In the past 25 years, fantasy gaming has brought professional sports unprecedented popularity and immense appeal. During the just completed 2015 NFL season, fantasy websites such as DraftKings and FanDuel have become as prevalent as the games themselves through widespread advertising and its focus on each player. Contrary to popular belief, fantasy sports are not a new phenomenon. They originate in Strat-O-Matic, a card based baseball simulation founded in 1961, which entering its 55th season bills itself as “the original fantasy game” and completely changed the course of sports in both gaming and analytics.
Developed in the New York suburb of Glen Head, Strat-O-Matic was a brainchild of Hal Richman, a baseball obsessed teenager who had a deep passion for the intricacies of the game and the attributes of its players. Frustrated by the simple nature of Cadaco Games’ All-Star Baseball, Richman devised his own baseball game using a pair of dice and cards based on his player ratings. Richman brought it to summer camp one year and it became a hit with his fellow campers.
By the mid-1960s, Richman was ready to commercialize his game, but needed the financial support of his steadfast father who wanted him to join his insurance company. Richman invested his own money for three years, but the game had not taken off the way he expected. In a compromise to appease his father and not surrender his dream, Richman made a deal to borrow $5,000 from him and if he did not pay it back within a year he would work for his insurance company. To his delight, Richman’s wager paid off and by the end of the decade, Strat-O-Matic became a cultural phenomenon in the baseball community and a precursor to video games and fantasy sports.
In its simplest form, Strat-O-Matic is a baseball simulation based on previously completed seasons and players. For instance, a person could replay the 2015 season and attempt to recreate the Kansas City Royals’ trip to the World Series or play with Hall of Fame rosters. Strat-O-Matic’s basic game uses a combination of player cards and dice to mimic the actual results which occur on the field, meaning if one rolls any number between 1 and 3, the outcome lies on the batter’s card and between 4 and 6 on the pitcher’s card.
The advanced and super advanced versions of the game offer enhanced realism by incorporating attributes such as ballpark factor and lefty/righty splits into the basic game. Unlike its competitors, Strat-O-Matic puts a premium on fielding ability by rating defenders on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being a Gold Glove winner and 5 a defensive liability. Glenn Guzzo, author of Strat-O-Matic Fanatics, explains that the realism of the game stems from the accuracy of its player ratings. “When you see the ratings on a Strat-O-Matic card; the hitting ratings, the fielding ratings, you start to see the on-field personality of each player before you even play the game,” Guzzo says.
During its half century of existence, Strat-O-Matic became readily accepted by the baseball community and later influenced the way executives built their franchises. Esteemed broadcasters Bob Costas and Jon Miller each honed their play-by-play skills while playing Strat-O-Matic, with Miller calling its games on radio during the 1981 player’s strike as fans desperately sought some semblance of baseball. As an active player in the 1970s, former Baltimore Orioles outfielder Ken Singleton famously said a player has not truly established themselves in the major leagues until they had their likeness on a Strat-O-Matic card.
Future front office executives, such as Billy Beane were introduced to sabermetrics and advanced statistics from glancing at Strat-O-Matic cards as youngsters. For Beane, it was a 1974 Gene Tenace card, which allowed him to develop a vested interest in on-base percentage as a valued statistic since his .211 average belied his 110 walks that season. By emphasizing walks and on-base percentage as meaningful measures of a player’s value, Strat-O-Matic helped usher the “Moneyball” generation and forever changed the sport.
Outside the baseball community, Strat-O-Matic played a major role in developing computer software and became a favorite of programmers. Trip Hawkins, the founder of EA Sports and creator of the Madden NFL video game series found inspiration in the depth of Strat-O-Matic and applied its principles as he built his virtual sports empire. Hawkins’ background in Strat-O-Matic allowed him to meet John Madden’s mandate of a game that replicated pro football and ensured its realism. “Trip Hawkins said it (Strat-O-Matic) was the best strategy game in sports,” Guzzo said. “For him it was not about joysticks, but the metal aspect of outwitting your opponent.
As the digital revolution grew in prominence, hobbies such as board games began to give way to video games and mobile devices. Unlike most companies who suffered from the cultural shifts, Strat-O-Matic’s sales continued to grow due to its loyal consumer base, setting records as it enters its 55th year of existence. Underscoring this devotion is opening day at the Strat-O-Matic headquarters in Glen Head, New York where fans camp out on a chilly Friday in mid-February to pick up the latest editions of the game and pass it along to the next generation of fans. In addition, Strat-O-Matic has a strong online presence with a digital game, which allows people to play out the current season without waiting for the printed cards.
It may not seem clear but a baseball simulation with a humble beginning has galvanized the sports world and altered its business. Once followed for its teams, sports gradually became about individuals and their achievements for some fans. Through Strat-O-Matic, the ratings and statistics led to Rotisserie leagues and fantasy games where the players themselves are the focal point. The ability to follow each player generated greater revenue and interest in sports and allowed it prosper in unimaginable ways. The timing and era also played a major role as Strat-O-Matic was their first of its kind to add depth to athletes and promote the history of each sport. The simple complexities of baseball tailor seamlessly themselves to Strat-O-Matic, where the roll of the dice can have multiple results.