Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Birth of a Notion: Silly Little Game

Fantasy sports have been around for so long, and are now so prevalent, that it’s hard to remember a time when they weren’t woven into the fabric of sports fandom. These days some 30 million people participate in at least one fantasy sport, bolstering an industry that’s estimated to be worth as much as $4 billion annually. In 2010, fantasy sports don’t just honor their real-life inspirations, they help to keep them afloat, creating crucial (read: financial) bonds between fans and these games in an era when the multitude of alternate programming (more leagues, more teams, more TV shows, more websites, more pastimes, etc.) and the transient effect of free agency make it harder than ever to form a lasting, obsessive relationship with a hometown team. But this is a relatively new phenomenon. Prior to 1980, fantasy sports didn’t exist. And if it’s hard to imagine a time when fantasy sports weren’t played, it’s harder still – almost impossible – to imagine a time when fantasy sports weren’t even conceived. Like the wheel, the drum or the corndog, the fantasy sports model is one of those things that, once born, seems entirely self-evident; like electricity it was always there to be found. And yet even against a landscape of stats-based board games, the fantasy sports model wasn’t evident, indeed wasn’t found, until Dan Okrent had his moment of divine and dorky inspiration some 30 years ago.

Silly Little Game, the 11th installment in ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series, is about that moment of inspiration and the avalanche of pseudo-sporting it accidentally brought to life. Directed by Adam Kurland and Lucas Jansen, the documentary puts the majority of its focus on fantasy sports’ infancy, when prior to the 1980 baseball season Okrent and his friends created something called Rotisserie Baseball, so named because they hatched it over lunch in a New York restaurant named La Rotisserie Francaise. Okrent and his friends created the league not to be famous, and certainly not to make money, but because they loved baseball and wanted a way “to possess it, to control it,” Okrent says. And so on April 13, 1980, these men, and one woman, who would later be called the “Founding Fathers” of fantasy sports, gathered together to hold the first fantasy baseball auction, aware of how many dollars they had to spend to fill out their rosters but utterly clueless to a player’s actual worth within their system. Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt went for $26, for example, and it wasn’t until after the season that everyone realized he had a $40 value. New York Mets reliever Neil Allen, meanwhile, went for a seems-about-right $2 to a team that didn’t know a thing about him, only to have Allen’s breakout 22-save season catapult his owners to the first Rotisserie title, thus creating an “Oops” blueprint for success that would be copied – entirely unintentionally – for decades to come by millions of fantasy owners.

From that inaugural Rotisserie season, a tradition was born. And an obsession. Says Glen Waggoner, one of the Founding Fathers, “I thought it was a diversion. I didn’t know it was going to take over my life.” But that’s what happened. The original Rotisserie players lost themselves to the very things that attract people to fantasy sports today – the challenge and thrill of competition, the temptation of outsmarting one’s friends and so on. Of course, as the creators of the game, the original Rotisserie players also lost themselves to a certain level of stardom. There were interviews to give and, all too late, there were attempts to profit from their invention – books, shirts and even conventions. But their modest fame outlasted the even more modest fortune. Quickly, copycat leagues were created under the generic heading of “fantasy sports,” dropping “Rotisserie,” and the Founding Fathers lost their piece of the action. The craze spread from baseball to football to basketball and to every other conceivable sport. Fantasy sports spread so far, so quickly that somewhere along the way the origins of the craze became largely irrelevant, particularly to the generations too young to know where the name “Rotisserie” comes from, even if they’re cultured enough to recognize the now archaic fantasy term.

On this note, Silly Little Game looks to settle the score, to give credit where credit is due, to unearth the roots of fantasy sports. It does just that, quite often with humor and verve, thanks to interviews with Okrent, Waggoner, Lee Eisenberg and the other Founding Fathers (including Founding Mother, Valerie Salembier). That’s what’s great about the documentary. What’s not so great about it, however, is most everything else. Silly Little Game is rife with reenactments that aren’t just painfully cheesy but, even worse, entirely unnecessary. All too often, the film cuts from the already evocative descriptions from its interviewees to goofy dramatizations of their memories – on-the-nose reenactments in which the Founding Fathers are dressed in period attire from 1776 (the Founding Fathers, get it!?) or the early 1980s (big cellphones, big glasses, big sweaters). The result is a film that often looks like the bastard child of The Breakfast Club and Drunk History, Vol. 1, and that’s when it’s mediocre. At worst, the film comes off like a cheap parody of a parody – one degree removed from actually being funny. In these instances, the reenactments are either frighteningly lame, such as the handful of scenes in which the 1980s versions of the Founding Fathers sit in office furniture in the middle of a baseball field (really?), or they’re entirely tasteless, such as the moment when the fictional Neil Harris is handed a beer to chug as a reward for helping his fantasy team win the first Rotisserie title. That latter scene might seem innocuous, until you consider that Harris had his career thrown off track by a battle with alcoholism. Then it's not so funny.

These juvenile and just plain corny detours are the difference between Silly Little Game being a tremendous documentary and an often tedious one. Indeed, all that would need to be done to improve the film by half would be to cut nearly every reenactment and replace it with some run-of-the-mill B-roll of Major League action. That’s it. The Founding Fathers interviews are outstanding – thoughtful, intelligent and self-deprecating – but they nearly get lost in the shuffle. Also missed is the insight of a baseball traditionalist, thoughts from someone like Bob Costas, George Will or Peter Gammons on the impact of fantasy sports. Near the end of the documentary we do get a few seconds with Meat Loaf, who admits to having more than 40 fantasy football teams and almost 20 fantasy baseball teams, despite not knowing the origins of fantasy sports, but, well, so what? Is Meat Loaf considered a fantasy sports extremist among celebrities? His appearance is never put into context. It’s just another empty gag.

For these reasons, watching Silly Little Game can be as frustrating as owning Adam Dunn and Aramis Ramirez in a competitive NL-only keeper league and wondering how many weeks will go by until either guy reaches the Mendoza Line. Hypothetically speaking, of course. It’s not as if I truly identify with these tales of fantasy sports obsession. It’s not as if I know what it is to pore over box scores each morning, or to experience the thrill of a league championship or the humiliation of an auction day gaffe. (I mean, it’s not as if, prior to the 2008 season, Derek Lowe was going for $38, and I contemplated putting in a bid at $40, and then told myself I wouldn’t pay more than $45, and then uttered a bid of $50, not realizing what I’d said until I was hit in the face by the chilling sound of stunned silence. Nah, that’s never happened.) OK, so maybe I am one of them. Maybe I do indentify with their sports love and loserness. Maybe that’s why Silly Little Game at times has the nostalgia of old home-movies. And maybe that’s why I hate it when its reenactments waste so much of my time. After all, I’ve got to figure out how to win with a lineup in which Bengie Molina appears to be my offensive star. These silly little games are serious business.

Silly Little Game premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release.


Tony Dayoub said...

Really great piece, Jason. It perfectly captures your enthusiasm for the subject and the disappointment over the film's blundered execution. I really enjoy this series of 30 FOR 30 reviews.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I echo what Tony said above. I will still watch this because I am such a huge baseball geek (I don't do fantasy baseball anymore, but I still find myself mulling over box scores to see how players like Jayson Hayward and Evan Longoria are doing), and as Tony stated above, these ESPN films have, for the most part, have been either good or great.

Oh, and Derek Lowe! Really? Hehe.

nightfly said...

Curiously, did the film mention Okrent's book, "Nine Innings," in which he waxes esoteric for 200 pages about a single regular-season ball game between the Brewers and Orioles? I ask because A- I actually sort of enjoyed "Nine Innings" and B- the guy who wrote it is absolutely the sort of guy who would help invent fantasy baseball.

(w/v - peensler - the left-fielder from the Philadelphia A's who won me a fantasy league in 1934)

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, all.

Nightfly: No, the film doesn't mention Okrent's book, but you get a healthy dose of him here. He's certainly a sharp guy.

Clarence Ewing said...

Hi, Jason. I saw the doc last night and I agree with your assessment. The re-enactments were for the most part just awkward and tedious, although I did get a chuckle out of the first one when they're in the restaurant and first form the game, especially the reaction shot from the guy working the rotisserie.

And right on about the Meat Loaf interview. I was expecting to find out he was a fantasy league guru, or he lost $30 million playing, or some other compelling reason to include him.

The subject matter is great, but overall this was one of the lesser outings for 30 for 30.

BK said...

IMO this was definitely the worst of the series so far. Just felt like there were a lot of missed opportunities once they got beyond the very interesting beginnings of "Rotisserie" baseball. Eliminating the pointless reenactments and maybe focusing much more on how fantasy sports has evolved into another sports gambling realm would have been a lot more interesting.

PS Love the reviews of the 30 for 30 series overall, you're just about the only person I see doing them every week and look I forward to reading them.

Jason Bellamy said...

Clarence: The Meat Loaf interview was just odd. I mean, I guess we're supposed to assume that he's a fantasy nut. But, well, it's Meat Loaf. The guy's name is fucking Meat Loaf. He's not a normal dude. So it's not like finding out that, say, Martha Stewart is a fantasy sports addict or something. Just very random.

BK: Yeah, there were so many things they could have gotten into instead of wasting time on reenactments that often reenacted things that needed no reenacting. Echoing Clarence, the guy working the rotiserrie was a kind of funny touch -- of course by then the scene has already gone on too long. And the Founding Fathers reenactments are funny ... at first. But overall it's just a waste of time.

Too bad. If not for some of the clever observations by Okrent and the other real Founding Fathers, this would have been a struggle to watch from start to finish.