FPL Survey

As FPL’s impressive playing figures continue to grow each season, Jack Woodfield asks what has caused this surge, and whether the trend is set to continue.

Earlier this year I was with friends in a quaint, rustic pub preparing to watch Liverpool play Middlesbrough the final day of the Premier League season. We’d agreed to meet an hour or so before kick-off to order some food, but we all knew this was a ruse. We met earlier for one reason only: to check the day’s team news and see how this affected our FPL teams. For, in the end, the Liverpool game rarely held our attention, other than when I spilt my pint cheering Coutinho’s fabulous free kick goal. We were absorbed not just in the drama of the live game, but constant refreshes of Twitter and the official FPL page. FPL had changed our love and appreciation of football, and we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Over five million people worldwide have FPL accounts and this number rises year on year (by the end of the 2015/16 season there were just fewer than four million users). Of course, given all the inactive teams and the managers who update their team only periodically, the number of people who regularly play FPL is probably much less than five million, but irrespective of however dedicated players are, the incremental rise of overall FPL users is indicative of the overarching rise in popularity of fantasy football.

The convenience and technological capabilities at our disposal are no doubt significant factors behind this. Logging into FPL via your smartphone and making transfers with just a few taps of the screen is of stark comparison to the early 1990s when the Daily Telegraph’s version of Fantasy Football entailed sending entries either through post or by telephone. Nowadays users can create an account and auto-pick a team within minutes, and if you’re creating an office league it’s considerably easier to convince Buzzkill Dave to make up the numbers by telling him he can do it during his next tea run.

It’s easy enough to speculate why casual players sign up, and convenience is pertinent, but what’s more fascinating is understanding what makes users come back each year, vigour renewed, determined as ever to improve upon their score and claim with no lack of hyperbole that they will win the whole thing. Is it the cash prizes on offer? Is it the prospect of beating Buzzkill Dave after his obviously fluky but excellent start? Is it something else completely?

I sought to answer these questions by launching a survey under the whimsically imaginative umbrella title, “Why do you play FPL?”, and the response was enormous. I can’t thank enough those of you reading who took the time to complete it. Not only did I obtain these answers, but by way of the survey’s promotion on Twitter and Reddit there were also some magical responses, the highlights including: “I play because I hate myself and the self-flagellation of a bad gameweek is great” and “I want to beat my best mate and drink his tears”.

Who took the survey?

My first question aimed to deduce how long respondents had played FPL. I was pleased that within 15 minutes the question ‘How long have you played FPL?’ came to me. I deemed this to be an important statistic because the motivations of long-time users could well be different to those of the newbies simply trying to deactivate their Free Hit chip.

The most popular response (58%) was between 1-5 years; 22% selected 5-10 years; 16% said it was their first season, and 4% had played for 10+ years. From this, it was apparent that a pleasing mix of new and veteran players took the survey.

When asked if they’d played every season since first joining, a 78% majority answered yes, but 6% said that they sometimes sit a season out, indicating there was a small but notable proportion of casual or at least part-time players among the cohort (the aforementioned 16% of first season players maintained consistency with their answer).

The second question’s aim was to understand the intensity of the cohort’s FPL activity. In response to ‘Which level of player are you?’, 74% said that they kept a keen eye out for team news and spent time debating formations and captaincy picks; 7% changed their team each week albeit based on minimal research; and 19% selected ‘Each week I print off players’ underlying stats and glue them to my partner’s head’. None of the respondents had left their team untouched since GW1.

These responses followed the pattern so far. My cohort ostensibly comprising a minute number of distanced casual players, a slightly larger proportion of detail-oriented veterans, and a majority of active users who didn’t dabble in overly-analytical research.

Rivals and rewards

With a rough idea of the identity of my sample, I set about understanding the motivations behind their initial (and sustained) FPL involvement. To the question ‘Why did you join FPL?’ there was a clear winner. As shown in Fig.1, 73% joined as a result of an office or friend’s mini-league starting an early indication of the significance of the social aspect of FPL. 23% joined because they stumbled upon it and thought ‘why not?’, 1% were seeking another fantasy football website, and 2% selected ‘other’.

The eclectic responses to the ‘other’ option included: “My other half persuaded me to give it a go”, “My friend signed me up”, “I wanted to see if my understanding of football could carry over in said game”, and “To make money”. The last answer particularly caught my eye. The competition that ensues from a mini-league is of course subjective, but the insertion of prizes, particularly financial, have long been an institution of fantasy football ever since The Sun’s £1m Dream Team prize giveaways. In fact, nowadays the vast majority of established fantasy football organisations offer cash prizes and having money at stake can significantly alter the intensity of mini-league competition among colleagues or friends.

So is competition the biggest driving force behind fantasy football enjoyment? As Fig.2 exhibits, the result is an overwhelming yes. A mighty 84% selected “Competition with friends, colleagues and rivals” as their primary reason for enjoying fantasy football, compared with 69% who said ‘It makes live games more interesting’ and 28% who selected ‘Camaraderie within the community’ (this was a multiple choice question). This served to confirm how important the social aspect is within FPL.

Live and kicking 

While the previous data suggests we’re all green arrow-chasing lunatics, the 69% who said FPL makes live games more interesting is noteworthy. There’s nothing particularly alluring about watching Burnley v Brighton on a Sunday afternoon (no offence Burnley and Brighton fans), but owning the likes of Ben Mee or Shane Duffy can add drama akin to watching a Game of Thrones finale. In a follow-up question, 73% said playing FPL made watching football more enjoyable, with just 1% saying ‘no’ and 26% saying ‘sometimes’.

One thing I was curious to discover was how many of the respondents supported Premier League teams. Watching your beloved team can be a strange dynamic from an FPL perspective, particularly when you’re cheering on an opposition player to score you points, and this cognitive dissonance is no doubt amplified when there’s an enhanced emotional factor. That’s not to say this isn’t wholly as enjoyable as it can be stressful, however.

To my surprise, the bulk of respondents (74%) said they supported Premier League teams. It turns out emotionally-charged cognitive dissonance is pretty popular. There’s no evidence to suggest that supporting a Premier League side inspired nor encouraged the 74% to play FPL, but as somebody whose stress levels skyrocket on match day, and who supports a team outside of the Premier League, I was awed by this proportion of respondents, particularly when juxtaposed with the 73% who said playing FPL made watching football more enjoyable.

The FPL attraction

My final aim of the survey was to isolate the attraction of FPL within the fantasy football gamut. Given the plenitude of fantasy football providers such as Sky, Yahoo! and The Sun, I hoped to understand my cohort’s favourite aspects of FPL and their histories with other fantasy football sites.

When asked if they currently play in other leagues only 9% said yes, 13% of respondents said no but they used to and 78% said they never have. For this 78%, FPL is the only fantasy football provider they’ve ever used, a testament to FPL’s longevity and consistent appeal in keeping users absorbed.

So what does my group specifically enjoy so much about FPL? I posed a multiple choice question asking for their favourite FPL aspects, the answers comprising: ‘Chips, including Wildcards’, ‘Points system e.g. clean sheet bonus points for 60+ mins’, ‘Transfer system e.g. one free transfer a week’ and ‘Bonus Points System’.

Satisfyingly, this yielded yet another diverse response. As Fig 3 shows, the points system (68%) was the most popular answer, closely flanked by the transfer system (58%), while 33% said chips and 23% selected BPS. All in all, FPL offers enough pleasing features to satisfy new and long-time users alike, and as demonstrated by the launch of FPL Draft this past summer and the abolition of the much-maligned All Out Attack chip (RIP), a FIFAesque reboot each year is likely a pertinent reason behind FPL’s inexorable growth.

Is this just the beginning?

It’s an exciting time to be an FPL player right now. With more articles, podcasts, experts and players than ever before, there is a greater demand for excellence on all fronts. This serves to create a better all-around product, and given the strength of the foundations already in place, including the enjoyment derived from competition and watching live games, there’s no reason to fear FPL has already reached its apotheosis. Rather, its rise in popularity could be just the beginning.