One of the recurring themes of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentaries is how sports are often used as a frame for a bigger picture, encapsulating intense personal struggles or broad social issues. That’s why the series’ entry on the invention of modern fantasy baseball, Silly Little Game, is such a refreshing side trip. It presents a return to sports as pure entertainment, devoid of any context involving money, power, and politics. The film replicates precisely what millions find so appealing about fantasy games: the opportunity to appreciate sports divorced from the pressures of following sports and worrying about peripheral concerns like salaries or scandals.
Today’s billion-dollar fantasy sports industry began in 1980 among a group of friends at a New York City rotisserie chicken restaurant. Their ringleader was Daniel Okrent, a magazine editor with an obsessive passion for baseball. Drawing up the basic rules for a competitive simulation of team ownership – each participant is the general manager of his or her own team, drafts actual major league players, and collects points for the real-world statistics they accumulate throughout the season – he recruited friends to take part in what was eventually christened Rotisserie League Baseball. Other fantasy games based on results of past seasons, like the venerable Strat-o-Matic, had been around for decades. Rotisserie’s innovation was the fusion of real-time verisimilitude with an addictive jolt of wish fulfillment. As Okrent explains, “We were clearly never going to own a major league club unless we invented our own major league.”
Filmmakers Adam Kurland and Lucas Jensen augment the admittedly slight tale with fanciful re-enactments of great moments in Roto history. These irreverent sketches are sometimes grating, but they are paired well with the dry wit of the interviewees – mostly journalists and writers, including the original Rotisserie League managers. These are people who know how to spin a great yarn (particularly Okrent, who brings his experience as a star panelist in Ken Burns’ Baseball), and Kurland and Jensen need only give them enough space. Their modest ambition is to put their subjects in the public record as the progenitors of what has become an immensely popular pastime, though the reaction of Rotisserie’s founding fathers (and mother) is largely muted. Toiling away for the better part of two decades, none of them saw fantasy games as anything more than a fad and, alternatively, a stressful annoyance attracting unwanted attention from geeky enthusiasts.
A fun, frothy trip through fantasy sports history, Silly Little Game leaves room for a hint of regret. Rotisserie’s founders were wonderful storytellers but disinterested businessmen. The financial benefits were mainly limited to t-shirt sales, with not a penny seen from the large, lucrative tout industry that evolved along with the game. More than anything, they were victims of poor timing: primitive methods of stat-keeping and league communications really put a damper on the hobby’s popularity in the pre-Internet era. Overall, though, they seem pleased with their legacy, which celebrates the impressive individual achievements behind the clunky, cynical mechanisms of professional sport. In other words, it’s all about the pure pleasure of having something to root for, even if it’s not the home team.
We give Silly Little Game 4 out of 5 stars and recommend it to anyone who has skipped a family reunion to participate in a fantasy draft. What’s your craziest fantasy sports story?