Denver Broncos rookie wide receiver Kendall Hinton was forced to play quarterback against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday because the team's regular quarterbacks were sidelined by coronavirus.
CNN  — 

This NFL season has been a chaotic mix of coronavirus precautions, postponed games and infected players, all unfolding under a looming concern for the health of players, staff and spectators.

It’s also made for the wildest season yet of fantasy football, and this billion-dollar business and its legions of devotees have had to get creative to make it work.

Yes, fantasy football is a billion-dollar business. An estimated 60 million people in North America play fantasy sports, and the entire industry is worth about $7.2 billion, according to Statista. About 40 million people alone play fantasy football, by far the most popular fantasy sport.

It can feel like a frivolous pursuit at a time when the pandemic is claiming so many lives, but to enthusiasts fantasy football is a welcome distraction from the sobering realities of 2020.

For those who don’t play, it works like this: You draft football players from across the NFL to play on your own virtual team. The better they play in real NFL games, the more points they score for your fantasy team in head-to-head matchups with other teams in your league.

Cincinnati Bengals players and coaches wear face masks while standing for the national anthem before a game November 22, 2020, against the Washington Football Team.

This means that every fantasy football team “owner” needs to keep up with stats, schedules and injuries in order to do well.

During a normal season, that’s a complex task. This season, it’s an all-out scramble.

The NFL has postponed games, fantasy leagues have added new contingencies and fantasy managers have been forced to juggle lineups to replace players who’ve tested positive for Covid-19.

Coronavirus is throwing football season into chaos

Take the last few weeks of the NFL alone:

  • During the most recent window of testing at the end of November, 33 players and 53 personnel tested positive for the virus, according to an NFL release – about twice as many positive tests among players as there were three weeks ago. Since training camp in August, 156 NFL players have tested positive. And remember: every positive test represents a possible risk that is far more important than sports.
  • Because of confirmed coronavirus cases, the Denver Broncos had no quarterbacks available for last Sunday’s game and were forced to play several practice-squad players – including a rookie wide receiver who started at quarterback. These little-known athletes are not among the hundreds of players that fantasy owners have spent time researching and drafting for their teams.
  • More than 20 players on the Baltimore Ravens, including reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson, have tested positive for Covid-19 and their Thanksgiving game with the Pittsburgh Steelers was postponed three times before culminating in a rare Wednesday matchup this week. (NFL games are typically played on Sundays and on Monday and Thursday nights.)
  • These postponements have created a huge scheduling conundrum, and sites such as ESPN and Yahoo that host fantasy football leagues have had to release special scheduling plans to make sure fantasy team owners know what to do and when.
  • New local coronavirus restrictions in Santa Clara County, California, mean the San Francisco 49ers can’t play in their home stadium and will play two home games in Arizona instead. Will that create further complications? No one knows.
Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens will miss at least one game after testing positive for Covid-19.

Experts say it’s made fantasy football more challenging

Some sports columnists are wondering whether the NFL can finish its season on time without major adjustments like placing players and staff in a strict covid-free bubble, as the NBA did successfully this year.

With so many things muddling up the season right now, you’d think fantasy football fans would be throwing in the towel. But one expert thinks it’s just created exciting new challenges.

Liz Loza, an NFL analyst and fantasy football expert, says engagement among fantasy football players has actually increased this fall at Yahoo Sports, and that’s good news at a time when so much of the sports world is struggling.

“Nothing is simple in 2020, broadly speaking. This has been a year that has impossible to plan ahead for anything, and that piece has forced us to really live in the moment in so many ways.” she says.

“But this has presented an opportunity to fantasy football enthusiasts and diehards to really challenge themselves. If they win this year, they can say to themselves, ‘I’ve really done some mental and strategic gymnastics, and I’ve earned this.’”

Cam Newton of the New England Patriots missed a key game this season after testing positive for coronavirus.

Fantasy football is the kind of niche passion that can either inspire intense 45-minute conversations or make people’s eyes glaze over at the first mention of a roster deadline. But anyone who’s had to adjust plans on the fly or fight for little joys during this stressful year will recognize the struggles and triumphs of fantasy football devotees.

“This hobby, in a time where not much else is happening, is a brilliant distraction,” Loza says. That’s one of the reasons she thinks there’s been a spike in interest in fantasy sports. “This fall and winter, you’re probably going to be staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m. a lot,” she says, “and you might as well be doing it while thinking about your fantasy roster.”

The fantasy football industry has been forced to adapt

Many sports sites publish daily in-depth fantasy analyses, and there are countless shows and podcasts covering the arcane decisions fantasy football players must make to stay competitive.

Like the NFL, these sites have been scrambling to adjust.

On Yahoo’s popular show “Fantasy Football Live,” of which Loza is a part, cast members have had to get used to a new virtual set. Analysts have created new statistics to help fans create plans for their fantasy teams, and team owners have had to make contingency plans to keep their lineups from imploding when games are postponed or players are quarantined.

Fans, seated in separate groups because of the pandemic, watch the Buffalo Bills play the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium on November 15, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona.

While postponements and the sudden absence of key players have bred frustration, they’ve also created what the fantasy sports world, and people in general, need to stay upbeat right now: New and interesting things to talk about.

And, danger and disappointments aside, this unprecedented football season may be leading people to appreciate sports in a way they may not have before.

“The things that I love most about sports regardless of gender, age, race, creed, is we love the stories – we love something we learned about the human condition,” Loza says.

And as long as games keep being played and players stay safe, fantasy football team owners will be along for the ride – no matter how bumpy it may get.