The week of August 24, 2014

How I won $150,000 playing fantasy football

By Shawn Siegele

It is Dec. 22, 2013. My brother and I enter the day with teams in first and fourth place in the National Fantasy Football Championship (NFFC), a premier league that’s paid out over $20 million in prizes in the last 10 years. We’ve survived injuries, blizzards, and lineup foibles, but it isn’t clear we’ll outlast DeSean Jackson and Antonio Brown. Exactly $150,000 is on the line, and we need a good performance from Jay Cutler in the night game to hold on.

Fantasy football shouldn’t be an exploitable endeavor. The Internet eliminates any sort of news-based informational advantage. We all have access to the same scouting narratives about players. Myriad experts publish their rankings, and sites like FantasyPros aggregate that information and grade the rankers. Average draft position information is easily accessible. It shouldn’t be possible to beat the wisdom of crowds unless fundamental errors have crept into the machine.

It shouldn’t be possible, but high-stakes dynamos like Chad Schroeder, Jared Danielson, Tom Yates, and Jules McLean win consistently year after year. What are the flaws that allow these men and women to defeat even the best players in the world?

Draft season is like a full month of Christmas. I normally draft and play out 30 to 50 leagues a season. In addition to high-stakes leagues, I play in supposed expert leagues with folks from the fantasy writing community, friends’ leagues with auction drafting and crazy keeper rules, and dynasty leagues with individual defensive players.

In late August and early September, the NFFC Main Event drafts become incredibly hectic. Anyone can enter the Main Event, but these are $1,500 entry fee leagues with the world’s most experienced players. Over the past two seasons, I’ve had the great fortune to cash in 16 of 29 such leagues, but just participating in that many drafts is a logistical challenge. Doing two drafts simultaneously helps keep the mind from wandering. Drafting three, especially when one requires a phone hookup to a live event in Chicago, is another thing entirely.

If the draft is Christmas, waivers qualify as the dog days of summer.

Fortunately, fantasy leagues are not won during the draft itself but during the previous month’s preparation. I first entered an NFFC league in 2008, when my research suggested the possibility of systematic flaws in the way players were being valued. The most commonly used draft approach ranks players in relationship to the fantasy points they are forecasted to provide over a replacement player at the position. However, this approach often misunderstands the role of an additional “Flex” position and has difficulty dealing with potential breakout players or players whose scoring opportunities are dependent on a very specific set of circumstances.

Some 250 leagues later, I’ve decided unlocking the value of the unpredictable is the most important aspect of player projection. My projections have become more useful as I’ve become increasingly skeptical of my own ability to create them with any degree of certainty. In evaluating possible draft choices, certain combinations of athleticism and production are more sensitive to change. I now use contingency-based drafting, an approach that seeks to maximize roster value by selecting players who will benefit from the chaos, randomness, and stresses of an NFL season.

The challenge in fantasy football is to use the omnipresent narratives as a source of potential value. Old-school football men tend to overvalue small receivers and undervalue small running backs. Take Adrian Peterson. Despite finishing only nine yards away from breaking the all-time single-season rushing record, Peterson only scored 21.8 fantasy points per game in 2012. Marshall Faulk scored 32.6 in 2000. Priest Holmes averaged 31.6 in 2002. Partly due to his weaknesses in the passing game and partly due to the offense in which he languishes, Peterson lacked the upside to be the type of fantasy MVP we’ve seen in the past.

In 2013, the clear fantasy football MVP was Jamaal Charles. For three epic seasons, his predecessor Priest Holmes was the greatest force fantasy football has ever seen. In Kansas City, his genius is forever locked in the twin ambers of memory and imagination. But you might need to go back to Gale Sayers to find someone who possessed the speed, agility, and vision of Charles. He’s the type of player that can almost single-handedly get your team into the playoffs.

If the draft is Christmas, waivers qualify as the dog days of summer.

You simply never know what’s going to happen from week to week. In 2013, Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones had been our second-round pick and was leading all receivers in points. He put on a performance for the ages on Monday Night Football on Oct. 7, but it was has last game of the season—he had accomplished such heroics with a newly refractured foot. It’s almost impossible to recover from that sort of loss in a Main Event, but it’s possible if you make the right moves on the waiver wire.

Sports will always be about people. The algorithms merely attempt to find the right ones.

Every Wednesday afternoon I spend hours submitting bids. This requires investigating every player available at every position for 25-plus teams. Frequently I hit enter on the last contingent bid only seconds before the free agent period locks. It’s always worth it because every once in a while you land a Zac Stacy.

If you examined the advanced metrics for Stacy before the 2013 NFL Draft, he looked like the best back in the class. He was the scourge of SEC defenses despite running behind Vanderbilt’s frequently overmatched line. Unfortunately, his style didn’t pop on tape. Stacy fell into the fifth round of the NFL Draft. He entered camp as the fourth-string runner for the St. Louis Rams and didn’t receive real playing time until week 5. From that point on, he was the No. 9 running back in fantasy football.

We often hear that the analysis-based approach makes the game less interesting. Many speak of a dreary future where machines decide everything and chance is eliminated. If Moneyball was baseball’s 1984, critics claim, then fantasy subscription service RotoViz will be games’s Fahrenheit 451, setting fire to the very narratives that underpin our understanding and love of sports with data-driven analysis.

Of course, that in itself is a story, and the story is wrong.

Life may conform to probabilities in the long run, but the short run will always be the realm of the storyteller. We can use analytics to increase our chances in real or fantasy football, but the exact paths traversed on those Sunday afternoons will never be preordained. The laws of physics forbid it.

Moreover, the goal of analytics is to put humans in the middle of the equation, not remove them entirely. Many of the players championed are natural underdogs. They’re players who don’t fit the preferred aesthetic mold. Every viewer who sits down on the couch on Sunday morning can empathize with that. We all have our own tale of a time in high school or Pop Warner where the coach preached about execution and hustle and doing the little things … and then played the flashy player instead.

Sports will always be about people. The algorithms merely attempt to find the right ones.

During the 2013 regular season, Tyson and I placed seven teams in the Top 30 of the Primetime Main Event and two in the Top 10 of the Main Event Classic. But whatever control it might be possible to exert over the regular season, you have that much less in the playoffs. To win a three-week race against the best 106 teams that remain, a little luck is required. And thankfully, we had Jamaal Charles.

We record the final Sunday night game, the tension too thick to sit through commercials. Owners with players still alive on Monday trail by too large a margin. Win or lose, it will be over tonight. By the time we finish watching Chicago’s annihilation at the hands of Nick Foles, we’ve almost caught up to real time.When Brandon Boykin steps in front of an errant Jay Cutler pass and waltzes 54 yards to the end zone, I am sure our run of luck has ended. I’ve added the points in my head. There will always be next year.

Tyson shrugs and swipes the horseshoe that unlocks his phone. My brother doesn’t live and breathe football, but he’s been the True Believer in this project. Just like out in the “real” world, fantasy sports are about people. Plunking down that $1,500 for your first team is an act of faith.

A second swipe and the NFFC app loads the final standings. Impassive, Tyson glances at the results and slowly turns the screen to me.  

It takes me a moment to understand what I’m seeing. Our top team has secured the Primetime Championship and our other squad sits in second by a mere nine-tenths of a point.

So much for mental arithmetic.


Illustrations by J. Longo