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Can Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS) be Addicting? The Potential for DFS Addiction.

Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS) has gained significant traction in the sport community over the last year. Currently, DraftKings and FanDuel have the largest shares of the market with the latter advertising over a billion dollars in payouts in 2015. I was recently contacted by a producer at HBO Real Sports about a story on DFS addiction. This of course raises the question, “Can Daily Fantasy Sports be addicting?” The answer is extremely intriguing and complex.

The term addiction is, unfortunately, used in many different contexts, and with diverse meanings. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Edition) or DSM-5 is the book used by doctors to diagnose mental health disorders. The section of “Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders” includes substance-based disorders. Addiction is typically used in substance abuse circles such as alcohol or drugs. Sexual addiction, a term used in layperson circles, does not appear in the DSM as an actual diagnosis. In addition to substance-based disorders, the DSM does recognize gambling as a disorder; the actual diagnosis is a Gambling Disorder; gambling addict or gambling addiction are not used.

The next question of course is, “Is DFS gambling?” A few months ago I would have said “no”, but that question is currently being debated within the legal system. While this debate will likely carry on, we can compare traditional characteristics of a gambling disorder and addiction with DFS.

A scientific definition of a Gambling Disorder includes 4 or more characteristics over a 12 month period; in addition, the gambling behavior must lead to “clinically significant impairment or distress.” The characteristics can include restlessness or irritability when trying to stop, unsuccessful attempts to stop, “chasing losses”, and looking to others to cover gambling losses. While these might sound objective, the determination of a gambling disorder has challenges. For example, have you ever gone to Vegas, gambled, lost more money than you had planned, said you would not do that again, but did it? Does that mean you have a problem? Have you ever had a hangover, said you would never drink again, but did so any way?

Here are some of key hallmarks to evaluating behavior based on my experience as well as current research. The first is lying. When a person begins lying, it typically starts a downward spiral as the lies are eventually found out. This leads to a lack of trust with friends, at work, and of course at home. Without trust, a relationship will not work. In addition, deceit, manipulating, and lying can lead to financial and legal problems. One’s work performance can also suffer. A second is called “upping the ante.” For example, a person might start with a small amount of money. Those with addictive personalities then want to see what happens when the ante is upped. Of course this produces bigger highs when winning, and the desire becomes to try to go ever higher; the lows or losses then create the need to keep playing in order to make up the losses. Regardless of whether DFS is determined to be gambling or not, the aforementioned characteristics certainly apply.

Why does someone gamble? There are many reasons why a person can be attracted to problem gambling or other compulsive behavior. The first is the rush. There is a “high” that comes with addictive or compulsive behavior. Just watch the commercials for DFS. You could be the guy with the giant check for a million bucks! The high can range from traditional gambling to bidding on Ebay items. The high can be a form of self-medicating, numbing, or escape, which I find to be common with almost all addictive-type behavior. Often times there is underlying depression or anxiety and drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, sexual behavior, and even food can be used to cope. Further, recent research is showing there is a physical component to addiction and thus some people have physical factors that contribute to their addictive or compulsive tendencies.

Why are DFS especially attractive to compulsive behavior? The NFL, the major player in DFS, is a 24/7, 365 phenomenon. Off-season? No problem, you can watch the college football Senior Bowl, track “journey to the draft” stories, and of course the multi-day event that is the NFL Draft. From there it’s “rookie” stories, mini-camps, and OTAs, so there is always fodder for fantasy strategy.

In-season is a whole other animal. With DFS, the draft selection process starts Tuesday by looking at schedules and injury updates. Other information includes the wealth of analytics. If you know what ELO and PER mean, you are in the club. Wednesday and Thursday involve similar processes as decisions might have to be made by the Thursday night game. Fridays involve final practices and a determination about player activations and roles. Decisions need to be made by Saturday for the ensuing Sunday games. This can include early morning starts for London games, followed by the afternoon game, late afternoon game, and then the Sunday night game. Monday Night Football regularly features the best players and thus DFS players are likely to be invested in the game. Tuesday follows with a review of player stats, trends, injuries, and the process continues throughout the season.  This consuming lifestyle fits what could be considered DFS addiction.

There is also a thought process that goes into addictive and compulsive behavior. The carrot on the stick is the belief that you have control. More specifically, the perceived sense of control is especially appealing. For example, it’s easy to analyze which players to include. If a player does well we can think “See…I was right…my system works.” A poor decision can be met with “I knew I should have gone with my gut” or “Of course I should have picked Eli against the Patriots…next time I’m going to….” This creates hope and a false sense of an effective system. This is also where the mind games really kick in. “If I had just started this guy over the other, I would have won” is another powerful belief. The problem here is that it applies to many players most weeks. Rather than saying “There’s a reason why the house stays in business (because I’m going to lose)”, we can fool ourselves into thinking next time will be different. This hopeful thinking coupled with a desire to make back previous losses can be a powerful motivator. Further, the intermittent win, a strong reinforcement system, also keeps a person playing and believing the next win is just around the corner.

How many people do experience a true gambling disorder? The prevalence rate over the past year is 0.2-.03%; the lifetime prevalence rate is less than 1%. The most startling statistic is that 17% of people in treatment for a gambling disorder have attempted suicide. This is a very high rate compared to other disorders.

“So just stop?” This sounds so simple to those who do not struggle with addictive or compulsive behavior. However, if you have a problem in this area, you know it’s not that easy. It’s also extremely difficulty to watch a loved one go through the process of addictive or compulsive behavior. Fortunately, there is help. Gamblers Anonymous is a good resource ( You can also contact me for DFS addiction help at 678-462-3833.

Richard A. Van Haveren, Ph.D.


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