same concerns, the same issues, the same problems. For most purposes, fantasy football now fits into the sphere occupied by social games, Facebook games, and a number of iOS and Android applications.

The central, shared issue is how to make money from running these games while not making the barrier to entry too high.

The way in which both SuperCoach and Dream Team have hidden away the best bits that the most dedicated players would want to use points to a shared mindset. This is, after all, what the most successful iOS and Facebook videogame developers have been doing for years now.

Getting involved in a free game to the point where you’re willing to pay money for such extra features might feel a bit strange, though some would argue that given the right circumstances, it’s a small amount of money to pay for a lot of enjoyment (myself included—I pay for SuperCoach, and am inclined to do so for Dream Team too).

Nonetheless, fantasy football could be an entirely different proposition to the insight-is-extra model currently used. It could be a lot more manipulative, for starters. Certain social games are notorious for their intrusive and exploitative design and “monetisation”—a topic that has been endlessly discussed, debated and parodied within the games world for several years now.

So, taking some cues from the world of social games design, here are some slightly tongue-in-cheek ways that AFL fantasy football could be exploiting players for money, but aren’t (yet):

  1. So you want Gary Ablett Jnr in your team? Great, because access to top-tier players is now unlockable for only $2. Social games often make the best items available at a small price. Consider it a player scout fee, or a manager brokering deal for an A-List player.
  2. A Private League of your own for you and your mates? Great, our Private Gold League Membership is cheap at $10 a season. Fantasy football players often have workplace or friend groups that are invite only. Why not make sure they’re really serious about their game first?
  3. For every Facebook friend or email address you add to your fantasy league, gain a bonus $10,000 in your salary cap! Social games often lean on players to leverage their networks in order to spread. Why not give those vocal evangelists a little reward to give them an edge?
  4. It looks like Jason hasn’t made any changes to his team for two weeks. Click here to remind him the big game is on soon! Again, once they’re in, social games like to use player-led guilt trips to keep them keen.
  5. Used up all your trades this season? Buy a 5-trade top-up pack for $3.50. In both SuperCoach and Dream Team, players are given a cap of 24 trades for the season, usable at a rate of two per round (there are 23 rounds this year). That means that by the end of the season, most players are reaching the bottom of the barrel. All it would take is for a key player to twist an ankle two weeks from SuperCoach grand final and that $3.50 is starting to look pretty reasonable.
  6. A special, single-use emergency substitution card for $4. There have been too many rounds of fantasy football where I’ve been forced to look on in misery as one of my benched (and therefore not counted) players pulls in a huge score, while a usually reliable player goes off in the first quarter and leaves a hole in my team. What if that match was a super close, important match? What if I could purchase a single-use emergency substitution for only $4 to swap out the dud for the star?

These types of techniques aren’t being used at the moment, and the AFL fantasy football world is the better for it. However, if the AFL or The Herald Sun ever wanted to leverage some easy profit out of their highly popular games, the methods of insidious, exploitative social videogame design are within easy reach.

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  • 1
    Dave Keetch
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    All the information – statistics, suspensions, injuries, breakevens etc – are available for free on various independent fantasy footbally websites (they may spruik for voluntary donations to keep the websites running, which many are more than happy to pay).

    If ever Supercoach adopted a system where you would have to pay for players, buy trades or basically hand over money in order for success, it would kill all the fun of the game for me. I suspect it would kill the fun for many others too and I’d hazard to guess that participation rates would drop (amid uproar from the fantasy football public).

  • 2
    Ruprecht
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    It would be hard to introduce perks like #5 or #6 without compromising the overall prizes — the car and $50K, from memory. People already game the system to get the weekly prizes ($1k and $2k) by creating teams designed to maximise a score for 1 round only.

    I also agree with Dave’s point that it would put people off. “How many vs the people who would fork out for such things?” is the question I bet they are asking themselves at supercoach HQ.

  • 3
    Ruprecht
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Also, Y U NO make Gary Captain?

  • 4
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, absolutely, the decision to implement something like this would have to be weighed up carefully against both the prize system (which obviously wouldn’t be sustainable if people could essentially pay for an advantage) and the potential (and possibly inevitable) bad word of mouth. I imagine because of both of these things, many of these changes could only ever be implemented incrementally and over a long period of time—or be used by a new company starting up their own Dream Team-like game. Anyway, as I say in the piece, I doubt that they’d ever be implemented. It’s more a thought exercise to think about where it could be if certain decisions were made.

    And Ruprecht—yep, dumb decision not to make Ablett captain this week! Pendlebury was good for me the week before, and I’m perhaps a bit too conservative in my Supercoach/Dream Team selections!

  • 5
    Ruprecht
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Set and forget Dan!

    I think they already have cash incentives for schools and other orgs to enlist people en masse into supercoach comps. Thankfully they’ve made the other types of monetisation hard for themselves by making the comp free up until now.

  • 6
    Posted April 12, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    I guarantee this is exactly what will happen within 5 years.

    But you’re wrong about it being insidious and exploitative – well, it’s no more insidious and exploitative to regular advertising – as this is the new paradigm for the 21st century.

    News Limited offer this Fantasy League service for free in exchange for you to visit the site and view, and possibly click on, the adverts.

    But with every major internet browser having adblock plug ins, and people become more tech savvy as well as more immune to bulk advertising, these revenues are falling, and have been for some time.

    They need some way to maintain income to maintain these servers where teams are kept, design the interface, update scores, keep records, tabulate the weekly progress, and on and on.

    This all costs money, and costs are going up, so if revenue from traditional sources is down, offering premium content is the most logical step.

    However, instead of blabbing about it in a half joking post online, if I were you I’d get my own fantasy football league set up, work on getting it successful, and then sell it (or at least the tech behind it) to News Limited in a few years time :)

  • 7
    Mr Ak
    Posted April 12, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    I got to thinking about this last night, and here’s what I’d do.

    First of all, dump 90% of how Dreamteam works (haven’t played Supercoach, but I gather it’s the same). There’s way too little cross-player interaction, you end up with scores that have nothing to do with how AFL works, it’s too unforgiving to new and less-engaged players. It’s a futures market with a massively crippled trading system.

    And you don’t have to re-invent the wheel, either (although, for the record, that phrase doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I mean, a wheel’s not exactly hard to come up with, is it? Even if it didn’t exist before. Round things roll.)

    Three words: Collectible. Card. Game

    Split cards several different ways

    Firstly, there’s the straight-up value proposition

    You’ve got your gold ultras, your silver rares, your deep blue normals. Maybe add a few other colours in between to differentiate value further.

    Second split is along purpose. You’ve got player cards, sure. But you’d also have a whole host of situational cards you could invent as well. (More on specifics below)

    Every player who signs up gets a deck, which comprises

    38 random player cards (massively weighted towards normal, obviously.)

    Two or three ultra-rare Players Choice cards. Although you could call them first round draft picks, something like that. Cards which enable a player to pick any player of any current AFL list (okay, you’d probably still have to have some kind of salary cap mechanism.)

    Three or four situational cards, of any value. Example situational cards could be:

    Stadiums. If you play, say, an MCG card, every player of yours at the MCG gets a three percent point boost.
    Roles. If you play a close tagging card, a selected player gets half score, but deducts 75% of that player’s original total from a selected opposition player. (Think about it. It’s a bit more strategically complex than it first appears).

    Players play in leagues, which work like the current Dreamteam ones except that match scores get converted from meaningless point values into actual proper AFL scores. (Totally based on the original point values, of course.)

    Players can trade cards only within their own individual league tables, and can set their own league rules to an extent. You want a no booster pack league? Okay, fine. You want booster pack purchases to be visible? You want them invisible? You want situational cards to be removed? All good, muchachos.

    If you still limit trades, you don’t allow booster packs in the first round, you price booster packs low enough, and you have some kind of salary cap, then you end up with a game which

    a)Is actually maybe fun to play
    b)has human to human interaction
    c) earns you a constant revenue stream
    d) is still not simply a pay-to-win system
    e) calls back memories of collecting footy cards as a kid

    Obviously, a whole lot more work would need to be done before it could be a thing even on a proof-of-concept level.

    Still. Andrew D? Feel free to hit me up, give me some start up capital (mrak@gametaco.net)

  • 8
    Maninmelbourne
    Posted May 10, 2012 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Most of these things will probably happen. Few people even play for the prizes on offer, they play for bragging rights and to beat their mates. Few people will pay extra to gain a very slightly improved chance of winning a grand prize – but many, many people will pay extra to make themselves look good in front of their mates.

    I can see SC and DT offering some sort of ‘premium package’, which offers most of the premiums you mentioned above as standard for a set annual fee. Then there’ll be premium leagues – a big prize – and a standard (free) league – a modest prize.

  • 9
    Post thick graduand
    Posted August 28, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    If I have the misfortune of staying up past 11pm watching trashy TV, I will be subjected to various ads selling extremely useless things like idiotic ring tones (and much worse), and I presume there are many out there paying good money for such useless goods and services (I am not one of them, I might add).

    So the fact that some commercial firms might seek to make a bit of coin from an extremely popular online game, should not surprise anyone. If the utility isn’t there for those being asked to pay up, then they will either have to drop the price, or drop it altogether.

    There are some online games that follow this formula: free access to the basic version, but if you want the full bells and whistles, there’s a small charge. Age of Empires in one such game.

    Pertinent to this topic, I actually have to start paying to access Crikey after my 21 day trial! The cheek of some!

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