"Spreadsheets Are Dope": The Allure of the DIY College Basketball Fantasy League
It's easy enough to pick a NCAA tournament bracket online, but if you want to play a fantasy game with actual college players, you'll need to make it yourself.
Think of something you love to do. Maybe it's playing with a pet or reading dense novels in translation or puppetry or that one video game where you drive a truck across Europe. Or maybe it's watching and caring and shouting more about college basketball than even you know is right. Whatever it is, this is a thing that's a blessing for you; your days are brighter and better for it.
Then ask yourself: Do you love this thing you love enough that, in order to get just a little bit more of it, you would willingly choose to use Microsoft Excel in your free time?
Maybe the answer is no. Probably, actually, the answer is no. Even if you understand what VLOOKUP means, even if you are one hundred percent good with the recreational use of tables, there is still the cold material act of it. You're in a spreadsheet, and no one told you to be there. You probably would not do this. Why would you do this?
"Andy and I are high school buds," Gaurav Shastri told me. He's a graduate student in medical physics and nuclear engineering at Georgia Tech; Andy is Andy Narotsky, a product developer at the Campbell Soup Company. They're from Rochester, New York, and are by all appearances well-adjusted and normal young men. And yet this is how Shastri finished that sentence: "Basically we're both super into sports and super into spreadsheets, and creating ridiculous fantasy things kind of falls directly into the center of that Venn diagram."
These are the people who love college basketball just that much. They are willing to do the Excel work.
Shastri and Narotsky were inspired by a simple and rather elegant DIY fantasy basketball format called Starting 10, the rules of which you can find on Reddit's /r/sportsbook page. Three years ago, they set out to expand and improve upon it, first for the NCAA tournament and then outward in every possible direction. They've created versions of the game for college football, the NBA, and the NFL, as well as the Oscars and last year's Presidential election. They created a version for the Rio Olympics that was so intricate and involved—"Because there were so many events in the Olympics it was unreasonable to ask people to really research who was going to win Women's 10m Air Pistol vs 3m," Narotsky said, "so we lumped all events into like categories, all shooting sports went together, all aquatics, all team sports and so on"—that I got stressed out just trying to understand it. But the initial inspiration was the NCAA tournament, and that is still what they care about most.
"This format just seemed so cool that we wanted to do it for other events and there's nothing out there as far as we've seen that does this sort of thing," Narotsky said. "And spreadsheets are dope, so we just did it ourselves." This is what we're talking about. This is where we are.
The way it works, in Shastri and Narotsky's league, is that—actually, it's better if they explain this.
"It's basically weighted by round and seed," Shastri says. "For NCAA, anyway; our other ones differ. So, like, example: if Melo Trimble drops 25 in the first round and 15 in the second round we would have: (Seed6)*(Round1)*(25 points) + (Seed6)*(Round2)*(15 points). Melo would then score you 330 points. And once they're out of the tournament, they obviously score zero."
In 2014, the first year they did the league, Narotsky won behind the tournament-long run of Shabazz Napier and his seventh-seeded Connecticut Huskies. You get it.
They write their own formulas for their other DIY fantasy games, and have refined their processes over time; it's an iterative thing, you will not be surprised to know, and they have a program that pulls results into their spreadsheet from ESPN, which saves them a great deal of manual data entry and also means results update just about in real time. It's still a decent amount of work, although they say that most of it is maintenance at this point. And the league has expanded and expanded, into a friends of friends of friends sort of thing. A Twitter follower put me in touch with Shastri. "Never met him in my life," Shastri told me later.
"We grew up near a family of three brothers who are insane college hoops fans," Adam Doster told me, by way of explaining what is certainly the most astonishing DIY fantasy league I have ever seen. "The oldest is the commish. He just turned 40, and devotes an unspeakable amount of time to running this thing, despite having two kids. The 12 owners are invested to a degree that's pathological, especially because there's no material reward. One guy writes up a Blue Ribbon preview each fall that's legit 70 pages. We have a 'defend your draft' party before every season that's essentially a roast. Our Slack feed is non-stop nonsense. I think we all realize how unique it is, and we like doing this thing nobody else does."
"This thing" is a fantasy league in which the player pool consists of the entirety of Division I college basketball. Teams play two games a week from November through March, in three divisions. Owners swap players in and out of their lineup and make moves on a functioning waiver wire; it's a keeper league, and owners draft accordingly.
That is, it all works like your NBA fantasy basketball league does, except because of the way the NCAA is—or, more to the point, because of its fundamental self-justifying conceit that the players are somehow subordinate to the teams—someone had to build all of it from scratch.
Micah Heilicser, the commissioner, has been building it for years. "The league really is my pride and joy," he told me. "I have put an untold number of hours into the day-to-day operations over the last 14 years. I have many regrets in other areas of my life, but this is not one of them."
The league has been going since the 2003-04 season; the roster for the winning entry in the Doster's first year, which was also the first and last championship for Heilicser, featured Julius Hodge, Antoine Wright, and David Lee. The league has refined itself considerably since then, primarily due to the work of its tireless commissioner and creator ("He's magical," Jonathan Doster, Adam's brother, says). There are searchable databases and a spartan but highly functional website; Heilicser has "a complete archive for every game in league history" and is working on a searchable database of every player in league history. There is no money involved.
Because the league is so big, it requires that owners follow players from all across the country and value them accurately. "Josh Hawkinson has basically been the most valuable player in our league over the last two years," Jonathan Doster says, "and no one ever talks about him because he plays on a bad Washington State team. But the love for the Hawk among our twelve idiot friends runs deep."
If all this sounds like a lot of work, it is because it is a lot of work. It is a close-knit group—Heilicser proudly notes that of the 14 current members of the league, a dozen went to the same high school over the span of a decade—but also one united in its willingness to stay up late watching meaningless Pac-10 games because those games mean a great deal to their team. "My middle brother quit after seven years because the league was causing him too much stress," Heilicser told me. "His teams were consistently the best, but he took things way too seriously and after an upset playoff loss decided he couldn't handle it anymore. He used the excuse of just having his first kid, but we all know why."
"I think exactly because it's the hardest experience, it makes it more fulfilling somehow," Adam Doster says. "Like, if you do well, you really feel like you owned it, like you cracked the hoops code. There's also the draw of the snob; we've got this little world that is rich and you mainstream jags don't know anything about it. And once you get the infrastructure in place, college hoops is particularly well suited for fantasy. So many teams and systems, so many players, so much instability, so many folk heroes."
The league has been in existence long enough that it has its own mythology, heroes and villains now a decade out of basketball. The Dosters to this day carry a grudge against Alan Anderson that stems from one particularly costly day of poor shooting in 2004; one owner in the league is Facebook friends with Brandon Roy, a relationship that dates back to when he drafted him during Roy's first season at Washington.
I should probably tell you, in the interest of disclosure and in defiance of all good sense, about my college basketball fantasy league. I do not do the Excel work myself, but I have participated in a made-by-hand fantasy league for eight years now. You can call it analog or artisan if you want, but just know before you do so that you are referring to something that involves my friend Brendan spending a couple hours on a weekend determining which players are or are not draftable as centers.
Nothing about our league has changed, really, give or take some Excel-related innovations from Brendan; I am happy to report that this year marks the debut of VLOOKUP in his "very basic" Excel document. The rest of it is the rest of it: rotisserie scoring in the usual rotisserie categories, a slow draft conducted over email, a re-draft before the Sweet 16 to fill the holes that the first two rounds shoot into those rosters.
The real changes in the league have come from the lives and circumstances of the people in it. "When it started, I was in grad school and only teaching part-time, so I had a lot of free time, or at least a lot of unstructured time," Brendan told me. "So doing it certainly beat reading articles pulled from JStor or, later, writing my dissertation. That probably should have been a sign that maybe the dissertation wasn't going to get finished." Now, eight years later, there is a rambunctious child climbing on and barking specific four-year-old instructions at Brendan while he decides on Biggie Swanigan's positional eligibility. He does it anyway.
We all do it anyway, in the face of any number of compelling arguments against. It's a lot of work for Brendan—he works two jobs, and so friends are helping him with the scoring this year—and a strange sort of secret for the rest of us. It helps us enjoy what we enjoy about this time of year, which is some combination of being wrong about everything, being surprised by the shape that wrongness takes, and doing all that in the company of people we care about.
Whenever I want to reach for something bigger than that—that what we're doing is somehow recuperative, that in its unmonetized and artisanal dorkiness our made-up league is in some way a critique or subversion of the wheedling brand-bloated television behemoth that the tournament has become—I just don't. I drafted SMU guard Shake Milton while I was writing this and made an Aqua Teen Hunger Force joke in a group email to a bunch of dads; I am honestly not sure how much deep analysis any of this can support. That is not the same thing as saying it isn't meaningful, however—you don't just do something for eight years by accident, especially when there are so many other things to do.
People keep asking Brendan if he's going to do the league again, and he keeps saying yes, and there is a reason for this. It's another route to appreciation, another way to be with friends and around a treasured and dorky thing we have in common. Fantasy is a featherweight thing, and fleeting; fantasies loses some of their creative power and most of their appeal when you pin them down and pull them apart. It's just a league, but it doesn't have to really mean something to mean a lot.
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