It’s not an exaggeration to say that fantasy sports saved my life — just not the ones you’re probably thinking of.
Back in 1996, after the beating Hurricane Fran gave North Carolina, finding a restroom and meeting day-to-day caloric benchmarks were dicey propositions for me. I had, though, built an “e-wrestling” fan-fiction league with my cousin and owned a couple of primitive sports simulation games (playing them at a public computer lab funded by the private largesse of future disgraced presidential candidate John Edwards). I didn’t care about real sports if I wasn’t playing them, and I didn’t care about my real home because it didn’t exist (I was in the custody of a legal guardian), but I loved the fantastic sports fantasies I created because the worlds were all mine.
The video game I played most back then, a text-based wrestling simulator called TNM, upended everything I knew about gaming. I wanted results and story, not platforming Mario jumps and tedious Final Fantasy-style level-grinding, and TNM — now in its seventh iteration and still obsessively updated by its German creator, Oliver Copp — delivered the goods. “The Monday Night Wars had just heated up, and I was in university when I released the first version of TNM by uploading it to my personal homepage at the university,” says Copp, who quickly witnessed the game become a viral sensation of the web 1.0 era. “My university internet had a 2Mbit internet uplink at the time. When I posted the download link to rec.sports.pro-wrestling, it took all of an hour for my entire university to go offline completely because downloaders were hammering the site. I got into serious hot water over it, including getting my homepage yanked by the admins.”
There was the obvious appeal — i.e., being able to match Ric Flair against Hulk Hogan at a time when they worked for different wrestling companies — but Copp suspects people were playing for much more human reasons. “Many users were bullied, outcasts or introverts, and TNM was a creative vehicle that helped them cope with their frustrations,” he tells me. “If you were using it to run an entire fantasy league with other players, you could feel good about yourself if your wrestlers ‘won’ a match. But never in a million years could I have seen [TNM’s immediate popularity] coming.”
I was one of those outcasts, bullied by my own father, a kid who, again, along with his cousin, had fallen into a fantasy wrestling league that relied on TNM to simulate matches. And as my own real life got less and less pleasant, I receded further into the fantasy wrestling world. I moved to e-federations or “e-feds” that were entirely scripted by the users, most notably the International Internet Wrestling Federation, where a combination of 14-year-old boys and thirtysomething lawyers combined to write several million words of high-quality fanfiction. And nobody in those days wrote more words — or better words — than Jim Jividen.
Jividen, now a college professor, has always been an obsessive sports guy — a walking encyclopedia, who a few years after leaving e-wrestling, cleaned house on ESPN’s 2 Minute Drill trivia show — but even he became involved in e-wrestling for reasons that transcended sports. “I went away to college when my brother Joe was 9,” Jividen says. “He and I ran the wrestling characters together. I’d do all the writing, but I’d run it all by him. For me, the time spent e-wrestling was almost entirely about building a relationship with my brother for the first time as adults — everything else was a distant second.”
Today, Jividen still maintains a blog, hundreds of posts deep, that works through a fantasy history of pro wrestling that begins with the athletic Ricky Steamboat, not the lumbering Hulk Hogan, becoming the world champion and torchbearer for the WWF during the 1980s. “There was a value in being part of the narrative as opposed to a passive observer,” Jividen says of his time in e-wrestling. “If there’s now a fan empowerment element of contemporary sports, e-wrestling was a leading indicator of that. Think of the explosion in fantasy sports, everyone’s a general manager now — it’s more similar than not.”
Markus Heinsohn, another German programmer, did the same for baseball when he created the ultra-intricate Out of the Park Baseball series that has allowed stats-crunching hardball stans to play out hundreds of simulated years of real and totally fictional baseball. “Out of the Park is, of course, the features we build into it, but it also becomes the stories you the player — who becomes the owner or the general manager — can extract from it,” he told me when I interviewed him in 2016. “No two experiences of the game are the same. Some players may play a century deep. Others may take an aborted season, like the strike-canceled 1994, and play through it [now, of course, they could start the 2020 season on time]. The players take our matrix and create their own baseball universe from it.”
During our interview, Heinsohn, noting the power of such fantasies, referenced Robert Coover’s classic novel The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. The book had long been a favorite of mine as well, telling the story of a miserable, low-level accountant, the eponymous Henry Waugh, who devotes nearly all of his waking hours to simulating and tracking his imaginary baseball league using notebooks and dice. And when Waugh’s favorite player, the strapping young pitcher Rutherford, is killed by an improbable but not impossible beanball, he begins rolling dice wildly, simulating year after year, losing sight of his ability to distinguish reality from fiction. Finally, Waugh’s baseball simulation advances so far into the future that it becomes the organizing religion of the entire fictional society that watches it, a self-contained plane of existence built around worship of the poetics of baseball. Rutherford himself passes into myth, with the population of this imaginary world wondering if he had ever existed at all.
Waugh’s story is extreme, to be sure, but plenty of real people have found solace in their fantasy sports characters. Ryan Christie, a veteran of several tours in Iraq, often lost himself in the “create-a-player” features of games like Madden and NBA 2K, developing a player before devoting hours completing the tasks needed to maximize his skills. “I don’t watch much live sports, definitely not the NBA or NFL,” Christie tells me. “But this was something to do. And when you’re isolated or stressed out, it’s something you can throw yourself into. This sort of trivial sports simulation becomes realer than real, even if you know it’s unimportant. In fact, it probably helps to know it’s unimportant, because you realize that this activity is the distraction from that other unpleasant stuff.”
Nathan Zimmerman, a computer science lecturer and e-sports athlete, became my closest friend while repeatedly thrashing me in games of Super Smash Bros., Starcraft II and Europa Universalis. The hours we spent playing those games (all actual e-sports you can continue to watch on Twitch, thankfully), sharing ideas and developing strategies, enabled us to forge the strongest of bonds. Now stuck in Philadelphia, near the epicenter of the East Coast COVID-19 outbreak, the gaming service Steam offers him an outlet for his tensions.
“I didn’t need to go out much before this happened, and I’m fortunate that I can both work and play from home,” he tells me. “The gaming itself, the act of going head-to-head with someone in an e-sport, offers a marked contrast to passively watching all the expensive commercials play while, say, the Chiefs win the Super Bowl. There’s no challenge, not even playing a supposedly high-level computer, like pitting your mind against another human mind. If people haven’t reached out to challenge or team up with their friends this way, to engage in competitive sports they can actually play and play safely, this is a golden opportunity to do so.”
As for me, even as I continue writing stories about the real sports that are beginning to disappear from view, I’ve never stopped developing the fictional universe in which my 1990s-era fantasy wrestlers competed. In fact, former New York Press publisher Russ Smith has published dozens of them at his site Splice Today — allowing me to continue revisiting a fantasy world running parallel to this one, in which I’ve worked out issues related to all aspects of my life.
Like the real-life Jim Jividen and the not-so-real Henry Waugh, I refuse to let go of the world I’ve created. Because for most people, when their preferred sports are in full swing, they’re content to sit back and see the show. But for us, we wanted to use our imaginations to be the show.