SAN DIEGO — For those entering the final two weeks of the NFL regular season with visions of fantasy football glory, a storybook ending must look something like the way a second-floor ballroom of the Manchester Grand Hyatt did two Sundays ago. It’s lit by the glow of big screens turned to all the afternoon games. It’s replete with free food and drink. It’s impossible to leave here a loser.
None of the 120 contestants who gathered here for the 2015 World Fantasy Football Championships could rightly say they did. They had gotten to spend three warm and sunny December days in San Diego at the expense of FanDuel, the daily fantasy sports portal behind this tournament. They had gotten a chance to spend an ideal Saturday afternoon in a park off the water catching passes from Joe Montana and Dan Marino and be recognized for, you know, actual football ability. The guy who won that competition hung onto a Marino slant while diving into a foam pit. “I was trying to hurt him,” says Marino, who made his own pretend game of humming fastballs at his would-be receivers. “If he was gonna get the trophy, he’s gotta catch it.”
But beyond Saturday, there were no other catches for these tournament entrants. At worse, they would return home at least $20,000 richer. They would bask in an experience that, for the average person, must seem so far-flung.
This is the dream fantasy football sells, and with a relentlessness to rival the Allied war effort. This very event is likely to be recalled in a FanDuel advertisement to be played, and replayed, later. And can you blame ’em? Here was nothing more than a group of passionate fans enjoying a game they love—NFL football. It was fairly tame for a scene that is supposedly suffused with a sinister element.
Such is the claim of a growing number of states, which believe that daily fantasy sports are tantamount to gambling and therefore should be shut down. Three days before this event FanDuel and its main rival, DraftKings, were slapped with an injunction barring them from doing business in New York. Hours later, an appeals court judge allowed the companies to keep operating through Jan. 4, at which time surely someone will have to have figured out whether what these companies are doing is even legal.
Surely, someone will have to have come up with a working definition for fantasy sports, daily or otherwise. There are the people like New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman who call it a game of chance and are spooked by the idea of the employees of these companies stacking the deck for their own personal gain. It seems Schneiderman won’t rest until fantasy sports are verboten in his state—just as it is, for now, in Arizona, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, Illinois and Washington.
And then there are the people who say fantasy sports is a game of skill. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that many of the people who fall into this latter category were inside this Hyatt ballroom, their heads bobbing from the games to their phones to the live leaderboard on an oversized projection screen. Montana, a FanDuel investor, should be included in that group too. “It’s really hard to do well,” says one of the few men who can say he mastered football in real life. Added Marino, who wasn’t too shabby a pigskin player either, “If I actually really concentrated on it and was really on top of it—like my sons do and other people do, all of that, all the time, to prepare—I would be good at it. I’m sure I would be.”
After watching these FanDuel contestants play, it’s obvious that the game they play lies at an intersection between luck and craft. Consider the serendipity of Taylor Cattolica, a 23-year-old Air Force enlistee who works the weapons vault at a base in Minot, N.D. He only put $5 down to get into this tournament. In a Week 5 entry contest, he assembled a lineup that featured a mix of fantasy studs (Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, Patriots receiver Julian Edelman), sleepers (Falcons tailback Devonta Freeman) and the Broncos’ defense, which was going up against the Raiders. Thanks to a last-ditch, multi-lateral punt return by the Raiders, which resulted in a lost fumble, Cattolica beat back all comers by nine-tenths of a point.
For three days leading up to kickoff, Cattolica would spend hours researching his lineup and consult everyone from his base buddies to his boss to his brother’s boss—another fantasy nerd whom Cattolica says missed the final cut for this tournament by 10 points. “It drove me crazy,” he says of the constant second-guessing, “made me insane.” Though he’d get hung out by his tailbacks (Seattle’s Thomas Rawls fell injured and San Francisco’s Shaun Draughn biffed it against a lackluster Cleveland D), Cattolica netted strong performances from Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, Jacksonville tight end Julius Thomas and the Kansas City D. At one point he led the tournament before finishing seventh, which paid out $200,000.
Roman Edmond, a 43-year-old IT consultant from Washington, D.C., invested a bit more than Cattolica to get to San Diego—$50 in Week 11—and booked his trip when the flier he took on Rawls netted a margin of victory of nearly 30 points over the next best finisher. How did he approach his lineup for Sunday? “I’m old school,” he says. “I do a lot of Post-it notes and watch games to get a sense of tendencies.”
One he noticed was a habit of Packers tailback Eddie Lacy to have big games upon emerging from the doghouse. So he added him to a roster that also included two Jaguars (quarterback Blake Bortles, receiver Allen Hurns), Bengals wideout AJ Green and Rams rookie tailback Todd Gurley. Edmond was really proud of picking Gurley, who had a 140-yard, two-touchdown day against the Lions—so proud he considered getting a Gurley tattoo. But it was the hunch on Lacy (who gashed the Cowboys for 124 yards and a score) that lifted Edmond from 10th place to first. His grand prize: $3 million.
In the afterglow of victory, Edmond was understandably overcome. He only started playing daily fantasy sports six months ago. To him it’s even more exciting than day trading, which he used to do in his 20s. It feels more above board, too. “With day trading, a lot of the companies you don’t know what they’re doing behind the scenes,” says Edmond, who’s earmarked his fantasy windfall for his retirement—though at this point, he had yet to report his income to his wife and eight-year-old. “But here there is so much information about the athlete. If he’s hurt, you know that. If he’s in the doghouse, you know that. It’s more visible, and you can make better decisions based on that.”
Repeatedly, Edmond says he hopes to serve as an ambassador for fantasy sports as it embarks on its inexorable march toward legitimacy. If anything, tournaments like this and the legal challenges around them suggest it’s nearly there. It further suggests that the states who claim to be more offended by this billion-dollar industry than, say, their own lottery systems, really “are just looking for their little take right now,” as Montana puts it. “You’re making money, so I gotta make money. Somehow, you’ve gotta pay the piper.” As long as both sides keep playing, presumably everyone can win. This is the promise of fantasy, after all.
Editor’s note: FanDuel is a sponsor of Sports Illustrated. This piece was pursued and executed independent of that business relationship. Sports Illustrated also has a partnership with DailyMVP, another daily fantasy sports provider.