The time-sucking, dopamine-boosting science of fantasy baseball

Fantasy sports leagues offer camaraderie, fun, and maybe a reward for players' brains.

Story highlights

  • More 56 million people play fantasy sports, which has become a multibillion-dollar industry
  • People play for the camaraderie, the love of the game, and maybe for the way it rewards their brains

(CNN)Spring training is underway, and for millions of baseball fans that means it's time to start over-analyzing players and stats to fill their not-real, totally-made-up team rosters. Welcome to a new season of fantasy baseball.

Today, fantasy sports is a multibillion-dollar industry. According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, 56.8 million people played in some sort of fantasy league last year -- about 14% of the entire U.S. population. Two-thirds of players are male, according to the trade association; most are college-educated and almost half earn more than $75,000 annually.
    So how is it that educated, high-paid sports fans get sucked into high-tech games of make-believe, games that often keep them obsessively checking scores and tweaking lineups? It's about the love of the game, camaraderie -- and maybe a strong shot of dopamine in the brain.

    From 'book club' to big business

    Fantasy baseball credits its beginnings to journalist Daniel Okrent, a former New York Times public editor, who ginned up the idea during a long flight. He presented the idea to friends while having lunch at a New York restaurant, La Rotisserie Francaise, and they agreed to play. Rotisserie baseball -- what's now known as fantasy baseball -- was born.
    "I can't really tell you what prompted my Rotisserie/fantasy urge," the lifelong baseball fan said, "other than it was the off-season and I was missing baseball."
    For years, it was relegated to sports geeks holed up in a room together. "A lot of math, statistics, dispensed through the mail. It was very labor intensive. ... It wasn't customizable," said Brendan Dwyer, a researcher at the Center for Sport Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University.
    But once it took off online, fantasy sports gave people a chance to stay connected, whether they're in the same city or on opposite sides of the world.
    "People play to stay in contact with people, to have something to talk about, especially for men. Sports in general has been a space for men to communicate ... and now fantasy sports is an enhanced version of that," Dwyer said. "I like to equate it to the male version of a book club."
    Remember Judd Apatow's 2007 comedy "Knocked Up"? In the movie, Debbie, a character played by Leslie Mann, is convinced that her husband, Pete, played by Paul Rudd, is cheating on her. She even follows Pete to the house where the affair is supposedly taking place and sneaks in. Finding nothing, she's about to leave when she hears voices -- and discovers Pete sitting around with a bunch of other guys in baseball gear, a meetup he'd attended secretly.
    The sense of community is fun, but it's healthy, too. Studies have found that loneliness can negatively impact our health. Socially isolated people have shorter life spans and increased risk of infections, heart disease and depression.
    The camaraderie has kept public relations adviser Matthew Berger playing in the same league for the past 20 years. For Berger, it's become a professional network of sorts. His league includes prominent journalists, business executives and diplomats, some of whom have flown in from overseas just for the draft. Berger has cut trips short to attend the draft in person.
    For Berger, fantasy baseball connects him even more to the game he loves. The players seem more real if you're buying and selling like a team owner, Berger said.
    "It's the really getting to sort of see the players as more than just the guys on TV," he said.

    The power of fantasy sports

    Even if a person never comes close to really owning a sports team, managing a successful fantasy team can come with bragging rights. The drive to compete can be just as strong.
    "I'm very competitive. ... To me, it's like a test of my own knowledge," said Renee Miller, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester who writes about daily fantasy sports for ESPN.
    She speculates that the people who play fantasy sports are risk takers. While it hasn't been measured specifically in fantasy sports players, Miller said research has found that the brains of risk takers have more sensitive reward circuitry -- their brains get more of the neurotransmitter dopamine when they are doing something they enjoy. Dopamine is the chemical your brain releases when you experience or anticipate pleasure or a reward.
    "When you have more dopamine, it rewards that behavior and provides motivation for playing again," Miller said.
    Most of the behaviors that we are rewarded for are actions that have evolved to keep us alive as a species, said Miller. For example, eating foods high in sugar (for energy) or having sex (for procreation).
    But there are behaviors like gambling that also can send the reward circuitry into overdrive in some people's brains.
    "Not just the win, but near misses can cause increased dopamine," said Miller.
    She said risk-taking itself has been seen to be an attractive feature when finding a mate.
    "People with increased reward sensitivity tend to exhibit when they are in front of their peers," Miller said.
    She thinks fantasy sports -- particularly fantasy football -- might attract these types of personalities.

    'Is your brain sabotaging your lineup?'

    But there might be different drivers among fantasy baseball fans, she noted. During a typical baseball season, a team will play 162 games, and each one might have a different lineup. It demands a lot of commitment and study of numbers.
    And although most people believe they are logical and rational when making decisions, in fact, our brains likes to take shortcuts, said Miller, who wrote the book "Cognitive Bias in Fantasy Sports: Is Your Brain Sabotaging Your Team?"
    If we are invested in something, we value it more. So whoever we draft for our teams, she said, we tend to align with our own identities and attribute more to their value than they are really worth. It's known as the endowment effect.
    "Say you're at the store and you're trying to decide between three pairs of shoes. By the end of the day, you will like the ones that you bought 60% more. We do the same thing with our fantasy players -- and that influences all kinds of decisions," said Miller.
    Players may not be willing to make changes when they're winning, even if a lineup change could improve the team -- or they might be quick to change things when their record is down.
    "One of the things that I try to emphasize is, be aware of these tendencies -- be aware of how they can impact you in all kinds of situations," said Miller.
    Miller, who was in seven fantasy football leagues, one fantasy basketball league and a baseball league last year, said she did most of her research between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. Miller has found she enjoys daily fantasy sports, where players manage a team for a day, even more than the long, drawn-out seasons.

    When fandom turns to addiction

    "There's a lot of sports enthusiasts that are involved in the game. But what makes its more of an addiction is the immediate gratification, which ultimately leads to addiction. ... It's a form of escape," said Kimberly Young, a psychologist and founder of the Center for Internet Addiction.
    Young said she is seeing more patients for whom fantasy sports is more than just a hobby.
    "Ten years ago we weren't talking about (fantasy sports addiction)," she said. "Now, there's a whole new generation, so you have a more diverse group of people, more immediate gratification, more advertising to it -- to those who are clinically addicted." Most of these people have other issues as well, she said, like obsessive-compulsive disorder or depression, on top of their fantasy sports addiction.
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    But Young cautions that she only sees the most extreme cases, where people shut off other parts of their lives. "People who have a mild problem aren't going to call the doctor," said Young.
    Ultimately, Young says, it boils down to the brain -- and the brain perceives all addiction the same, no matter what the activity is.
    Although there's sometimes money to be made on daily fantasy sports, Virginia Commonwealth's Dwyer argues that a fantasy addiction isn't the same as a gambling addiction. Gambling is an antisocial behavior, Dwyer said, while daily fantasy sports has much more pro-social behaviors that bring people together and make them feel connected. The Fantasy Sports Trade Association said that fantasy sports isn't gambling, a game of chance. It said fantasy sports is a game of skill.
    But for many, fantasy sports is just a way to extend their love of the game.
    "It's fun. It's a great distraction. It gets me more engaged in watching the games," Berger said.
    And for others, fantasy sports has become too much work. Just ask Okrent, its creator. He never anticipated it ballooning into the enterprise it is today. "If I had, I would be a very rich man," he said.
    He said he stopped playing in 1995, picked up a simpler league in 2001, then stopped for good in 2009.
    "I decided I wanted to be a fan again," he said, "to go to games, watch them, and listen to them simply for the sheer joy and beauty of the game."