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Run or pass? In this football league, the fans decide.

The Fan Controlled Football league calls itself a video game brought to life. It's redefining the very nature of sports fandom.

By John Terhune

Inside the Infinite Energy Arena in Duluth, Georgia, the Wild Aces stand at their opponents’ 12-yard line. It’s not even 10 minutes into their football league’s championship game, but the upcoming third-and-11 attempt feels vital; the Wild Aces already trail 8-0 and can’t afford to fall into an early hole. Armored in lurid pink-and-purple jerseys, the players look to their quarterback, awaiting the play call.

Like football players everywhere, the Wild Aces will run the play assigned to them. Unlike football players in any other league, they won’t get their orders from a head coach or offensive coordinator or quarterback. In the independent league known as Fan Controlled Football, they take play calls from strangers on the internet, who are watching the contest on the gaming platform Twitch, voting in real time via the league’s app.

At this moment, Wild Aces fans have six neatly diagrammed options on their phones. A run play named “Big Hoss Toss” earns 60% of the vote. The players receive the call through their helmet radios and step to the line of scrimmage. Quarterback Jackson Erdmann tosses the ball to running back LaDarius Galloway, who cuts back to the right, picks up a block from Erdmann, and streaks into the end zone for a touchdown.

Fan Controlled Football, like the Indoor Football League and the now-defunct Arena Football League, gives NFL hopefuls and washouts the opportunity to prove their talent, provided they can adjust to a claustrophobic arena and zany rules: The field is 50 yards long instead of 100, there is no kicking (“punts suck”), and teams have “power-ups,” which do things like add an extra down or a man-advantage. Team owners include NFL legends like Richard Sherman (owner of the Glacier Boyz) and Marshawn Lynch (owner of the Beasts). Rosters feature a few famous names, too, such as Johnny Manziel, the Heisman Trophy winner known for his disastrous stint as the Cleveland Browns’ bad-boy quarterback and his dismissal from the team in 2016.

But FCF — which completed its inaugural six-week season in March, housing all its players in a bubble outside Atlanta — stands out from other NFL alternatives due to its radical power structure. Fans of the league’s four teams make every major decision via online votes. Besides calling each offensive play, they name the franchises, craft the rules and draft and re-draft the ever-changing rosters.

Indeed, Fan Controlled Football brands itself as a video game brought to life. And while its circle of celebrity owners from the intersection of sports and gaming culture has drawn an unsurprising audience of football-obsessed bros, it has also delivered a fan base that most leagues ignore altogether: computer geeks who curate memes on Reddit, watch video-game streams on Twitch, and derisively refer to athletics as “sportsball.”

Many of these fledgling sports fans flocked to the Wild Aces, co-owned by Greg Miller, a puckish video-game YouTuber. The team’s improbable success, both on the field and online, helped the new league prove that an untapped football audience lurks on digital platforms like Twitch.

There’s only one catch: to bring these viewers in, Fan Controlled Football had to recast them as active participants in the action, a move that redefined the very nature of sports fandom.

The first great test of the fan-controlled franchise concept came in 2016, after a group of tech entrepreneurs announced they were creating a team, based in Salt Lake City, to play in the Indoor Football League. Little differentiated the IFL from other minor sports organizations across the country; it hosted games in cities like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and paid players $250 per game. But the tech group, then called Project FANchise, promised their new team would be unlike anything else in professional sports: fans would control every aspect of the franchise, starting with its name.

Supporters flocked to the group’s website to submit options and vote for their favorites. Teamy McTeamface took an early lead. Voters eventually showed slightly more restraint; favorites included the Sandtroopers and the Stormin’ Mormons. But in the final vote, the crowd rejected the meme-iest options and went with all-American, heavy-metal badassery, naming the team the Salt Lake Screaming Eagles.

The team, which donned fan-designed US-flag uniforms, played one season in the IFL in 2017, using Project FANchise’s online voting technology to allow fans to relay their play calls from an app to the athletes on the field. But the Screaming Eagles’ founders decided their business model was too revolutionary to graft onto the existing sports infrastructure.

The Glacier Boyz took the ball after the game’s opening rock-paper-scissors matchup (the fans, who voted on many of the league’s rules in the preseason, rejected coin flips).

“We had built a truly digital-first product, but we were playing in an analog league,” says Sohrob Farudi, one of the team’s techie founders. “We didn’t care about selling hot dogs or getting butts in seats.” They decided to build their own league from the ground up one that would cater specifically to digital audiences and avoid the high overhead cost that suffocates most football startups.

The founders call FCF a “league-in-a-box” even before COVID-19 forced the players into quarantine, the league intended on playing all its games in a single arena in a single city. Ticket sales were never central to the revenue model.

Instead, FCF focused on producing an avalanche of content on Twitch, the platform best known for allowing popular video game streamers to bank six-figure or even seven-figure incomes through subscriptions, sponsorships, and ad revenue. Aspiring scouts could follow live streams of practices. Gamers could watch their teams’ stars play Madden NFL against each other. Online talk shows let players share their personal stories with the fans. Through it all, live chat boxes connected audiences to athletes.

By offering so many different types of experiences, the league hoped to attract different types of fans, including those who hadn’t cared about football before. “You don’t necessarily need to know the game to enjoy the content,” says Farudi. “Part of our thesis here is that this is just as much entertainment as it is sports.”

Video games have long relied on interactivity to capture players’ attentions, and gaming experts say other forms of media are slowly beginning to do the same. “The idea of a spectator having agency beyond cheering is really interesting to me,” says Celia Pearce, an associate professor of game design at Northeastern University. Pearce, who also designs games, has been writing about interactive media since the ’90s. FCF, which hands power to armchair quarterbacks, is a simple but brilliant idea, she says. “Anytime you see someone yelling at a TV, that is an invitation to create an interactive experience,” Pearce says. “So, if anything, I’m thinking, ‘Why didn’t someone think of this earlier?’”

Jackson Erdmann, who wears the easy grin and flowing blonde hair of a surfer, walked an unusual path to professional football. Normally, transferring to a Division III program spells the end of a college player’s pro ambitions. Yet Erdmann, who left Penn State for the St. John’s University Johnnies after his freshman season, put up such eye-popping numbers in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference that he drew interest from NFL teams before COVID-19 canceled his pro day and left him without a chance to prove himself.

Like most of the other players in the league, Erdmann saw Fan Controlled Football as a steppingstone to the next level. But first, he’d need to get on the field. In a normal league, that means impressing coaches. In FCF, it meant developing a fan base that would push an ownership group to franchise-tag him, making him the one team member with a permanent roster spot. (All other players either get redrafted onto different teams each week or they’re left out of games entirely.)

After doing some research, Erdmann decided the Wild Aces’ goofy vibes would be a fit. Many of the team’s fans hadn’t previously been interested in sports; instead, they were followers of co-owner Greg Miller’s “Kinda Funny” YouTube collective, which produces content discussing video games, movies, and other elements of geek culture.

Erdmann went on the league’s Thursday talk show and announced that he wanted to be a Wild Ace. Fans appreciated the shoutout and started the hashtag #TagJerdy. Soon, the team announced Erdmann would be its first franchise player. Erdmann, in return, joined a Wild Aces podcast to talk about Batman and streamed Lego Harry Potter, with running commentary, for fans on Twitch.

This community engagement was more than just a way to kill time in the league’s bubble; it was also essential on the field. Erdmann, who worried that fans would make decisions unsuited to his quarterbacking skills, worked closely with Miller to take the randomness out of fan voting.

Erdmann made videos detailing his weekly draft suggestions and game plans, and Miller promoted them to his 1.2 million Twitter followers. During games, Miller used his own Twitch stream, which combined the game broadcast with commentary from the Kinda Funny team, to keep voters on the same page.

It wasn’t pretty at the beginning. In the first game of the season, Erdmann separated his shoulder after the fans misread a play diagram and accidentally ordered him to run the ball. But by season’s end, no other team could rival the efficiency of the Wild Aces’ play-calling scheme, which flowed from quarterback to owner to voter to quarterback again. The Wild Aces, after finishing 2-2 in the regular season, advanced to the FCF finals, titled (of course) The People’s Championship.

The March 20 championship game at Infinite Energy Arena (since renamed Gas South Arena) pitted the Wild Aces against Richard Sherman’s Glacier Boyz, whom Aces fans had arbitrarily picked as their team’s archrival at the start of the season. The Glacier Boyz took the ball after the game’s opening rock-paper-scissors matchup (the fans, who voted on many of the league’s rules in the preseason, rejected coin flips). Three plays later, they were in the end zone.

Offense had dominated all season. Seven-vs.-seven action gave receivers acres of space, while the shortened field allowed quarterbacks to target the end zone at any time. The league’s ban on kicking meant offenses always had four shots at a first down, and the “Progressive 5th Down” power-up option gave them still another chance once per game.

Neither team recorded a stop until the final 10 seconds of the first half. The Wild Aces, who had failed on two of their two-point conversion attempts, trailed 32-20 at halftime.

Like most Fan Controlled Football broadcasts, the main Twitch stream featured commentators joined by some of the league’s celebrity partners, including Sherman and NFL Hall of Famer Joe Montana. But on the Kinda Funny stream, which had the vibe of an online Super Bowl party, Miller and his team were doing their own thing.

The crew, a mix of football fans and gaming nerds, riffed on football’s similarity to various aspects of geek culture, from comics to the video game series Mario Party. In the chat, a viewer agreed: “football is really just turn-based strategy. once you realize that you’re hooked.”

But Miller, hosting the livestream, kept the audience focused on Erdmann’s game plan. “We don’t call a draw when Jerdy’s in,” he reminded the viewers. “Jerdy does not run.” When someone in the chat suggested a flea-flicker pass, Miller passed along instructions from Erdmann: the players hadn’t practiced trick plays in weeks, so avoid them.

The group grew tense as the game tightened. With the score knotted at 40-40 with only 1:49 on the clock, the Glacier Boyz lined up on the 4-yard line for a fifth and goal attempt (remember, power-ups). “I can’t take this,” said Miller, checking his pulse. “This is what working out must feel like.”

When the Wild Aces got the stop, the streamers exploded into cheers. Miller’s hosting partner, Andy Cortez, announced play calls from the six choices curated by the app before each snap, and, like clockwork, the voters fell in behind him. A series of successful runs moved the ball up the field as time slipped away. With three seconds remaining, the Wild Aces stood two yards from the championship.

Cortez called a quarterback sneak for backup quarterback Ed Crouch, and 66% of voters joined him. The stream’s idle chatter was long gone. Crouch took the snap, faked a handoff right and cut left. As he bounced into the end zone for the winning score, the People’s Champions stormed the field, and the online fans shrieked in pure, unintelligible joy.

“That’s sports,” Cortez said after the shouting finally died down. “That’s sports.”

The founders, who refer to Fan Controlled Football’s opening season as “Version 1.0,” promise the league will only get bigger and better. They’re planning an expansion to eight teams for the spring 2022 season, and Farudi expects to have 20 within five years.

The league will be in Georgia again for the next season, but the founders envision turning it into the football equivalent of a traveling circus; Farudi says they could play a complete season someplace like Mexico City before packing up the “league-in-a-box” and moving to an entirely new temporary location. Fans attending games in person would get the chance to walk on the field and meet players, he says “all the things you want to do in NFL or college football but never get to.”

In some ways, of course, the power FCF hands its fans is illusory. Because thousands of viewers vote on each play, no one individual is likely to change the game. Just as the New England Patriots are subject to the whims of coach Bill Belichick, a skeptic might argue, the Wild Aces are under the control of Jackson Erdmann, Andy Cortez and Greg Miller, not fans sitting at home.

But the joy of the Wild Aces’ supporters upon winning the title tells a different story. They weren’t disappointed that Cortez and Miller were running the show, but enthusiastic about their role as foot soldiers. Like bench players who pride themselves on pushing the team’s starters to improve in practice, the voters were proud to take their simple orders and execute them, to be a tiny piece of a collective success. In that way, the FCF experience may be less like dominating a video game and more like playing on a sports team — unlikely friendship with the star quarterback and all.

It’s an entirely new form of sports entertainment, says Farudi, who doesn’t see FCF as a direct competitor to the NFL. “There’s a blue ocean in front of us, where we’re sitting between traditional sports and video games,” he says.

The word choice of “sports” instead of “football” is intentional. Even as the founders map out the future of FCF, they’re not shy about their ambition to expand their concept to other games even, perhaps, to the stuffiest of all major American sports.

“Baseball,” ponders Dees, “is ripe for disruption.”

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John Terhune is a writer based in Boston and Portland, Maine.


Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Fan Controlled Football

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