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Fantasy Football Season

September 10, 2012

NFL ‘s season started this week, which means that, perhaps more importantly for some people, Fantasy Football season started this week. For those of you who may be unaware, Fantasy Football is a game where each player manages a team composed of real world players in the NFL. Each player’s achievements on-field are translated into fantasy “points”, which are used to determine the winner in a series of head-to-head matches with other players in the fantasy league, culminating in a final bracket that completes just before the playoffs begin. For instance, running 10 yards might be worth a point, and scoring a touchdown might be worth 7 points. Many leagues require a cash buy-in, with various portions of the money going for various awards throughout the year (overall #1, most total points, etc). However, many leagues don’t, and are played just as a friendly casual supplement to the season.

Based on a complete lack of research, it seems likely to me that fantasy sports started with Fantasy Baseball, which honestly makes more sense. Baseball is essentially an individual sport, so the activities of each player could be abstracted to the fantasy team more easily. I suppose people may have played fantasy sports on pen and paper in the old days, but they’ve really taken off with the rise of the internet, where on-line leagues can automatically tabulate the scores and keep track of the teams in a central but easily accessible location. In the past few years, as the American public has drifted more towards embracing football as the American pastime, fantasy football has really taken on new prominence. Some adjustments had to be made for football, such as many leagues abstracting “defense” to a single “player” per fantasy team. There’s some interesting design implications there, which I may look at in the future (short version: offense is more fun), but overall, it seems to work pretty well. The weird thing is how many people have been tricked into playing what is essentially a market valuation and information game under the guise of watching a sport.

Since Fantasy Football managers don’t actually, you know, do anything to impact the player performances, there are really only a few actions they can take that make any difference:

  1. Play / Bench players. Since a roster has more players than are “on-field” in any week, the manager has to decide who plays each week and who sits. Generally, this is used to manage injuries, but a second-stringer might explode later in the season, or a player might have a particularly unfavorable matchup one week.
  2. Trade Players. As injuries take their toll later in the season, holes may form in your initial lineup. For any sizable league, there isn’t that much talent floating around the free agent pool, so this means negotiating favorable trades from unsuspecting rivals.
  3. Drafting. Arguably the single most important thing in a fantasy league, the draft (run at the beginning of the season, and often taking place as live on-line or in-person parties) essentially determines the fate of your team for the entire season.

But none of these have much to do with football at all really. Since Fantasy Football has become a multi-million dollar industry, there is simply a ton of information available on-line, particularly with regards to draft time. All fantasy leagues offer default rankings based on expert analysis and previous years’ data. This basically represents the “street” base of public knowledge. Drafting (and trading) successfully involves a) luck to get a good draft order, and b) identifying which players are under-valued, and drafting them accordingly. This requires knowledge of the players and schedules, but at it’s heart it’s just playing a market and trying to prove that your valuation method is better than the street’s. It’s a wall-street simulator where the commodities are players.

Perhaps the most interesting wrinkle in this is that many players have either conscious or unconscious biases towards or against certain teams and players that prevent them from judging value accurately. For instance, no matter how many points he’s slated for this year, I’m not drafting Roethlisburger, because he’s a creep. A savvy opponent could see that and scoop him up from underneath me, getting a higher ranking player lower in the draft than he should be able to. So a lot of success involves reading the other players in the league and so knowing how to exploit their improper valuations. This is probably a large part of why it’s a game that’s more fun with people you know than with random pickups from the internet.

So if it doesn’t actually have much to do with football, why do people play it? Well, it enhances the spectatorship experience. People with fantasy teams have “skin in the game”, as it were, and have an excuse to get excited about things that they wouldn’t otherwise care about. Sure, I can root for my home team when they’re playing, or follow some favorites or big names. But I need a better reason than that to get excited about Tampa Bay vs. Cleveland. But if I happen to have Cleveland’s QB on my team, or even on my opponent’s team, suddenly I care a lot more about how he plays. There’s an even more interesting tension when you have fantasy players on both sides of a particular game, or when a fantasy preference and a “sincere” preference (like a local team) come into conflict.

A lot of the pleasure also comes from the tension of lost opportunity cost (I’m sure there’s a better design terminology that I can’t think of). On-line leagues present not only your active player’s points, but also the points of your benched players and any free agents. Seeing a bench player rocket up to have an unexpectedly amazing game delivers a delicious lottery-like “near miss” feeling. Even moreso when there’s actual money on the line for winning the league (money is a powerful thing, it can make even a bad game design seem good, see: slot machines).

At the end of the day, I’d be worried that, much like playing Wall Street, trying to beat the market with gut feelings and without insider knowledge is basically a fool’s game. I’d be interested to see how many fantasy players manage to beat an optimal “expert rankings” team in their league each year (those studies probably already exist). I suspect that it wouldn’t do any better than you’d expect from sheer luck. On the other hand, the expert opinion might not be any better than a random Joe’s, since the underlying valuations (player on-field performance) in any given year are so noisy, that they’re probably not measuring player skill in any useful way either. So, I’d probably say go ahead and draft your gut: it feels so much better if you do win that way that it’s worth the risk.

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2 Comments
  1. Americans have been playing a version of Fantasy Baseball since at least 1941. I remember having this game when I was a kid. http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/3157/all-star-baseball

    • That’s pretty amazing. I’d heard of the Strat-O-Matic game, but that appears to pre-date it by a good 20 years.

      The real difference with modern fantasy leagues is that Fantasy Football / Baseball derives the results from real-time game results, rather than averages based on past performance. So, I’d probably trace that all-star baseball game’s lineage towards simulation video games like MLB The Show or simulators like Out of the Park Baseball.

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