Here is a list of sports entities that I got mad at in July.
- The Costa Rican national soccer team, for playing Canada to a draw. Canada. This was soccer, not hockey.
- The Chicago Bulls summer league team, for getting blown out by the Hawks summer league team. Since this was summer league, neither the players nor the coaches cared about the result. I did.
- The WNBA’s Indiana Fever, for winning a road game against the Phoenix Mercury.
- The Indiana Fever again, for gaining my trust by beating the Mercury and then promptly losing to the 2–18 San Antonio Stars, who were without their leading scorer.
- The Italian women’s national soccer team, for losing a match against Russia that I needed it to win by multiple goals.
- The people who judged Manny Pacquiao’s fight against Jeff Horn. (I’m far from alone in that.)
I got angry at these seemingly random sports things because I am obsessed with a free online game called ESPN Streak. The goal of this game is to correctly pick the winners of various sporting events and put together a winning streak with your picks. The person who builds the longest winning streak or makes the most correct picks each month wins a prize. Last month my longest streak was seven, and it ended with me yelling at MMA. I don’t even like MMA.
I have been playing Streak for about seven years now, since the game was called Streak for the Cash, and yet all my streaking has won me no cash. I have made 3,981 picks and zero dollars. In fact, I haven’t even come close to winning money.
My best all-time streak was lovingly crafted over the course of six days this March. I picked the United States to beat Samoa in rugby. (Patriotism paid off.) I predicted that no headers would be scored in a Premier League match. (That seems normal, right?) I hit on more than a dozen college basketball picks in a row to extend my streak to 18.
The winner that month had a streak of 45.
I will likely never win this game, but Streak draws me back every month nonetheless. Sports are always happening somewhere, and this game scratches my eternal itch to care deeply about all of them.
When I tell other sports fans that I play Streak, their response is rarely “What is that?” More frequently, it’s an incredulous look before they say, “Wait, people still play Streak for the Cash?” The game was once a major ESPN initiative, but many—including, it seems, the powers that be at ESPN—have forgotten that the game exists.
When Streak launched in August 2008, ESPN offered up $1,000,000 to the first person to put together a streak of 27 correct picks. The prize for the player with the most correct picks each month was $100,000. In 2011 the monthly prize dropped to $50,000, and a new “stash” feature set aside an additional $50,000 for every month the 27-win figure wasn’t hit. That meant the game was shelling out an average of $100,000 per month, with payouts as large as $450,000.
In 2014, the monthly prize dropped to $20,000 with a $20,000 stash. In 2016, the main prize dropped to $25,000, the stash dropped to $10,000, and the quota to win the stash was raised from 27 consecutive wins to 30. At the start of this year, the monthly prize was set at $30,000 and the stash was eliminated; in June the prize dropped further to $25,000.
As the game’s financial incentive has decreased, so too has its prominence at ESPN. When the grand prize was a million dollars, Streak was sponsored by Progressive and promoted all over ESPN’s website. In 2013, the network ran ads in which a handsome, bearded bro credited his 19-game winning streak to channeling the mind-set of Progressive pitchlady Flo. To find the game now, you have to look in a navigation bar on ESPN’s fantasy page. The game used to have a self-contained app; last week it was completely discontinued to encourage users to play in the main ESPN fantasy app.
But Streak still has players—a recent tweet about a surprising result revealed about 60,000 players picked a single Wimbledon prop. And it continues to present users with fascinating sports finds every day. The game has become something of a relic, but some of us remain hooked.
What I love about Streak is the variety forced by its time-based premise. The game offers the option to pick winners in far-flung, random sporting events scattered throughout the day. Some might feature teams I’ve never heard of, or even sports I’ve never heard of. Still, the people who run Streak have done the noble work of scouring the globe for (vaguely) sports-related happenings that have roughly 50–50 betting odds. (With the lack of a 27-win cash trigger, the odds have gotten better—some props now have clear favorites.)
In July, Streak motivated me to follow Wimbledon, the Basketball Tournament—which is awesome, by the way—and on many mornings, the Tour de France. For the Tour, I saw that my options were picking “Marcel Kittel” or “Any other cyclist” to win a given stage. I know next to nothing about cycling, but I decided to risk my budding streak on the field. There were more than a hundred other riders! As I did my morning work, I flipped on the race in the background, noticed two riders (neither of whom was Kittel) about two minutes ahead of the field, and figured I had my W.
I learned a lot about the Tour de France that day. For starters, cyclists can’t lead a race for 150ish miles without anybody breaking their wind. I watched the leads and legs of the two breakaway riders falter, and for a second it seemed like anybody’s race in the final meters. That’s when Kittel—an athlete who I’d never previously heard of—found an extra level of power, maneuvered past the field, and made the other cyclists going 40 miles an hour look like they were made of stone. I’d known sports fans who cared about the Tour; I’d never grasped why until that exact moment.
At first I was mad that I’d blown my streak. But I soon became appreciative: I realized that I’d gotten genuinely worked up about a damn bike race. As a sportswriter, I sometimes think too rationally about sports. I can forget how to get lost in games the way I did before this was my job. Streak caused me to holler at my TV about the incredible thing a German guy did with a bike.
Of course, there is a more popular way to become emotionally invested in sporting events I otherwise wouldn’t care about. It’s called gambling, and it’s … (incoherent mumbling) possible to do without going directly to jail. But I know my personality: I don’t get kind of into addictive things. If I start gambling, I know I will lose actual money I need for my life.
ESPN Streak is a gambling patch, and it’s simple. Somebody else has found these reasonably competitive events for me. I don’t have to pretend to understand them, and to be honest, I don’t even need to fool myself into thinking I can take home a prize.
While it seems dumb that I’ve been playing this game for seven years without making any money, consider the flip side: I’ve been playing this game for seven years without losing a cent.