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).