Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

“Real Life Madden NFL” – How Fan Controlled Football is Taking Livestream Sport by Storm

Posted on 18 June 2021 by Joe Giovanelli
The Wild Aces celebrate their first championship trophy. Credit: FCF

We’ve all heard someone shout, ‘who made that decision?’ or ‘I could have called a better play than that!’ at the TV whilst watching sport.

Fan Controlled Football (FCF), a revitalised project, aims to give the power to the fans. Roster selection, drafting and even play calling are voted on and controlled by the viewers.

Ray Austin, former NFL player and FCF commissioner and Patrick Dees, FCF Chief Gaming Officer, spoke to the Sports Gazette on how fan-controlled sport is possible and what makes this new league so special.

“This is more than football”

The bold idea started as a satirical concept piece for a fan-controlled baseball team. While the baseball project ultimately failed with no willing volunteers, it was reignited in 2016 as ‘Project Fanchise’ who purchased an expansion team within the Indoor Football League for the 2017 season, named the Salt Lake City Screaming Eagles.

“It was a proof of concept.” Patrick Dees CGO explains.

“We used that to prove our hypotheses and we took what we had learned from there and built this league.

“We saw 100 different countries calling plays for the screaming eagles, we were third highest rated offense that year, our QB earned Offensive Player of the Year and that gave us the confidence to say our fans want this”.

Now, the FCF league of four teams: Wild Aces, Glacier Boyz, Beasts and Zappers have gained the backing from both former and current NFL players, tech companies and additional team owners with names ranging from rapper Quavo, IGN host Greg Miller and YouTube sensation Deestroying, to WWE wrestler Miro and MLB pitcher Trevor May.

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Both Dees and Austin expressed the importance of a specific type of ‘three-dimensional athlete’ from division 3 schools all the way up to division 1 and NFL calibre players, who understand gaming, fan engagement and of course a love of football. When a league thrives on fan engagement, a specific type of individual is needed.

“You know, the kind of guys that get excited when the camera turns on” Austin says.

Re-inventing football for the digital age

With a simplified rule set, smaller field, smaller team and roster sizes, the league aims to capture a large international audience to the fast growing sport.

The four teams compete 7-7 and start on their own 10-yard line and try to drive 40 yards downfield for a score.

Instead of a field goal for the extra point, it’s a 1v1 battle between a wide receiver and a defensive back. The extra point will have fans choose the WR and DB, and will allow three seconds for the quarterback to throw the ball. Fans will choose either a 1-point conversion from the 5-yard line or a 2-point conversion from the 10-yard line.

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The removal of the ‘special team’ units like kick-offs, punts and returns helped to make the game more ‘video game’ like. The league aims to keep as much of the traditional game as possible by keeping the game approachable and relatable to new fans. Reinventing football for the digital age in the way that people consume content today.

“We also had to change the dynamic of how we  train football.” Ex New York Jets and Chicago Bears player Ray Austin explains.

“We had one coaching staff. All the wide receivers work together, all the defensive backs work together, so they can get to know each other, because just like you said, they will be trading, changing and going on different teams”.

What’s the deal with the draft?

Each week the fans are given a list of players to mark in a queue, or as a favourite. When your team is on the clock, fans would then select the player they wanted with the player with the most overall votes being the one selected.

All four teams chose one player to use a “Franchise Tag” on, attaching them to their team for the duration of the season: Troy Evans Jr., David Pindell, Johnny Manziel and Jackson Erdmann.

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The skill positions (QBs, SBs [Super Backs], and WRs) are picked individually. The offensive line (including TEs), and defences were divided into 2 groups, selected as units. On game nights, the OL and defence will play both games, and by selecting one during the draft, that automatically means your next opponent has to pick the other.

“We had like 500-600 people that could have played in our league. But the team sat down and said Look, here’s the 120 dudes that get excited about building a community that want to create content that have huge personalities that are going to be successful in a model where your success on the field hinges on your ability to relate to fans.” Dees says.

Offensive Co-Ordinator from your Couch

Of course, one of the most important aspects of the fan controlled experience is the play calling feature. To counter online ‘trolling’, votes are on a weighted ‘Fan IQ’ scale (more on that in a moment), meaning that fans with the most league interaction had more control than people who only recently signed up, or hadn’t voted often enough in the previous games and other polls.

“Fan XP and fan IQ goals are aligned with the success of the team. So you can’t troll and effectively earn IQ.”

On Twitch and in the FCF app you’ll see Run or Pass when your team is on offense. Pick one, and you’ll see four diagrammed play options. Lock in your favourite, get notified which play won the vote, and watch the play unfold on the field in real-time.

“I enjoyed watching trends develop” Austin explains,

“Fans of the Beasts use the trips formation a lot, because that’s just that just fits their culture, then you look at the Wild Aces, the tight ends are used a little bit more. So our system allows the fans to kind of decide what works for them.”

“Fans start calling plays based on the people that they have, like you look at a guy like Quinton Flowers. He’s a crazy mobile quarterback. So that opens all these new plays that we want to run. It’s cool seeing them each take on their own personality and style.”

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The FCF team liken engagement with their ‘Fan IQ’ eco-system to one that you might see in an online role-playing game, gaining XP, levelling up your skills and becoming more powerful and influential the longer you play.

The league saw a steady increase in its viewership through its first five weeks, from 735,000 in the first week to 2.1 million in the playoffs

On March 20th 2021, the final game of the short inaugural season, the fan named ‘People’s Championship’ saw the ‘Wild Aces’ face off against the ‘Glacier Boyz’ with the Wild Aces coming out on top 46-40 to win the league’s first ever championship trophy.

‘Infinitely scaling digital audience’

With the first season wrapped up, what does the future of the sport look like and how are the FCF team planning on keeping their league alive, considering the detrimental results of the various other ‘NFL-Lite’ leagues.

“We’re not doing what they’re doing.” Dees explains succinctly,

“We don’t even relate to any other leagues as competition because our model is diametrically different. The way those leagues are set up, they are they are just NFL, but smaller”.

An average FCF season only costs the league in the region of $10-14 million where other leagues such as the Alliance of American Football (AAF) or the XFL would have to pay over $250 million for the same show. All games are played to an online audience in an effectively empty stadium in Duluth, Georgia without the focus on selling beers and hotdogs to paying fans in the stands.

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Dees explains why the other football league start-ups failed and why the FCF has the growth potential that the others did not have.

“It’s ludicrous. It’s old thinking and legacy nonsense.” He says.

“The NFL has been trying to go international for years, and they spend millions of dollars playing one or two games in the UK every year. We are already international.

“Seven years ago people laughed at the thought of sport without fans in the stadiums. Then a pandemic hits and that old way of thinking doesn’t work anymore. We have the up most confidence on how we’re doing, it will probably be the way the future of sports is done.”