Fantasy sports apps

Fantasy sports apps on a smartphone. (Photo by Koshiro K on Shutterstock)

For millions of fans around the world, fantasy sports is more than just leisure—it’s a passion, an obsession, and increasingly, a potential source of both joy and anxiety. A new study warns of the potentially troubling relationship between fantasy soccer participation and mental health, suggesting that the more deeply players engage with the game, the more extreme their emotional experiences become—for better and for worse.

The findings, published in Simulation & Gaming, build on previous studies exploring the mental health impacts of fantasy sports participation. Led by Dr. Gary Ian Britton from Queen Mary University, the study paints a nuanced picture of how fantasy soccer (fantasy football in the U.K.) affects players’ wellbeing, challenging the notion that it’s purely a harmless form of entertainment.

Perhaps most strikingly, the study found that players who were most heavily invested in fantasy soccer—those who spent more time managing their teams, participated in multiple leagues, and had financial stakes in the game—reported both the highest levels of positive mood and the most significant mental health concerns. This paradoxical result suggests that for many players, fantasy soccer is a double-edged sword, capable of producing intense emotional highs alongside potentially troubling lows.

The researchers discovered that more experienced players generally reported less anxiety related to the game than newcomers, indicating that over time, participants may develop coping mechanisms to handle the inherent uncertainties and disappointments of fantasy sports. However, this reduction in anxiety didn’t necessarily translate to improvements in other aspects of mental health, as experienced players still reported similar levels of depression, stress, and negative mood as their less experienced counterparts.

Another key finding centered on the role of social comparisons in shaping players’ experiences. Those who frequently compared their team’s performance to others or obsessively checked their rankings reported higher levels of negative mental health outcomes across the board. This suggests that the competitive aspect of fantasy sports, while engaging for many, may also be a significant source of stress and anxiety for players.

The study also explored the impact of financial involvement in fantasy sports. Players participating in multiple leagues with cash prizes reported higher levels of anxiety, stress, and problematic behavior compared to those who played without financial stakes. However, these same players also reported significantly higher levels of positive mood, highlighting the complex relationship between gambling-like behaviors and emotional experiences in fantasy sports.

“While the results of the study might seem worrying on the one hand, on the other hand all of these involved/engaged groups also reported also more positive mood as a result of playing fantasy [soccer] compared to people who are less involved/engaged in the game,” Britton says in a statement. “When your fantasy football team does badly you are more likely to feel down if you are more financially invested in the game, or if you are just invested in the game more generally, but equally, if your fantasy football team performs well in any given week, this is going to positively boost the mood of an engaged fantasy football player more than it would the mood of a less engaged player.”

Angry man texting or using social media on smartphone
Participating in multiple fantasy leagues with cash at stake can send your stress levels into chaos, experts warn. (Photo by pathdoc on Shutterstock)

Methodology: Fantasy Soccer Survey

To gather their data, the researchers recruited 635 active fantasy soccer players through social media and popular fantasy sports websites. Participants completed an online questionnaire that measured various aspects of their fantasy soccer engagement and mental health.

The survey included questions about players’ experience levels, the number of leagues they participated in, time spent on fantasy soccer-related activities, frequency of social comparisons, and financial involvement in the game. To assess mental health, the researchers used modified versions of established psychological scales measuring depression, anxiety, stress, positive and negative mood, problematic behavior, and functional impairment.

Participants were grouped based on their responses to these questions, allowing the researchers to compare mental health outcomes across different levels of engagement and experience with fantasy soccer.

Results

The study’s findings revealed several significant trends:

  1. Experience: More experienced players reported less anxiety than less experienced players, but there were no significant differences in other mental health measures.
  2. League Participation: Players in multiple leagues reported higher levels of both positive mood and problematic behavior compared to those in fewer leagues.
  3. Engagement Levels: Highly engaged players reported significantly higher scores on all mental health measures—both positive and negative—compared to less engaged players.
  4. Social Comparisons: Players who frequently compared their teams to others or checked rankings often reported worse mental health outcomes across all measures.
  5. Financial Involvement: Players with higher financial stakes in fantasy football reported more anxiety, stress, negative mood, and problematic behavior, but also higher levels of positive mood.

These results suggest that while fantasy sports can be a source of enjoyment and positive emotions for many players, increased engagement often comes with a higher risk of negative mental health impacts.

Limitations

The researchers say there are several limitations to their study. The cross-sectional nature of the data collection meant that causality couldn’t be established—it’s unclear whether fantasy soccer engagement leads to mental health changes or if pre-existing mental health conditions influence how people engage with the game.

The study also relied on self-reported data collected at a single point in time, which may not capture the fluctuations in mood and mental health that occur throughout a fantasy soccer season. Additionally, the sample was predominantly male, limiting the generalizability of the findings to the broader population of fantasy sports players.

The researchers suggested that future studies could benefit from a longitudinal approach, tracking players’ mental health and engagement levels over time to better understand the causal relationships at play.

Discussion and Takeaways

The study’s findings have important implications for both fantasy soccer players and the industry as a whole. The researchers argue that their results support the “Framework of Hypothesised Factors Leading to Predominantly Positive or Negative Experiences in FF” proposed in earlier work. This framework suggests that engagement levels, social comparisons, and financial involvement are key factors in determining whether a player’s experience with fantasy sports is primarily positive or negative.

One of the most significant takeaways is the need for balance in fantasy sports participation. While higher engagement levels were associated with more positive mood, they also correlated with increased risk of negative mental health outcomes. This suggests that players might benefit from setting boundaries on their involvement and being mindful of how the game affects their overall wellbeing.

The role of social comparisons in driving negative mental health outcomes is particularly noteworthy. The researchers suggest that fantasy sports platforms and websites might consider redesigning features that encourage frequent rank-checking or team comparisons, or at least offer users the option to hide these elements.

The study’s findings on financial involvement in fantasy soccer raise important questions about the relationship between gambling-like behaviors and mental health in this context. While players with higher financial stakes reported more positive mood, they also experienced more negative mental health outcomes. This complex relationship warrants further investigation and may have implications for how fantasy sports are regulated.

For the fantasy sports industry, these findings present both challenges and opportunities. On one hand, the study highlights potential risks associated with their products, particularly for highly engaged users. On the other hand, it provides valuable insights that could be used to enhance the player experience and promote healthier engagement with fantasy sports.

The researchers suggest that fantasy football platforms could implement features to help players maintain a healthy balance, such as tools to track time spent on the game or reminders to take breaks. They also recommend that platforms consider offering resources or support for players who may be experiencing negative mental health impacts related to their participation.

“The Premier League, at the very least, need to put a warning on their website about the potential negative effects of their version fantasy football, and other versions, if a player becomes overly invested in the game, be that financially or just in terms of their time,” says Dr. Britton.

While fantasy football can be a source of excitement, social connection, and positive emotions for many players, it’s clear that even virtual competitions can have real-world impacts on mental health. As the popularity of fantasy sports continues to grow, finding ways to maximize the positive aspects while mitigating potential negative effects will be crucial for players, industry leaders, and mental health professionals alike.

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