ESPN fantasy leagues glitch highlights technology's trickery

Eric Benderoff
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

CHICAGO - We are a nation that must cope regularly with the heartbreak of technology.

From a frozen computer screen to an iPod with a dead hard drive, practically everyone today lives with the persistent little fear that at any moment, their technological lifeline could crack.

It happened Wednesday to hundreds of thousands of fantasy baseball players, when sports powerhouse ESPN acknowledged there was a big glitch in the online game service it operates. ESPN said it needed to turn back the clock to April 1st, Major League Baseball's Opening Day, to reset the rosters for the players using its service.

This is no belated April Fool's joke, nor a small matter for participants in fantasy baseball leagues, many of whom manage multiple teams.

"I'm a programmer, so I sympathize with ESPN's problems," said Jim Graham, a Louisiana-based database programmer who is in five ESPN baseball leagues. "But they are taking the nuclear option."

In a letter posted on Wednesday, John Kosner, a senior vice president, wrote that the problems "have been unacceptable, and we are genuinely sorry."

The nearly two-page letter went on in detail about the changes that were to occur late Wednesday night, when the game will be taken offline for several hours, in order to restore the fantasy rosters.

Lee Rainie has been active in fantasy baseball for the last two years, playing in a league with his 16-year old son. He doesn't use the ESPN service, but he understands the anguish the problems have caused.

With fantasy baseball today, he said, "by the third inning of an East Coast game, you can figure out if you've lost ground in your league."

Rainie is the director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, an ongoing study that measures the impact of technology in society.

He said the problems at ESPN are a classic example of how people's expectations have changed over the years as technology has improved.

Technology "has shifted from novelty to a valued and essential utility," Rainie said. "That started in 2000 for some people, but by 2002, people's expectations had shifted. Technology wasn't a novelty anymore. It was essential. It had become woven into people's lives."

That has only accelerated as gadgets proliferate and home broadband use soars. "People become more zealous with computers when they get broadband," Rainie said.

According to a study from the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, 88 percent of players have a broadband connection and 92 percent use e-mail to help manage their team.

In fantasy baseball, participants draft real MLB players to create mythical teams, which compete against each other through computerized tallies of pitching and hitting statistics.

For avid fantasy players, the first few weeks of the season are particularly active. There is jockeying to pick up players off to a hot start, the dumping of veteran pitchers who suddenly throw at batting practice speeds and scouring for unheralded back-ups ready to take a step-up in class.

But all those transactions made since Opening Day, and the points they may have accumulated or lost for the fantasy owners, will disappear.

"If you're in as many teams as I am, this is a real pain," Graham said. "You manage your teams in and out, everyday. I've made some good moves. I'm going to lose a lot of points."

To draw more of the estimated 5 million fantasy baseball players, and thus attract advertisers, ESPN offered its baseball product for free this year.

The strategy worked, as the number of players increased six-fold, said Paul Melvin, an ESPN spokesman. He wouldn't say how many total players signed up, but people like Graham went from managing three paid teams to five free ones this year.

The sharp rise in participation did not cause the problems, Melvin said.

"It was not a problem caused by traffic but rather by software glitches that led to incorrect processing of transactional data," he said.

It's the second time ESPN has had an embarrassing situation with its fantasy product. In 2005, when it offered fantasy football leagues for free for the first time, the first two weeks of the season were beset by problems, including players who could not make roster changes before kick-off.

"Tomorrow, after they reboot everything, you hope it will work," said Graham. "Up until this year, when I was paying, ESPN's been great."

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