What is fantasy sports? Origin, history and all you need to know

From watching their favourite teams battle it out on the field to making their own virtual teams through fantasy sports, millions of fans have found a new way to get closer to the real action.

The popularity of fantasy sports has only risen in recent years, with reports suggesting that more than 100 million people in India have registered and played on fantasy sports platforms.

What is fantasy sports?

Fantasy sports, in simple words, is a game of making your virtual teams comprising real players who play professional sports. Before the start of a real-life sports match, participants make their fantasy team by selecting players from the actual match that they believe will perform well.

For instance, if the Indian cricket team is going to play against Australia in a T20 International, daily fantasy sports users can create their team by choosing any 11 players from India and Australia and compete against other fantasy sports users.

The result of these fantasy teams created by participants depends on the performance of the selected players in the match. Every platform has different scoring systems, but the better your chosen 11 perform in the match, the higher will be your chances of winning.

While some fans consider fantasy sports to be a form of engagement activity, many play it for the money involved.

Tens of millions of users compete with each other on dozens of different fantasy sports platforms every day. Participants pay a certain entry fee, known as contest entry amount, to compete against each other. The entry fee from all users in that particular contest is pooled in and the user with the best fantasy team wins the prize money.

So, in short, participants can win real money in fantasy sports games through real sports. For many, it is this thrill of using their sporting acumen to win money that attracts them.

While users earn money by making winning team combinations, platforms make money by charging an administrative fee from the entry amount.

Origins of fantasy sports

Fantasy sports apps like Dream11, My11Circle, Mobile Premier League (MPL) and Paytm First Gamesare some of the biggest players in the country and hold a significant share of what has now become a multi-billion dollar business globally.

But it took half a century for fantasy sports to become the phenomenon it is today.

Its roots can be dated back to the early 1960s in the USA that involved traditional fantasy sports such as American football and baseball. Although it was popular then, significant growth was only seen after the internet boom of the 1990s. 

The rise of the internet, along with technological advancements in the last two decades, have changed the way fans engage with their favourite sports.

“In recent times, sports and technology have converged beautifully to provide Indian sports fans with an immersive and engaging experience, successfully bridging the offline-online sporting divide,” reckoned Harsh Jain, co-founder of Dream11. 

In 2001, ESPN introduced its Super Selector game that allowed users to create their fantasy cricket team - the first instance of fantasy gaming being used in the sport of cricket.

Fantasy sports gained further admiration with the advent of sports leagues across the world and acceptance in India also followed.

“The underlying factor for the growth is fans’ passion for deeper engagement with the sport, and a desire to be part of the action,” believes Harsh Jain.

US-based DraftKings and FanDuel leveraged the popularity of the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) to become two of the largest fantasy sports firms of the world.

The launch of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and Indian Super League (ISL) fueled the growth of fantasy cricket and fantasy football in India. Later, traditional sports like kabaddi also gained momentum with the arrival of the Pro Kabaddi league (PKL).

Indian fantasy sports apps boast multiple sports such as football, basketball, volleyball, baseball and handball in their fantasy league roster.

Is fantasy sports legal?

However, the blurred distinction between fantasy sports and sports betting limited its expansion in India. But recent judgements from various courts have worked in favour of the platforms.

The Indian courts have time and again upheld the legality of fantasy sports in the country.

The Supreme Court of India passed a landmark judgement in 2019, deeming fantasy sports games of skill which requires the use of substantial knowledge, strategy, skill, and adroitness against other participants.

Most recently, the Rajasthan High Court dismissed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking the ban of Dream11, alleging that online fantasy sports are games of chance, thereby constituting the illegal act of gambling and betting.

"The result of fantasy game depends on skill of participant and not sheer chance, and winning or losing of the virtual team created by the participant is also independent of the outcome of the game or event in the real world; we hold that the format of online fantasy game is a game of mere skill and it has protection under Article 19 (1) (g) of the Constitution," the court observed.

Despite the legal hurdles, Indian firms have been able to grow exponentially and have even attracted wealthy investors.

Dream11, which is the largest fantasy sports platform of India, became the first Indian gaming company to attain a unicorn status by crossing a billion dollars in market valuation.

Other firms have also drawn the attention of private equity firms and venture capitalists and are steadily growing their market share.

The industry, though in its nascent stage in India, has received tremendous success and will continue to flourish as the internet becomes more accessible in the lower-tier cities and towns.

“There is huge headroom to convert passive sports fans into active participants and keep them engaged with their favourite sport,” claims Jain.