This article appears in the July 26 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
The casino of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas smells like pool water, old shoes, cigar smoke and that weird, blood smell of coins. Peter Korian and his younger brother, Steve, are too excited to care. As the two walk hurriedly past long rows of buzzing slot machines named Triple-Double Wild Cherry and Lucky Larry's Lobstermania, none of the foggy-eyed gamblers pulling levers and pressing buttons has any idea that one of the best fantasy football-playing duos in the world is passing by.
It's Saturday morning, the day before the first full slate of games in the 2009 NFL season, and the Korians are heading to the Main Event of the World Championship of Fantasy Football. The winner will take home $300,000, a fitting prize for participants who have often spent years obsessing about the NFL. The Korians have prepped for draft day for months, cramming hard-core all of the past week. While most everyone else in Vegas spends their time attending shows, dropping loads of cash or stumbling back to hotels through the debris of the Strip, the brothers and others like them hole up in their rooms busily simulating dozens of mock drafts on their laptops and poring over cheat sheets, simultaneously watching hours of NFL pontification on cable. With their curtains open just enough to reveal the desert in the day and the glitter of the buildings at night, they also read news stories, making careful notes about injured starters.
The Main Event, also known as the WCOFF, takes a special kind of player. The league you play in with your co-workers? Don't think for a second that you could hack the Main Event, which attracts the most serious fantasy football fanatics. Never mind that the underlying notion behind the competition is that it's supposed to be fun. Since its inception, in 2002, the WCOFF has grown from 500 to nearly 3,000 entrants expected in 2010, with draft-day festivities moving from an MGM ballroom to the hotel's 90,000-square-foot convention center. It's now the world's biggest fantasy football draft in terms of buy-in, payouts, grand prizes (some $2 million between the Vegas events and satellite drafts in Orlando, Chicago and Atlantic City) and level of competition, drawing wealthy, ambitious and dedicated players. "These are the guys who love it so much they're willing to organize their local drafts, set the rules and run the leagues," says Dustin Ashby, who coordinates the WCOFF for the World Championship of Fantasy Sports, a St. Louis-area company that organizes high-stakes fantasy baseball and football leagues. "These guys always win their leagues, because they just know that much more. We attract the avid of the avid."