For football fans, there are few things more excruciating than the wait for a new season to begin during the annual footballing sabbatical in the summer.
These gaps are often plugged by international football but there are many who feel that World Cups or Euros can quite match up to the weekly dose of the excitement of club football; the bread and butter of the sport.
But as the sport has evolved over the years, so has the experience of consuming it. In the internet age, the mid-season gap has been shrunk to an extent with constant communications from the club on social media and the drama of the transfer window. Football now is pretty much a year-long business.
For Premier League fans, though, there’s even more. The Fantasy Premier League, or FPL has it become to be known popularly.
It’s an online game that puts you in the shoes of a fantasy manager, where you pick real-life players that score points for you depending on their on-field performances.
But from being just a fantasy game when it began in 2002, FPL has grown exponentially. The 2019-’20 season had over 7.6 million people playing the game the world over.
India, where the popularity of English top-flight football has skyrocketed over the past decade, was the country with the sixth-highest number of FPL managers in 2019-’20 with over 2.2 lakh people playing the game.
Now the build-up to the new season, on social media especially, is equally dominated by the FPL frenzy as much as transfers or tactics or statistics about the teams. Screenshots of probable teams are everywhere, so are tips and suggestions of what’s the best strategy to build your team. FPL now forms a major part of the build-up of not just the Premier League season but each of its gameweeks.
“There was always a strategic element to FPL, but now there’s just a lot of content on Twitter, and on websites, you have a lot of stats that can help you build your team. There’s a huge frenzy around it now compared to when I started playing in 2007,” Pulasta Dhar, a sports commentator and football writer in India, told Scroll.in.
An avid player for over a decade, Dhar decided to channelise his passion for FPL and started a podcast called Desi FPL last year. Inviting fellow players for discussions, the podcast aims to answer the most common questions on the minds of FPL managers before a transfer deadline every week.
“I simply love the FPL experience. I am as excited about it as I was during my first season. So with the number of managers in India growing, I decided to make some content on FPL with an Indian touch and have an outlet to share my FPL passion,” Dhar added.
He is not the only one who puts a lot of thought into what is still perceived by many as just a fantasy sport. Anustup Sikdar, a channel management professional who’ll be playing his 15th FPL season this year, invests a lot of time into setting his team right.
“For around 30-40 minutes a day, I prepare for my gameweek. And 24-48 hours before the deadline, I usually start working on my excel sheets,” Sikdar told Scroll.in.
“I like excel sheets and being in a job which entails working in excel a lot, I like numbers too. So the xG, xGA stuff interests me a lot. I try to read up as much as possible on various sites and on Twitter before making my team,” he added.
Sikdar began playing the game at a cyber cafe in his college in 2005 and hasn’t looked back since. An FPL veteran in the truest sense of the term.
From being an online game a group of Premier League loving friends would play for nothing more than bragging rights, the FPL has become a serious affair with more to it than the excitement for the points gained at the end of each gameweek.
“The best thing about FPL is that it allows everyone to improve their ability of calculated guesses in a relaxed manner,” said Sreya Mazumder, a doctor by profession who also freelances as a sports writer.
“It is an excellent indicator of the fact that we would never be able to manage clubs with a fixed budget – I realized long back that I’m no Sean Dyche,” she added.
Sreya is relatively new to the FPL bandwagon and a relaxed player compared to Dhar and Sikdar. She believes that the points outcome eventually comes down to luck however much ever one strategises. But she isn’t averse to the wide-ranging emotions that FPL draws out of its players... mostly agonising ones when things don’t quite go to plan.
“A couple of years ago, midway through the season I got so frustrated with the lack of points, I relinquished control of my squad to a close friend who is somewhat of an FPL whisperer,” Sreya said.
“I didn’t like most of his decisions, but he did help me finish in a respectable position,” she added.
FPL does strange things to its managers. Even though it’s always easy to pass it off as just a fantasy game, the process of playing it can be quite unnerving.
For Dhar, his obsession of FPL almost caught him in a fix once while giving commentary for an I-League match. The match was having a dull period and he sneaked into the FPL Twitter page to check an update that had just been posted. Unfortunately for him, he ended up missing a goal in the game he was commentating for. He recovered just about to see off his job, but it’s a moment that’s stayed with him.
“It was the craziest thing I’ve done due to FPL but I haven’t repeated it. I guess I learnt my lessons,” he added.
The FPL has evolved over the years and added a few tweaks to make the game interesting. The triple captain chip that triples the points of the player that’s been captained is one such change. If it works, you’ve hit a jackpot, if not, there are repercussions.
“I took a 16-point hit to bring in a player and triple captained him. He received a red card and gave me a big negative score. I was so frustrated that I’ve never picked that player ever in my FPL team,” said Arun Sitaraman, a banking professional who has also played the game for over a decade and spends over an hour every week to make his FPL team.
For all the heartbreaks that come with it, the FPL has had a growing influence on its players’ lives and also enhanced their thought processes.
“I think FPL helps you think objectively, and keep in mind all the underlying information before taking a decision,” said Sikdar.
“Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. And when you don’t, you pick yourself up, and look ahead. Kind of the same thing with life, no?” he added.
For Dhar, the game has helped him revive friendships.
“There were people I hadn’t spoken to for months, but now due to FPL, we talk every Friday. I don’t think it would otherwise have been possible to stay in touch given the rigours of life,” he said.
With hardly any time remaining for the first deadline of the season, India’s FPL managers are zeroing in on their first squad of the season, an entry considered quite crucial in their team’s final destiny. Some have been working on it for almost a month since the game was reset for the new season. They’ve been busy chalking out their strategies and it’s a part that has really got the managers even more hooked to the concept.
“While Premier League is definitely exciting, since the last four-five years, FPL has actually managed to eclipse Premier League for me,” said Sikdar.
The FPL bandwagon is rolling and taking more people in its wake every year.
“I have a friend who didn’t watch the Premier League but got addicted to the game and started following the Premier League because of it. Imagine, it’s become the other way round now,” said Dhar.
It’s perhaps the next most important thing after the football and very much an integral part of the Premier League experience in India. So hop onto the bus and get ready for the joyride. There’s not much time left.