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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