Sadio Mané or Mohamed Salah? How long will it take Jadon Sancho to adapt to the league? Will Nuno Espírito Santo solidify Tottenham’s back line, bringing added value to the side’s defenders?
The new season is on the horizon, and the Managers of FPL sides around the world are asking the same questions. They’re tweaking their line-ups, watching the transfer news, and pouring over the data like the real life Managers they’ll trust to make the right decisions come Gameweek One. Parallels between the game and the challenge of building a real-world squad are partly what make FPL so popular. There’s the potential for elation or catastrophe, pride or regret. But it’s more than just a game about creating a witty team name, picking players, and scoring points.
The degree to which that is true depends on how seriously someone plays the game which has been running in an official capacity since 2002. In its inaugural year, under 76,000 players took part. Last season, there were over 7 million teams. It’s likely few participants can imagine the game pre-internet when players used to send in their picks to the Telegraph newspaper. Meanwhile, some of those 7 million teams belonged to people using second or third accounts. That goes some way to convey how involved and determined FPL players can be. It’s understandable given football supporters’ passion and society’s need to detach from life’s demands.
It’s also a chance for fans to prove they know as much as the professionals—and not just the managers. We often hear pundits referencing their FPL teams, and Harry Maguire, Andy Robertson, and Trent Alexander-Arnold are just a few of the game’s stars who play. To anyone in a fantasy league with their friends or colleagues, that should come as no surprise. The dressing room is a highly competitive environment, and FPL serves as another way to one-up peers. With tactical acumen and nous comes status, a reward in social circles that value the game. It’s a captivating catalyst for discussion and connecting people who otherwise might struggle to find conversational common ground. Every day football presents fresh talking points, and they often have repercussions for FPL.
Even ignoring the disruption caused by the pandemic, the importance of positive relationships and shared interests cannot be overstated. Research shows prolonged periods of isolation adversely affect mental health, while social support can reduce stress and improve self-confidence. It’s one reason supporters have been so keen to return to matches. Football is a social game, and the feeling of belonging associated with the sport has somewhat diminished with fans’ absence from stadia.
That emphasises the significance of the community ethos football fosters. It transcends the game, and FPL can claim to have a similar reach, albeit on a smaller scale. Many of the millions who play FPL might never get the chance to see their clubs live or they may not even support a particular team. Yet the game provides players with the means and a reason to engage with Premier League football. Affection and devotion towards FPL powers forums that embody the communal spirit football clubs inspire in their localities. With almost half a million users, Reddit’s FantasyPL forum is among the most popular, and the official FPL Twitter account has over 2 million followers. Both give players opportunities to share tips and insight with others interested in FPL, developing bonds and associations in the community. The game even has its own ‘experts’, akin to pundits, who have used their FPL knowledge to build their own following.
The influence football players now have illustrates how the Premier League is as much a global advertising platform as a football tournament. While it’s questionable whether the exposure always benefits football, the popularity enables FPL to highlight worthy causes. Players can create a mock-up kit for their fantasy team with the option to select one of five campaigns as the shirt sponsor. Premier League Inspires, Premier League Kicks, and Premier League Stars cover different areas of youth development, including personal skills, wellbeing, and education. The Rainbow Laces campaign, run by Stonewall, seeks to empower LGBTQ+ people while championing their rights. No Room For Racism is the Premier League’s action plan for creating fairer access to opportunities for the BAME population and eradicating racism.
However, given FPL’s sizeable audience, it feels like a missed opportunity not using the platform to give more prominent coverage to the applaudable work many will be unfamiliar with. The Premier League’s website carries the No Room For Racism message on the banner, yet there’s scope for raising wider awareness of the issues that surround football, such as mental health and inequality.
Gambling’s promotion within the league is another problem, yet there’s an argument that FPL provides a safer alternative. There are similarities between the analytical skills needed for success in FPL and gambling. FPL can also stimulate the same chemical reaction and jubilation betting does. It’s not unreasonable to suggest the game is addictive, especially given the lengths players will go to get an advantage. But the application never prompts users to be mindful of their mental health while playing. Neither does it address the possible gateway FPL creates to gambling. There’s often a fine line between enjoyment and dependency, and gambling firms use such messages to help players detach. It’s one of several simple implementations that could redirect the game’s focus onto the users and their communities, potentially creating meaningful impact.
Some fantasy managers will forget about their team weeks after the season begins. Others will already be planning their future transfers. Managing expectations and involvement is as important as enjoying FPL while stepping into the shoes of a coach. It should never turn a good weekend bad, but it can bring some extra sheen to three points and create healthy anticipation for the next round of fixtures. Whether or not the Premier League realises it, FPL has purpose beyond that of a mere game. If given the chance, it has the potential to inspire change that will last long after the season ends.