Fantasy gambling and addiction: Safe or dangerous?

The impact of online fantasy sports and gambling on
mental health

Photo by Peter Brand 

Since the inception of sports, there has always been monetary wagers and addiction attached to the game and its results. The growing phenomena of fantasy sports has only grown and expanded on this system.


Gambling or not: The truth behind the wins and losses

The community itself is divided on whether participating in fantasy sports for money is even a form of gambling.


In 2006 the U.S. passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act bill. This bill excludes Fantasy Sports.


According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, a trade group that represents the fantasy sports industry eludes, “The bill specifically exempts fantasy sports games, educational games or any online contest that has an outcome that reflects the relative knowledge of the participants or their skill at physical reaction or physical manipulation (but not chance) and, in the case of a fantasy or simulation sports game, has an outcome that is determined predominantly by accumulated statistical results of sporting events, including any non-participant’s individual performances in such sporting events…’”


Money isn’t always part of the equation, but one study suggested a link between playing fantasy sports for money and gambling problems.


Behavioural gambling professor Mark Griffiths cites a 2014 study of American college students noting, “College students who were FS (free and fee-based) players were five times more likely to incur gambling problems than non-FS users. While students who played FS for money had significantly higher rates of gambling problems than those who played in free leagues.”


According to psychologists such as Ben Gallivan, an addiction counsellor from Gallivan Psychological Services and an addiction studies professor at Mount Royal University, gambling is the only process-related branch of addiction.


Gallivan explains that most addictions are substance-abuse related whereas gambling is classified as a process-based addiction because of the build-up to the said addiction.


There is a high degree of comorbidity between fantasy sports and gambling. Gallivan explains,  “A lot of people who play fantasy sports are also at a high risk of becoming avid gamblers and substance user.”


“There are very similar reasons why people would be engaged in both fantasy sports and gambling … If you're taking part in one hobby, you're pretty darn likely to participate in the other,” says Gallivan. “The reward pathway and system are eerily similar.”


This begins to give the hooked individual a reason to ‘chase a loss.’


Many players remember their losses more than their wins. ‘Chasing the loss’ comes from the gambling aspect of fantasy sports.


“The idea of being due, or not losing forever, is a sign [of] desperately searching for a rush after not getting a win,” says Gallivan. “What’s fascinating is the notion of gamblers not understanding they are no more likely to win the next time than the last time and they absolutely argue and deny that.”




























When fantasy becomes an addiction

From a diagnostic point of view, any form of addiction becomes apparent when someone is doing whatever they are hooked on, even though it’s creating harm in their lives.


Gallivan explains that it eventually circles back to tolerance and withdrawal.


“When they aren’t doing it, they think about doing it,” he says. “Just like any other examples of addiction, the act of going ‘cold-turkey’ can be seen on a person’s mood and well being… does that person become more grumpy, moody or irritable?”


A person may start by meeting with friends and slowly begin to be consumed by the idea of sports betting with this ‘itch’ affecting life outside of fantasy sports (and other forms of addiction) such as jobs, financial status, relationships and more.


Like alcohol, the same amount (or time and effort put into a fantasy sports league) can be taken, but one person may not be as adversely affected as someone whose life begins to spiral in every direction. This logic can be applied to fantasy sports as well.


“The quantity taken between two different addicts can be taken into account, but it’s the impact seen from consequences is what shows the addiction in someone’s functioning,” Gallivan says.


“The tolerance for fantasy sports slowly slips away when it begins as just getting together with your buddies, to taking part in games, so much that you keep being invested just for the sake of getting an experience.”


Fantasy sports is also unique because of the different options you have to choose and take part in that consequently increase your chances of getting hooked, from the traditional, season-long fantasy league to the trending daily-fantasy sports leagues.


For example, drinking different forms of alcohol still give you the same problems if you’re addicted, just like taking part in differently designed fantasy leagues.


“Winning your league at the end of the year is not as the same having a continual reward from winning or the rush of almost winning,” says Gallivan.


































“The daily sports league is way more reinforcing because of the reward schedule attached to it,” Gallivan says. “What makes these things attractive is the rush of winning… losing doesn't feel very good so that person will try to balance that equation.”


Another example of how fantasy sports can become a dangerous addiction is taking into account a person’s self-awareness in regards to their gambling habits.


Dropping fantasy sports as an addiction can be as challenging as any other addiction, according to Gallivan.


“They are all about to same … a person has a way to cope and get certain needs met that can result in vulnerability but is also extremely rewarding.”




Video by Dan Khavkin and Peter Brand

Players and addiction.

Video by Miguel Ibe and Peter Brand

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