December 3, 2006
Replacing Touchdowns and Field Goals with Amnesia and Love Affairs: The Fantasy Soap League

Many of us have had friends and relatives addicted to fantasy football. And I wrote this summer about an interesting project between MSN and the Schaumburg Flyers called Fan Club: Reality Baseball, where the collective intelligence of fans was touted as being consulted to help manage a minor league baseball team.

A little farther away from "pure" sports, I spent plenty of time in earlier days competing in fantasy pro wrestling leagues, putting together shows and hiring and firing rosters to get the best ratings from a third party who played "the Nielsens," to compete with the managers of competing wrestling shows. And then there's all the people addicted to the Hollywood Stock Exchange.

But I'll have to admit that I've never heard of a venture quite like this one; cable channel SOAPnet launched a Fantasy Soap League earlier this month.

According to Linda Marshall-Smith with Soapdom, "SOAPnet's Fantasy Soap League is modeled after fantasy football, but instead of drafting players and rooting for athletes, you select and cheer on favorite soap characters and defining soap moments." The category of "defining soap moments" include the stereotyped soap storylines, like "discovering you have a twin or a "long lost love returns from the dead," which are two of the more extremes (along with amnesia, of course).

The president of ABC Daytime Brian Frons (Disney/ABC also owns SOAPnet) points out that soap fans remember details and story lines for years. As Marshall-Smith writes, "Fans have been known to remember more about the history of their show than the current crop of writeres."

I didn't join because I'm still a graduate student for a few more months, and I didn't want to plunk down the $9.99 to play a 10-week cycle. With all nine soaps involved, you pick a line-up of characters and moments and then earn points depending on what happens on the shows.

The user picks three male characters, three female characters, and four "soap moments," matching the moments and characters with storylines from the shows. Marshall-Smith reports, "The tallying of points is done by the Soap Squad, a group of nine ardent soap viewers, who keep track of points Monday-Friday. You can even make changes to your line-ups Friday-Sunday to maximize points for the upcoming week."

And, to research all the possible characters a player can choose, SOAPnet has provided this listing of the characters available for the game and links to profiles about that character's history.

Gina Keating with Reuters points out that the decision for the game was due somewhat to the success of SOAPnet's brother station ESPN doing so well with Fantasy Football.

SOAPnet claims the game is to help increase the community and involvement of the fans. And, while I think this is a fun diversion, it does not have the authorship of the wrestling fantasy leagues I once participated in or the feeling of influencing the creative of a show in some way, as with the reality baseball proposition. Nevertheless, it is a lighthearted to get fans involved in, and it is much akin to a drinking game in making light of and having fun with some of the most stereotypical aspects of the genre. And fans can choose characters solely from one specific show or across a variety of soaps, giving the chance to only pick characters one is already familiar with. Zack Stern with Joystiq writes that, while this type of game may have a narrow audience, the idea of a game "rewarding viewers' predictions" could be valuable. and is "a cool idea for soap opera fans."

Nancy K. Baym, author of the fantastic book Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom, and Online Community, writes on her blog Online Fandom, that, while a lot of the fun in soaps is predicting what will happen, "the kinds of things that earn you points seem to me kind of banal next to the kinds of predictions I see in the zillions of existing online soap talk communities. Really engaging soaps is so much more complex than guessing who eavesdrops, which is kind of like guessing that in a football game someone's going to run with the ball at some point. Duh."

I think Nancy hits on some important points here about the limited enjoyment one can have in this game. First, the game does not or perhaps cannot allow for the detailed conversations fans have about character motivations and histories that make watching soaps so enjoyable. And what Nancy alludes to but never points out is that the game seems to reward soaps the more cheesy and stereotypical they get, meaning the less original a show is, the more points one can make off it. Is it any surprise that the top performer the first time out was from Passions?

While I may have been too cheap to join, Daisy Whitney with TelevisionWeek quickly joined up. I will finish with a few notes from her detailed account of her initial experiences signing up.

In her Nov. 21 blog entry, she details the process of playing the game. But, actually, Whitney tried at trick that never even occurred to me--"So I do the standard reporter trick. This is actually the first thing you're taught on the job. No, it's not the inverted pyramid, silly. It's how to ask for free things. I email SoapNet's spokeswoman and ask for a comp pass to check out the site. I get it and am ready to play."

She describes the process of picking three female and male characters and then picked her three moments as "daydreaming," "being killed at my wedding," "coming back from the dead," and "transplant." She said, though, that she doesn't think she'll have that great of a chance of winning, since she was "just willy nilly picking characters and moments without thinking about which ones are likely to earn the most points. I mean, is Lily Snyder really going to come back from the dead in the next week? I am probably going up against thousands of others who are diligently researching characters and the mathematical likelihood of said situations occurring."

In a later post, Whitney reveals that the rules of the game were tweaked to allow her to change the lineup and replace non-performers. This is serious business!

But, what do I consider the bottom line? This is a fun casual game that celebrates the campy aspects of soaps but is not particularly a good indication of the type of involvement that draws people further into a community of viewers because the "involvement" in a game like this is too surface to have deep meaning. That's not to criticize the idea at all but rather any logic that finds this to be a deep extension of the fans' involvement in soaps or in the fan community.