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I've been playing the same game for 20 years, and I'm never gonna quit

On Aug. 14, 1994, I started playing a game that, one way or another, I've been playing ever since.

On that day I joined eight friends for some drinks in Glossop, England (above), to play our first game of Fantasy League. It's a very simple numbers game based on the playing statistics of the English Premier League's football (football here = 'soccer') players for the season ahead.

Fantasy sports leagues were a new thing then, at least in England. But we grasped the basics of a fantasy auction, without too much difficulty.

We auctioned off the Premiership's players among ourselves, using a £20 million ($30 million) budget to each buy a squad of 15 professional footballers. We drank a lot of beer and indulged in ridiculously heated arguments about whether this left-back was better than that left-back. We ribbed a fellow who overpaid outrageously for a certain player, widely rumored to be on his way to the Italian league, and therefore ineligible.

We stopped, briefly, to watch the Charity Shield (Blackburn were beaten by two Manchester United goals). Then we continued the auction afterwards, by which time our budgets had diminished, and we were drunkenly filling up our teams with dire substitutes taken from lower clubs.


The Glossop Guzzlers Fantasy League has been going ever since. Every Community Shield day, the group gathers in a local pub and the auction takes place.

Fantasy League rules are simple. You get points for owning a player who scores a goal and for defensive players keeping a clean sheet. You get points when things go well for your player. You lose points when things go badly. You can't own more than two players from any one Premiership club. That's it. That's the whole game.

The Fantasy League people do all the math for you, as the season plays out, from August through to May. The person with the most points at season's end, wins the trophy.

This is the beauty of fantasy football. It's incredibly simple, like the game that it follows.

The thing itself is never enough

It lives in that strange zone of games-about-games, simulations of sports that are, themselves, simulations of combat. I have been playing some form of fantasy football since I was a 1970s kid, when I would write out the names of 64 English clubs on tiny strips of paper, and put them in a pot, to be drawn out. The games would be played with dice, round after round, FA Cup-style.

I'm a huge fan of FIFA games and have been playing football-based video games since Football Manager on the Sinclair Spectrum, back in the early 1980s. Before that, I played Subbuteo. It's not just football that attracts this kind of behavior, but all major sports. The thing itself is never enough.

Soon after that first auction, I remember interviewing then-England Manager Terry Venables, at his London nightclub 'Scribes.'  I mentioned Fantasy Football in passing.

"Yeah, I've heard about this," he said. "Some of the lads play it. I don't get what it's about."

So I had the immense pleasure of explaining fantasy football management to one of real football management's great figures. (Venables also lent his name to a board game, Terry Venables Invites You To Be The Manager, which I vaguely remember playing, and not really enjoying much.)

Football-based games feed back into the game itself. It is well known that many Premiership players love to play FIFA and fantasy games. Clubs even use today's Football Manager game database to help in their picks for real players. Fantasy feeds reality.

When fantasy football, which originates from similar NFL-based games in the U.S, became seriously mainstream in Britain, there were attempts to create highly-complex versions but, by -and-large, it's remained a straightforward affair. Simplicity in game design always wins through.

Older, Fatter, Grayer

Through the many years I have played in Glossop, the numbers of contestants has changed, up to 15 at one point, but it's generally around 10. One year, I actually came top of the league. Most of the same core of players are still there, from that day in 1994; older, fatter and grayer.

I live in California now, so I can't play the live-auction version. But I play online (it's not as good, because the player-prices are fixed, and you don't get to enjoy the heated forum of an auction). Still, it's better than not playing fantasy football at all, which is unthinkable.

fifa 15 cover

Each year, I take an interest in which players my old friends have chosen to buy at auction. The magic of Fantasy League (and I am guessing it's the same with the NFL version), is that it's all about different personalities and strategies.

Some of my pals are guaranteed to blow between a third and even a half their budget on one hot striker, and then fill in with bargains and youngsters. Others like to split their first team fairly evenly, paying a few million per player across the board. A few will tell you at length (if you allow them) about the "spine" of their team and their carefully-tuned balance between youth and experience.

When newbies come in, they can expect to be fleeced. Turning up at the auction in your favorite team's shirt is an invitation to find the prices of beloved players hiked, before your opponent drops out of the bidding saying something along the lines of 'I wouldn't pick that clown to walk a dog." Manchester City fans, during their more desperate years, were always tragically prone to this.

Simplicity in game design always wins through

That said, a would-be price-hiker has to guard against being stranded paying £4 million for a dodgy central midfielder from Birmingham City.

But each auction has calibrated different sub-rules and, for the Glossop Guzzlers, these have evolved over time, and not without controversy. It's all part of the fun.

What if someone mistakenly buys three players from the same club? Our punishment is harsh. The group as a whole decides which player must be thrown back into the pot. This is always, always, the most valuable.

Last year, one Manchester United fan had to give up his £10 million purchase Wayne Rooney, but not before he'd gone through each of the seven stages of grief, lingering on 'anger' for a very long time.

There's a minimum price for each player (£100,000) which, we've learned, discourages people from wasting time buying players and then casting them off. There are various other bye-laws and traditions that have emerged for reasons now unclear, but which will never be reversed.

This year I've picked my team online. I'm no longer comparing notes with my pals, in pub meetings, throughout the season. I have a new rivalry to contend with. My sons (ages 16, 10 and eight) are all keen Fantasy Football players and we will be spending the next nine months trying to best one another with our picks. I expect the competition will be fierce.

Anyhow, the NFL starts in a few weeks, and fans of that sport will be getting down to their auctions and many online leagues, celebrating their own cultural quirks. For now, it's all about the English Premiership, which begins in earnest on Saturday.

Here's the starting XI I'll be cheering on: Szczesny, Zabaleta, Distin, Koscielny, Vertonghen, Sterling, Young, Barkley, Yaya Touré, Sturridge, Bent.

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