As part of a work experiment (we should all be so lucky), I deposited $50 in a DraftKings account a little over a week ago. The idea was to see how far I could make that money last, while hopefully learning a lot more about the phenomenon of “daily fantasy games” in the process.
How is the industry thriving to the point that DraftKings could spend $81 million on TV ads between Aug. 1 and a week ago? (FanDuel, a similar enterprise, dropped $20 million in the same span – a sum that might otherwise seem otherworldly if not for the DraftKings blitz.) How is all of this legal? After all, gambling online on which team you think will win is illegal. But gambling on players in those games isn’t? (I’ll dive far deeper into this subject in a specific post later on down the road).
For now, I want to delve into the psyche of a DraftKings player. What follows is based on my own (limited) experience, my observations of the world, just enough reading to be dangerous and a healthy heap of good old-fashioned opinion.
Traditional fantasy games, like perhaps the fantasy football league you’ve been in for countless years with your college friends (I have one of these), are at their core about camaraderie. The money at stake is a secondary part of the equation – usually enough to make it “worthwhile” but amounting to a few dollars a week at stake over the course of a fantasy season. It’s fun to win a little cash at the end, but it’s just as meaningful to keep up with old friends, talk a little trash and have some fun.
Daily fantasy games offer very little, if any, of that camaraderie. Any of the larger-scale games are, by necessity, going to involve almost all strangers. (I played in a contest last week with more than 400,000 entrants). Peter Schoenke, President of Rotowire.com and Chairman of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, says he believes the daily games have risen in popularity because, well, they are possible in a way that they didn’t used to be.
“The main driver of this is the technology and the ability to participate in fantasy sports in a way that’s real time,” Schoenke said in a phone interview last week, a dialogue he initiated after my initial piece on DraftKings ran. “You can play these games on your phone. Twenty years ago that didn’t exist. Even five years ago, taking it to that level and being able to constantly play all the time just wasn’t there. … It goes with the younger generation, always being on the phone.”
I think he’s right to a degree. There’s an element of this that is pure convenience. I proved that to myself when I was bored on the elliptical at the gym earlier last week and slapped together a quick fantasy baseball lineup in a $3 DraftKings game. It killed 15 mindless minutes on a repetitive machine. Maybe it wasn’t the best use of my time, but it was available and made the minutes pass quickly (something that could describe a lot of the “where did that time go” minutes/hours many of us spend on our phones, but again that’s probably a larger story for another time).
But I also think something larger is at play. The main selling point for DraftKings and other daily fantasy games is that they appeal to one primary sensibility: the desire to get rich quick.
And it’s my contention that getting rich quick is the new American Dream.
Now, this isn’t to say that people throughout history haven’t wanted to be rich. My smart wife reminds me that people flocked to California in the 1800s for adventure, sure, but also for the prospect of finding gold. There are plenty of other less-dramatic but similar adventures throughout our country’s history.
But it is to say what we think of as the “American Dream” has changed. James Truslow Adams defined the American Dream beautifully in 1931, and I’ll excerpt it here: It is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. … It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
What we used to think of as the “American Dream” was basically an ideal of upward mobility. And I would contend that what many of us pictured as the American Dream was rising up from a lower economic class into that comfortable class of white picket fences.
That was the good life.
But that dream has become far less attainable as our country experiences an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor. I’ve read a decent number of books and articles lately about this gap in both wealth and opportunity. I’ve read a lot of words that make me both uncomfortable with the direction of our country and appreciative of my solid standing in the shrinking middle class, a strange dichotomy I’m striving to reconcile. The most notable, heartbreaking and well-researched of the things I’ve been reading lately is a book called, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis” by Robert Putnam. I would recommend it to anyone.
Still, though, I’m not here to give you a winter reading list. I am trying to explain how DraftKings and the economic gap are, in my mind, connected. The crux is this: If slowly climbing the economic ladder one rung at a time – hopefully arriving in the comfortable middle – seems that much harder, all-or-nothing fantasies become more easily entertained.
Even someone like me, who makes a comfortable living in regards to wants and needs, became engulfed and seduced by the possibility of winning $2 million (the top prize in a $20 game I entered, the one I referenced earlier with more than 400,000 participants).
Daily fantasy games are lottery tickets with the added seduction of making each participant believe that skill is the overriding component needed to win big. DraftKings is smartly run and expertly built. It might not be what we asked for, but it’s a reflection – for better or worse – of America.