Fantasy Friends
New York magazine|June 06 - 19, 2022
The guys of my generation are hooked on fantasy sports. When it comes to maintaining meaningful relationships into adulthood, that might not be a bad thing.
By Zak Cheney-Rice

LAST SUMMER, I reached a grudging conclusion about myself: I’d been playing fantasy sports for too long. It had been 12 years since I’d married my love of NBA basketball to a fixation on stats and petty feuds with my friends, which seemed charmingly zany at age 22 but was getting to be exhausting by 34. My enthusiasm had started to wane a few Octobers earlier, between catching my orcish reflection after staying up until 2 a.m. to draft and collapsing into bed to wait for my toddler’s screams to wake me up. The high jinks depicted in The League, FX’s sitcom about fantasy football, used to spark amused recognition. Now they were a warning that my pastime was becoming neurotic.

Somewhere in the course of this realization, I met Martin. He was a drummer from the Bay Area who’d relocated to Los Angeles, my hometown, and had been invited to join my fantasy basketball league by our mutual friend, Jonathan. Jonathan is the league’s commissioner—alternately a benevolent steward who settles disputes and builds consensus around new rules and a menace to my inbox who triumphantly signs emails with “2016 League Champion.” It was a special occasion: the league’s draft, in which we choose players for the upcoming season. The pomp that goes into this yearly event is embarrassing to admit. I remember trying to imagine how it must have looked to Martin, the only first-timer, and couldn’t avoid the takeaway that we were all unhinged, including him for sticking around.

The draft happened, as it always does, at the tree-shaded house owned by Eddie, our oldest member at 76. There are usually ten of us, a crew composed mostly of friends from high school or the social circles that came out of it. Jonathan was dating a professional singer at the time, so the proceedings started with a special recording she’d made of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Next was a not-so-short documentary Jonathan had directed about himself that featured a Rocky-style montage of him exercising. Awards were distributed from the previous season. The league champion got a trophy and a faded Lisa Leslie jersey from her days playing for the L.A. Sparks. The past season’s loser was punished with a license-plate frame that read last place finish, fantasy basketball, which was awarded over solemn music at a candlelit ceremony. Best Trash Talker produced, and continues to produce, my favorite highlights. Jonathan’s middling win rate this season led Chris to observe that he reeked of desperation—“I smelled it on you at dinner the other day as well.” Jonathan retorted, “Maybe what you’re smelling is your 13-23 record.”

Why was I there? The straightforward answer is because my friends were, and I wanted to be with them. The actual draft was secondary to the event’s social function—an excuse to stay in touch, which has become increasingly difficult since I moved to the East Coast in 2012.

As it turned out, explaining how an elaborate contest had become so crucial to my ability to keep in regular contact with people I loved was hard to do without further humiliation. “Oh,” replied a fellow soccer parent one recent Saturday after I told her, sheepishly, that I was writing a story about fantasy sports. “Is that when you, like, make a fake sports team and play fake games against each other?”

Indeed it is, Candice: Fantasy sports, generally speaking, are a type of organized contest where competitors “draft” real-life athletes onto made-up teams that battle for primacy, usually as part of a bigger fantasy “league.” Points are tallied according to how well these athletes perform in various statistical categories during actual games. If the real LeBron James scores 35 points on a Sunday and James is on my team, I get points too.

If this sounds like nerd shit, it is—only it’s the Game of Thrones kind, where it feels like everyone is doing it and you know it’s making someone lots of money. The global market for fantasy sports is expected to grow to $26 billion by the end of the year. One in five American adults participates, according to a study that predated the pandemic, so it’s reasonable to assume the true figure might now be even higher. The same survey found that 81 percent of participants were men, half between the ages of 18 and 34. These are the peak “friendship-collecting” years, as Jennifer Senior wrote recently in The Atlantic. I’m right at the upper cusp, and I’m not surprised that it’s the year in which participation starts to fall off. It’s a liminal stage, when life tends to narrow to work and family and, if I’m honest, not much else. Once-convenient relationships start to need active maintenance. Men don’t lose friends, exactly. We just stop having them.

This is a process that many people intuit and that a body of literature gives anecdotal and statistical credence to. “Men Have No Friends,” reads the headline of a 2019 Harper’s Bazaar article by Melanie Hamlett, “and Women Bear the Burden.” Last year, the Survey Center on American Life found that the number of American adults with three or fewer close friends leaped from 27 percent in 1990 to 49 percent in 2021, and men are significantly less likely than women to discuss personal matters with the friends they do have.

One of the outcomes is a slew of physical-health risks. “Loneliness can kill you,” reads one especially bleak subhead on a 2020 article from the University of Miami Health System. A November Psychology Today article claims that loneliness can shorten your life, describing side effects that include cardiovascular disease and stroke—even suicide. “Loneliness is as much of a health risk for men as smoking or being overweight,” reads a 2021 article at UCLA Health, citing Psychiatry Research. It “increases cancer risk by 10 percent, regardless of age, socioeconomic status, lifestyle, and other risk factors.”

Fantasy sports are at the nexus of this decline—a rare platform for the kind of sustained contact that gets taken for granted when you’re young but dwindles as you age. “It’s probably the only reason I’m still in touch with some of these guys,” Martin told me of another ten-person fantasy football league he’s in, which has been active for 21 years and has a track record of byzantine nonsense. It made him a natural fit for our league and its draft-day antics but also hinted at a shared predicament. Our parallel crews had glaring differences on paper—Martin’s was all white guys from a small Northern California enclave; ours was mostly Black and Asian-American from the farthest-flung reaches of L.A. County and included one woman (God help her). But everyone had independently chosen to gamify a good chunk of their long-term friendships and mediate them through platforms that bypassed intimacy as fluidly as they encouraged a near-constant stream of texts and other digital means of communication.

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