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30 For 30: "Silly Little Game"

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One of the problems with sports culture is that it takes itself so incredibly seriously.  The way fans treat a series of essentially meaningless games as a matter of life and death is both part of the appeal of sports and part of the reason that it turns off so many people.  And in a very small number of fans, both of these impulses — the tendency to treat sports like a goof, and the tendency to think that it's the most important thing in the world — comes together.  Numbered amongst those fans were a handful of smart-assed New York writers, editors and media types who invented Rotisserie League Baseball, the predecessor of what became fantasy sports.


This week's edition of ESPN's 30 For 30, "Silly Little Game", looks at the ten people, led by Daniel Okrent, who came together to form the first Rotisserie League, named after an overpriced chicken joint where they occasionally met.  It took a while for sports culture to truly manifest an aspect that would appeal to sports geeks in the same way that role-playing games (which reached new heights of popularity around the same time Rotisserie League was invented) did for sci-fi and fantasy geeks, but this was it:  pure, unadulterated, weapons-grade geek fuel, cooked up by clever obsessives whose lives it instantly dominated. Luckily for viewers, directors Adam Kirland and Lucas Jansen share a similar attitude towards the roto founders, and their decision to stage dramatized (and sometimes hilarious) re-creations of key aspects of the game's history could easily come across as obnoxious, but instead play as whimsical and fun.

And that's the key to why this documentary is a success:  instead of focusing on the game of fantasy baseball, it focuses on the people who started it, and fortunately, they are funny, self-aware, entertaining folks who know exactly what their place in the world of sports should be.  There had been forms of what we now call fantasy sports before (Strat-O-Matic baseball was a favorite strategic quasi-board game, and Jack Kerouac created a protean version of the game in the 1930s), but it was these minor literary figures, editors, sportswriters and publishers who were smart enough to perfect it and funny enough to write books in which their teams, their personalities, and their engaging approach to an absurd game came alive.  While people in the film talk about an article in Inside Sports turning them on to the game, I got into fantasy baseball because of the books they wrote chronicling the ups and downs of their teams; the idea of a fake baseball team was moderately appealing to me as a high school ballplayer, but even more, I loved reading about these smart, funny people and their adventures in playing it.

Watching their reminiscences about the early days of the game is far and away the best part of "Silly Little Game", much more so than the dreary later stages where we watch self-important obsessives who manage hundreds of teams and seem to get as much joy out of it as they would doing their taxes.  Hearing them talk about co-founder Lee Eisenberg as "human scum" and "pure unadulterated evil" for his badgering trade tactics; listening to them explain how having access to a FAX machine was considered almost an unfair advantage; laughing at the stories of how the game destroyed their rooting interests and elevated third-string nobodies to positions of extreme importance — these are the things that make you realize that these are folks who loved baseball and the unique way that its statistical completeness (Okrent actually invented the now-commonplace WHIP statistic for the game) lends itself to fantasy play, but they're also people who just wanted to have a good time. When they hold their first convention and are approached by what Okrent describes as "ambulatory schizophrenics" who are way, way too into the game, the experience starts to sour for them, just as it does the viewer.

If there's a crowning irony about fantasy baseball, it's that the people who invented it made essentially no money off of it.  After a few half-assed efforts to capitalize on the growing trend, involving what they describe as "an insult to the word 'company'" that mostly peddled t-shirts and cease-and-desist letters, they gave up; none of them could possibly predict how huge the game would become with the coming of the internet.  What once had "nerd geek fad written all over it" is now a $3 billion industry, and its inventor, Dan Okrent, now wants little to do with it (he's never once won a fantasy league).  The group, who some people seriously argue should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, had essentially given up on the game by the mid-1990s, and these days, show an admirable sense of fun about something that, like most things about sports culture, has been largely ruined by the people who take it too seriously.


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