If you thought fantasy football was wonky, try Fantasy Congress

Sports may be chaotic this year, but legislating is as strange as it ever was

Who says there aren’t trophies in politics? The developer behind Fantasy Congress believes gamification can be a good thing. Above, players are seen at the Congressional Football Game in 2019.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Who says there aren’t trophies in politics? The developer behind Fantasy Congress believes gamification can be a good thing. Above, players are seen at the Congressional Football Game in 2019. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 20, 2020 at 6:30am

Second-guessing lineup decisions. Obsessively watching statistics. Emotionally investing in the performance of people you weren’t even aware of until a few days before. These are all familiar practices for people immersed in the popular world of fantasy sports.

But what about political nerds looking for a way to blow off some steam?

That’s where Fantasy Congress comes in.

The game, run by former web developer Allison Seboldt, at first focused on who would win midterm elections back in 2018, but then she “burned it all down to the ground and rebuilt it around legislation and Congress being in session,” she says.

So far this year, almost 600 people have played, starting teams with names like “Hairforce One” and the “Ameri-cat Dream.” (Unlike fantasy football, Fantasy Congress isn’t tethered to an actual season, so the “season” length is determined by each league’s commissioner.)

The rules allow people to select a “team” of Capitol Hill lawmakers (four senators, six representatives) and earn points based on a number of factors, including floor speeches (1 point), when a member sponsors a new bill (6 points) or when someone’s bill passes the House or Senate (12 points).

Those may be obvious factors, but Seboldt includes other ways to put points on the board. For instance, there’s a “maverick bonus” for lawmakers who go against at least 70 percent of their party on a vote. And half-points are allotted for mentions in major newspapers. Seboldt, 31, says she’s still tinkering with the system, conceding that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who averages 38 points a week, may have too much power. (Democrats probably feel the same way.)

Still, she feels like she’s hitting her stride. Fantasy football may be a little chaotic this year thanks to the pandemic, but fantasy legislating is as strange as it ever was.

All of this invites a question: Does this gamification of lawmaking water down the importance of politics?

Seboldt says it’s fair to ask, but she argues that by making the legislative process more fun to follow, Fantasy Congress can bring in people not normally disposed to caring.

“I’m using gamification as an education tool,” she says. “When I played fantasy football, I learned so much about football. I never paid attention to football before, and all of a sudden I cared so much about football and the knowledge just came to me through osmosis.”

Seboldt wants to replicate that with Fantasy Congress. The game has found a small audience around the country with civics and government teachers looking to engage their students.

She owes it all to Thursday Night Football. Back in 2014, Seboldt and her friends were watching at a bar and started talking about how they could apply fantasy sports to more arenas. “We all did speech team together in college, so we’re all pretty political,” she says. That’s when the idea for Fantasy Congress popped up. “I was just obsessed with it.”

Seboldt, who lives in Chicago, doesn’t fit the mold of someone you might expect to start a venture like this. While she interned a decade ago in the district office of former Rep. Timothy Johnson, R-Ill., and has also interned on a local campaign, she doesn’t work on Capitol Hill or in politics. Most shocking of all, she’s never even visited Washington.

“It definitely is ironic,” she says. “Eventually I decided to teach myself to code and become a developer instead. I had always had an interest in computers and decided that while I was interested in politics, I didn’t necessarily want to work in that world.” 

While hers is the latest version, Seboldt can’t claim to be the first person to launch a fantasy league based on the legislative process. In 2006 a group of students at Claremont McKenna College started a project by the same name. “The idea was popular on their campus,” Seboldt tells me, but ultimately fizzled out. She says she’s been in touch with them and has run ideas by them.

While there are similarities between sports and politics, Seboldt admits it’s not a perfect analogy and there is a risk of reinforcing a horse race mentality.

But Fantasy Congress is one way of getting at what many constituents, political reporters and lawmakers themselves want to know, and that’s just how good these guys are at their jobs.

“My North Star, my guiding light is always, ‘How do we measure how effective a member of Congress is at their job or how successful they are?’” Seboldt says.