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 "