Real or fantasy, football is now consumed by numbers

The real game gets filtered by the imaginary. OlegDoroshin / Shutterstock.com

Football has always been a numbers game. The long history of betting has meant that there are established odds on first goal scorers, final scores, clean sheets, cup winners, league position and the like. These odds are a familiar part of the consumption of football. But numbers are playing an increasingly prominent role in the way that football is appreciated and consumed by its fans.

With the rise of real-time in-game betting there has been an intensification of such processes. It’s now possible to bet with up-to-date odds as the game unfolds. This real-time betting is often combined with features such as the option to cash-out during the game – where gamblers, working against fluctuating odds, try to predict the optimum point to cash their bet so as to maximise their yield. Here betting and odds become an integral and more active part of the consumption of the unfolding game.

It’s not just betting that’s driven by more and more numbers – they also spill out into football coverage and drive conversation. TV, radio and newspaper reports are saturated with numerical accounts of the game, statistics about the performance of players, managers, teams and even referees.

These statistics are quoted in the pursuit of new or unpredictable insights into the game itself. Pass completion statistics, win ratios, bookings per game, the distances covered by individual players and many others stats become the focus of the debate. Statistics are used to try to engineer and legitimise different perspectives on football, to alter the perceptions of the consumer and to reveal hidden depths of the game – or, more often, to reinforce dominant accounts of the performance of managers, referees and players.

Every move logged. Rosli Othman / Shutterstock.com

Fantasy football

Numbers are so ingrained now in the way that football is consumed that they’re also seeping out of real football and into the imaginary. Fantasy football emerged in the 1990s, the popularity of the mid-90s TV show Fantasy Football League is representative of the interest in this pastime – and it has massively escalated in scale and complexity in the years since.

For those not familiar, fantasy football is a game in which you virtually manage imaginary football teams that draw upon the realities of the matches themselves and the performance of real players. The aim is to put together a team, using actual players from actual professional teams, to try to score the most points possible in an imagined league table.

The means of scoring points varies between the different versions of the game, but usually points are allotted for things like scoring goals, not conceding goals, assisting with goals, scoring a hat-trick, and so on. Some versions also have more subjective measures included. One of the largest fantasy football competitions, Dream Team, also includes points for players that score at least seven out of ten in the ratings given to them by the journalist covering that game.

The hundreds of thousands of teams found on Dream Team are indicative of the popularity and scale of fantasy football. So now the statistics that surround players are not only used to gauge their actual performance and their betting odds – they are also scrutinised for their value as a fantasy football player. And real football matches are consumed through the lens of these fantasy football metrics.

Real or fantasy? Tough to tell. mrmichaelangelo / Shutterstock.com

Video games

Fantasy football is far from the only imaginary game around. Football has also become a mainstay of video games providers. In these games, gamers become the football managers of actual teams – dealing with the financial details of the commercial side of the game to the coaching, management and transfer of players. These games, too, are generally played through data. The scale of data about football players and teams contained in these games is vast. The consequence is that the data in the video game comes to mediate the game of football itself.

The games rely on extensive and detailed data about football teams. Because of this, the knowledge accumulated from playing these football management games comes to blur with players and teams from the actual sport. Gamers can then come to understand and have expectations of actual football players based on the metrics they have consumed about that player within the video game – they might know how quick they expect a player to be, for instance, or perhaps the likelihood of injury or their shooting accuracy.

So the video game structures and shapes peoples’ understandings and expectations, sometimes before anything is known about the actual player or team. The information in these games is so detailed and accurate that there have been reports that the database used for the popular Football Manager games will be drawn upon by Prozone in their work with professional football clubs.

So, thanks to numbers, we’ve reached a time when often people’s understanding of football is funnelled through imaginary games, imaginary players, numerical constructs. It’s not unusual to understand this game through the stats that are produced, recited or played with.