In the back room of a pub in Norwich, a small group of people are excitedly shouting things like: “Buffy Summers! 390 points!” “Virgil!” “The one from Devil May Cry?” “No, from Dante's Inferno!” “210 points!”
This is Draft Day at the Cookie Cup, a fantasy football league with an emphasis on the fantasy.
I've never been a follower of the old foot-to-ball, but the Cookie Cup gives it an appealingly nerdy hook: what if the teams were made up of your favourite fictional characters? The result is a sort of Premier League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
As each name gets shouted out, they're added to that person's team on the draft board, to the soundtrack of curses from anyone hoping to grab that player for themselves. This is how bitter rivalries form between people who've never met before.
Take Patrick, assembling a sci-fi-themed squad. He methodically works his way through Star Wars characters, then Star Trek...until a competitor snatches Spock out from under him. He turns with gritted teeth and a red biro to the print-out stuck to the beery tabletop, looking for another USS Enterprise crew member to plug the gaping hole in his defence.
Over in one corner, Cookie Cup Commissioner and creator Bret Canny sits, crossing names off a gargantuan spreadsheet, making sure everyone stays within their 6,000-point budget.
“When I very first got a computer, one of the games that came with it was FIFA 2000,” he says. “I've never really been a big fan of football, so I wasn't too into it until I discovered that you could edit the teams, and change the way they look and act.
“The idea for the Cookie Cup started when I watched the TV show The League. I really liked the way they'd take every opportunity to rub each other up the wrong way, because everyone playing gets so involved, and it all gets a bit personal even though you don't really have any control over the results. I remembered back to creating these teams in FIFA, connected the dots, and that was it. I spent the next month or two of my life creating these stupid characters and seeing if anyone wanted to play this game with me.”
Now in its third year, the Cookie Cup still uses that same copy of FIFA 2000. From Bill & Ted to Batman & Superman, over 350 players have been built using its character creation tool, with stats that reflect how they would fare on the pitch. They're drafted into teams, tactics and positions are set up, and each week's results are decided by AI-controlled FIFA matches, then uploaded to YouTube.
Which is why, just over a week later, I'm hunched over my laptop alternately swearing and cheering. It's the first game of the season and my club, the mighty Kickers With Attitude, are facing off against the Irken Invaders. Early cracks are showing in my midfield, setting up rival captain Superman for two goals, but thanks to the Kickers' up-front trinity of Hawkeye, Black Widow and Buttercup from the Powerpuff Girls, we scrape a 3-2 win.
You can watch that game above. If you do, it probably won't take long to realise that what's actually happening on screen doesn't really match up to the fantasy. Everyone from Pikachu to Dracula is depicted by the same low-poly model, discernible only by their shirt numbers. But the brain's capacity for pattern recognition means that you quickly grab onto the little details and turn them into stories. It makes perfect sense that Hawkeye never misses a shot. Of course my midfield is weak, when I was stupid enough to play Batman and the Joker side-by-side.
Buttercup may be represented by a pixelated bald man, but in my head that's clearly the Powerpuff's toughest fighter diving head-first into tackles to save the day.
All of this is aided by the Cookie Cup's very own news outlet, part of the web of Facebook pages, Google Docs and YouTube videos which support the games. Every week, the Multiverse Sports Central (MSC) posts reports of every match, all written by Cookie Cup Keeper of Records and actual journalist Tim Maytom.
“If people don't want to sit and watch the YouTube videos every week, they can just read the match reports and get a rough idea of how they performed,” Tim says. “But it's also a great opportunity to do jokes that take advantage of this weird mash-up of universes, and lean into the storytelling aspects of it.”
It helps glue together the various elements of the League into a vaguely coherent meta-narrative. When FIFA's freak lightning cheat was switched on this season – temporarily melting players into piles of ash – MSC was on hand, Clarissa-style, to explain it all. The lightning was, of course, an unintended supernatural consequence of the demonic characters that I'd added to this year's player roster, a perk of my victory the previous season...
Oh, yeah. I probably should have mentioned this earlier but my mother always taught me not to humblebrag. The first time I took part in the Cookie Cup, I came top, winning £23.81 and a magnificent plastic trophy which I once took with me into a Leeds Travelodge shower for reasons that are hazy at best.
With just two games left, four points clear at the top of the table, it's looking like a repeat of last year. Studying the fixtures, I can't help but grin. My remaining opponents – the Moreauders, Tim's squad of beastmen, and the Electric Corgis, a club run by my own girlfriend – have barely won a single game between them. It would take a massive upset for anyone but my Kickers to take home this year's trophy.
This realisation is, of course, immediately followed by a massive upset.
One important thing about the Cookie Cup is that the experience it emulates isn't of actually playing football, nor of leading a team to victory as manager. While you can tweak some rudimentary tactics between matches, and trade players during transfer windows, once the actual kicking begins any control is relinquished. Instead, the feeling it captures is of being a fan, jumping from quiet prayer to screaming at the TV about how you could've done better.
I can't say what the appeal might be for someone into actual football, who can get that fix regularly. But as an outsider to sport, this experience is a fantasy all of its own. I've long envied sports fans' ability to divine a narrative from the push and pull of a match, to read the entrails of a season's league tables. By adding in familiar characters, giving me the smallest amount of agency and a stake in the results (specifically, the £5 entry fee) the Cookie Cup allows me to discern the shape of a story beneath the results for the first time.
In that story, as the third act begins, I'm not the scrappy underdog. I'm the returning champ who just presumes he's going to win. And if you've seen Rocky or Dodgeball or Cool Runnings or any other classic sports movie, you know that these aren't the guys who tend to triumph at the end.
So, predictably, it all goes wrong. First the Moreauders: they halt every one of my advances with a skill they've never previously displayed, while star striker Fox McCloud manages to sneak an all-important goal past the claws of my keeper, Futurama's Robot Devil.
Finally, the Electric Corgis. A team whose repeated thrashings I've suffered through with my girlfriend, their owner. They're now the only thing standing between me and that sweet, sweet trophy. The Corgis are the literal underdogs, and it's almost immediately obvious that they're going to win.
Watching the match live in Norwich, as it spools out of Bret's laptop, Tim is shouting “WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING” over and over, as a clumsy tackle in the fourth minute of the game pushes the ball over my own goal-line, just four minutes into the game. As Angel follows up with another just moments later, Bret spontaneously breaks into what Tim describes as a 'monkey dance' around the living room.
My team ineffectually flap my way through the rest of the match, getting in a goal in the second half but never turning the tide. I believe there's a football cliché about it all being over? It certainly is now.
Watching the replays of these matches a couple of weeks later, to help me write this, it still stings a little. It's a pain I recognise from friends I've co-habited with over the years, cursing the communal TV like it had done something awful to their family and, finally able to join in, I relish it. Who knows, next time there's a Cup of Worlds or one of these 'Premier Leagues', maybe I'll be able to go to a pub and shout at actual human beings running up and down a pitch.
...Oh, as for who actually won the League: remember Patrick from earlier, the guy who had Spock plucked from his grasp at the Draft Day? Turns out his team had been playing a blinder all season. In a league of literal Supermen (two of them on the same team), his plucky band of spaceship captains, droids and whatever a 'Ka D'Argo' is had managed to sneak through without a single loss. Now that's an underdog story.