Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

O Captain, My Captain

The 2006-07 Barclays English Premiership season ended last weekend. Manchester United captured its ninth title since the formation of the league in 1992. Two-time defending champions Chelsea came in second, with Liverpool and Arsenal rounding out the top four. Watford and Charlton endured shambolic seasons and were relegated to the drop before the last day of action; Sheffield United joined them after a 2-1 home loss to Wigan on that last day.

In our fantasy football league, Blue Devils United, hosted by the official website of the Premiership, Justin Izzo came in first by the slimmest of margins: 8 points. The final table looks like this:

1. Duke United FC Justin Izzo 1944
2. Young Boys Durham Kinohi Nishikawa 1936
3. Durham Hamnets Rod Frey 1793
4. aljarrin Alvaro Jarrin 1638
5. The Hurt Enver Casimir 1263
6. toon army mike league 1190
7. Epinal FC Pablo Perez 1175
8. Phillies Finest Julie Mikolajewski 1103
9. toon army mike leitner 1003

My personal stats read: #11 in the Peru league (where, at my peak, I ranked as high as #2) and 20,235 out of 1,272,176 users overall.

Justin and I were neck-and-neck for most of the competition. We traded turns leading the league until April, when I made costly errors in transfers, captain-selection, and starting 11-selection. Justin's strong performances during that month, owing mainly to his shutout-prone defensive lineup (and most especially Liverpool's Jamie Carragher), allowed him to secure first place for good. I managed to scrape my way back into the competition in the last few weeks, and though a strong Arsenal showing at Portsmouth on the final day could've seen me slip into first, a 0-0 draw with the south coast team meant that my much-admired midfielder Cesc Fabregas didn't pick up the points I needed to achieve that.

For not being a regular Premiership follower, Rod Frey finished a respectable third. If he had had the time or desire to make transfers on a weekly basis, he could've well challenged for top spot. Portsmouth goalkeeper David James was probably his key asset all season.

Alvaro Jarrin came in with the disadvantage of not having regular access to the Internet for the first several months of the competition. His moving to Rio de Janeiro for his anthropological fieldwork meant that his starting 11 (and captaincy) remained relatively static for a lengthy period of time. In fact, Alvaro didn't make his first set of transfers until December 1! But once he got that valuable WiFi in his apartment, Alvaro surged into fourth and consistently produced numbers that challenged Justin's and my own. A Chelsea fan, Alvaro had a great run with the trio of Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, and Michael Essien.

I learned a lot of things about the nature of online fantasy sports gaming by participating in this season-long league. From a technical standpoint, I got a feel for the wide range of strategies these gamers employ to maximize points from a determinate set of conditions: a maximum of three players from one team, a starting 11 that had a minimum of three defenders, and a designated captain who would earn you double the points for that gameweek. I also learned the extraordinary value of saving one's "free transfer" gameweek for when one really needs it. I stupidly used mine very early on in the competition, making only three transfers (where one would already have been "free" anyway) when Bolton seemed to be in a good run of form back in November. Of course all extra transfers thereafter cost me dearly: 4 points per second transfer per gameweek. In total I lost 36 points from extra transfers this season, 32 of which came after I used my free transfer gameweek.

I also learned the necessity of getting "more bang for your buck" from players who don't hail from the big English squads. Indeed one of the key elements of online fantasy sports gaming is knowing not only which teams are in form and which aren't but also which players are in form and which aren't. At first I stuck by players from traditionally strong teams such as Chelsea and Arsenal. And though it's probably a good idea to stick with defenders from the strong teams (because it's usually the strong teams that can keep the most clean sheets), strikers are a different story entirely. Though hailing from mid-table teams, the likes of Blackburn's Benni McCarthy and Middleborough's Yakubu/Viduka pairing scored goals aplenty -- it's just that their teams also let in lots of goals, often in losing efforts. And despite his team's disastrous defensive record, letting in 111 goals, more than any other team, Tottenham's Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov had an outstanding second-half to the season, sometimes garnering 10 to 20 points per gameweek. The lesson here? It's probably a good idea to spend good money on a strong defensive lineup. But it also makes sense to shop for bargain strikers (and attacking midfielders), several of whom are likely to come from teams that don't do (nearly) as well as the Manchester Uniteds and the Chelseas.

Finally, and in my opinion the deciding factor between my season and Justin's, is the role the gameweek captain plays. As I said before, a captain's point total is doubled for the gameweek. At the beginning of the season, it was difficult to determine just which players would score the goals, make the assists, and earn the bonus points that are the stuff of good captains. I stuck by Arsenal's Thierry Henry for at least two months, in part (I admit) because of his formidable reputation as a striker who can score multiple goals in any given game. What we know now is that Henry endured a subpar season because of niggling injuries and, more important, the fatigue that set in after France's epic World Cup 2006 run. Justin was more daring and figured out early on that Manchester United's Portuguese midfielder Cristiano Ronaldo was producing consistently excellent displays.

And indeed Ronaldo and Chelsea's midfielder Frank Lampard emerged as the two best candidates for holding gameweek captaincies for the majority of the season.

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One week Ronaldo would score a goal and make two assists; the next Lampard would essentially equal that tally. And vice versa. The bonus points came flooding in as Ronaldo and Lampard were consistently named most or second-most valuable players for the games they played in: Ronaldo ended up with 36 bonus points for the season; Lampard with 23. Only Cesc Fabregas beat Ronaldo in bonus points with an amazing 54 at the end of the season. The young Spaniard didn't score nearly as many goals, though, and ended up finishing with 182 total points to Ronaldo's 244. Lampard finished with 202 points.

Soon Justin and I were trading the lead based almost exclusively on whether we chose the "right" midfielder (Ronaldo or Lampard) for a particular gameweek. On the few occasions that I happened to stray from this pairing, I suffered the consequences: Arsenal's Robin Van Persie played a full 90 minutes against Sheffield United and not only didn't score but received a yellow card as well; he got 1 point, and I got 2.

While the Ronaldo-Lampard strategy worked for several months, I now realize it became almost too routine, blinding me to other captaincy possibilities, particularly late on in the season when Manchester United and Chelsea rotated their squads more regularly and their star midfielders were given much-needed rests. In the final double-fixture gameweek (where some teams play twice), for example, I stuck with Ronaldo as my captain. While he earned 8 points in his first match, he didn't even play in Manchester United's second, as the team had already secured the championship and wanted to give the usual benchwarmers a chance to prove themselves. Berbatov, meanwhile, earned an impressive, and potentially (for my season) decisive, 19 points between Tottenham's two matches.

All in all, though, this season's competition was totally fun and utterly absorbing. Bourdieu reminds us that the logic of practice (where a specific maximization of interest [or points] always takes place within determinate conditions, as in a chess game) is such that you don't get a feel for the game unless you throw yourself, head first, into it: you learn, in other words, by doing. Better put, the learning is in the doing. And so for now I'll take comfort in his advice, which is also a theory, and simply say that I'll be back next year.

Izzo, between the World Cup and the Premiership this past year, you and I are tied, 1-1. (There is, Bourdieu might add, a certain amount of shit-talking in any game.)

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