“The game is the game”: The ultra-popularity of Fantasy Premier League among Nigerian football lovers

A part of the EPL experience

Olaide has his head in his hands, he’s just learnt that Arsenal conceded a goal within a minute of kick-off, in the English Football club’s Premier League fixture against Fulham. A lifelong Liverpool fan, Olaide couldn’t care less if Arsenal failed to win, but he was mourning a conceded goal because the Arsenal goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale and defender William Saliba were in his Fantasy Premier League (FPL) team. That goal all but assured that both players would have little impact on his score for the week’s round of fixtures.

“Shebi dem dey house?!” Olaitan loudly asks in Pidgin English, his question directed at no one and everyone in the vicinity at the same time. His logic was simple: Arsenal were playing a team that many would describe as a weaker opponent, on their home turf as well, an advantage that meant the possibilities of keeping a clean sheet was more than decent. “You know say Arsenal hate to dey keep clean sheet for house?” a guy popularly referred as SK retorted to Olaide’s question, recalling Arsenal’s nail-biting win against Bournemouth last season, after conceding two goals in the match’s early minutes.

SK, a Manchester United fan, also wasn’t invested in an Arsenal win, but he wanted the London club to complete a comeback if winger Bukayo Saka would be involved in the goals. “Saka dey my FPL team,” he said. Another guy, Tonye, this time an Arsenal fan, wanted midfielder Odegaard to be in on the action. When Arsenal won a penalty in the second half and Odegaard converted from the spot, no one screamed “GOAL BALL!” louder than Tonye. It was obvious he wasn’t just celebrating an equalising goal.

Fantasy Premier League is an online fantasy draft game, centred on the English Premier League (EPL), where fans, pundits and even football players create teams on a fixed budget. At the start of every season, every FPL manager is given a budget of 100 million pounds to draft players of varying prices, selecting 15 players across positions without exceeding the budget. Every round of match fixtures, players are scored based on tangible, real life contributions like goals, assists, clean sheets, added bonus points and more. The cumulated points represents a score for the week, and each week’s tally count towards the total at the end of the PL season.

During the season, FPL managers are afforded a free transfer for each new fixture week, allowing for some flexibility to transfer players in and out within budget. There also chips—bench boost, free hit, triple captain and wildcards—that help with transfers and score boosts, although they must be used sparingly. Prizes are also offered to different tiers of winners: The overall champion for this season’s FPL champion will win a 7-night break in the UK inclusive of two VIP hospitality at two PL matches next season, travel and accommodation inclusive. That’s just the headliner, in a package that includes a laptop, noise-cancelling headphones and more. There are prizes for 2nd to 20th positions, as well as in-season prizes for Manager of the Month and Manager of the Week.

Last season’s tally for the total number of Fanasy Premier League managers was reported to be well over 11 million. Given the increasing popularity of the fantasy game, this season’s should be higher. It’s far more than the 76,000-plus players who registered when the Premier League officially launched FPL, along with its website, in 2002. Before then, a 25-year old computer programmer, Andrew Wanstein introduced fantasy football to the UK, having been inspired by a fantasy baseball game he was introduced to by a family friend from the US. Debuting in the 1991-92 season, Wanstein’s Fantasy League attracted about 700 players.

Although Wanstein wasn’t involved in the creation of Fantasy Premier League, there’s no doubt he inspired the now global phenomenon. “The drive was just sort of enthusiasm for football,” he told ESPN late last year. Even with its glossy prizes, the same drive is what’s pushing FPL’s ubiquity amongst many football lovers across the world—Nigeria included. “It’s just another way to be a fan and engage the game,” Olaide says of being invested in FPL. “Before, all I really cared about was Liverpool and I would watch some matches between the bigger teams, but these days I keep tabs on almost every team so I can find players I can transfer in and out of my team.

Austin, a self-proclaimed FPL champion, is currently a part of three leagues, one of which he paid a 5,000 naira registration. Last year, he was one of 43 managers in the paid league, winning the 150,000 naira top prize for finishing at the top position. “Towards the end of the season, na FPL consume my mind because I don make mouth say I go win,” he says, stating that he’s a sore loser and would’ve probably gone through a bout of depression if he hadn’t ended up at the top spot after spending nearly half the season in that position. A Liverpool fan, Austin says he watched every match possible in May, even though the club he supports was “pretty much nonsense” last season.

This season, Austin isn’t that confident of winning the prize money for the league because there’s been an almost 100% increase in managers. “Now, we have about 80 people and the prize money has doubled but these guys are not playing this year,” he says. Last weekend, he got 64 points, and he’s somewhere in the middle of the pack so far, which means he’s playing catch-up. But that doesn’t mean he’s lost interest in this season’s Fantasy Premier League; the other two leagues he’s part of consists close friends and he doesn’t want to be at the receiving end of humorous, depreciating banter on a weekly basis.

The same motivation is what pushes Oyinkan. “I’m better at dishing banter than taking it,” she says. “So anytime I have a bad FPL week, I avoid social media. My friends know, so they even call me out on Twitter when I don’t respond to group texts. It’s even worse when Man Utd now decide to lose on the same weekend.” Banter is a Nigerian specialty, one that we use in easing and deflecting the debilitating social conditions of the country. On football twitter, it’s known that Nigerians let the jokes fly, from sardonic humour to off-the-cuff observations. Even the country’s national team isn’t spared.

Considering the ultra-popularity of football and the Premier League, along with the global recognition of our bantering abilities, it’s no surprise that Fantasy Premier League is popular amongst young Nigerians. Even those who don’t play have heard about it. According to a tweet from August 2022, Nigeria had 338,250 FPL managers, a number that would have undoubtedly increased as last season progressed, and should be more during this season.

For all its allure, some people still drop off eventually. “After like 10 weeks that I knew I was just arranging rubbish, I gave up last season,” Olaide says. “It requires dedication.” For some, their issue is ideological, especially since the points are fixed. “I don’t like the fact that a player can play really well and not end up with a goal or assist, then be given 3 points,” Austin says. As he explains, it collapses the nuances of the game into straightforward numbers, which can belittle the contributions of some players and overly glamourize others.

As SK points out, the rules are there as a framework for transparency, so players aren’t just awarded points due to the discretion of some people. “It’s just setting up your squad to optimize those fixed metrics,” Oyinkan says with a wry laugh. “Last last, we go again every weekend. The game is the game sha.”