Millions of families across the country celebrated Thanksgiving with the traditional triumvirate: family, food – and football. After the turkey (or sometimes, with a mouth full of turkey), many a family member, eyes glued to the television screen, proclaimed, “Hey, he’s on my fantasy team.” Thanksgiving, together with the approaching holiday football frenzy, provide an opportunity to explore exactly what that statement means.

Fantasy football is a game of sorts, in which a group of friends or co-workers gather together as “fantasy owners” to “draft” “teams” made up of active players from National Football League. The number of friends or co-workers can vary from a minimum of four to up to 20, but usually the number of fantasy “teams” will be around 12. The draft can take place live, with all “owners” sitting around a table, sipping a beverage of choice as they select their players; or it can take place over the Internet, with owners sitting at home alone (but often on the phone), sipping a beverage of choice while selecting players.

Once teams have been selected, they “score” points based on the statistics accumulated by the players on their teams during actual NFL games. Generally, one fantasy team’s total points accumulated during a given week’s NFL games is put up against the points scored by another team in the fantasy league, with the higher score emerging as the winner. The pattern repeats the next week, with teams facing off against each other according to a pre-set schedule. After 14 or 15 weeks, the best fantasy teams in their respective leagues then face off against each other in the fantasy playoffs, with the champion usually crowned in the last week of the NFL regular season.

There are many variations on the basic theme. How points are scored differs greatly from league to league. Points can come not only from actual touchdowns scored, but also from yards gained, pass receptions made, or rushing yardage. Teams can lose points for fumbles lost or for interceptions.

The number of players per team, and the positions at which they play, also varies greatly. While nearly every league requires quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, kickers and some version of a defense, the number of players selected at each position varies. One quarterback or two; one, two or three running backs; individual defensive players or whole defensive teams – hundreds of configurations are possible. Between the players on a fantasy team and the scoring system employed, the variety of fantasy games possible is virtually endless. But the theme remains generally the same: one owner’s team faces off against another owner’s team, and the team that scores the most fantasy points, as determined by that league’s scoring system, wins.

Over the last several years, fantasy football has been heavily promoted by the NFL and media outlets. The NFL’s website, nfl.com, now promotes the game. ESPN, CBS Sports, Fox Sports, the Sporting News, and many other venues offer on-line fantasy football games, and promote them heavily. Fantasy football increases public interest in games that otherwise appear meaningless.

When the hapless St. Louis Rams take on the equally hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who will watch? The NFL and Fox Sports hope that at least a few fantasy football aficionados will tune in.

People play fantasy football partially for that reason as well – to give them a reason to pay attention to football games. They focus on the game, talk among friends and gather to watch games that otherwise would hold no meaning for them. Camaraderie is an important part of all fantasy sports.

Football lends itself to fantasy play better than many sports because of the regular one-game-per-week schedule and the ease of tallying scores based on statistics generated. Fantasy sports, however, are not limited to football. Basketball, baseball and hockey offer fantasy opportunities. But they are not the only sports to do so – fantasy offerings include English soccer, golf, NASCAR, college sports, tennis and surely others.

For the non-sports-minded out there, there are numerous fantasy stock market options, and at one time there was even a “fantasy congress” game. Fantasy sports or fantasy anything offers a chance to gather and interact with friends. There are certainly worse choices – even if the result means the occasional disruption of a holiday dinner.