My mother-in-law plays a dice game called Farkel. It's a game of simple math, but mostly a game of chance—more War than chess, more cleromancy than game theory. If I were stuck with her in a windowless room without my toothbrush but with a woman named Estelle, if we were stuck for all eternity, perhaps we could determine if her, ahem, extreme prudence or my more reckless style were superior. But as-is there's a lot of guessing, a lot of premature revelry and a lot of empty opining about strategy. If I may: the game sucks. It's an excuse for people of a certain age to get together and drink.
Fantasy football is a $70 billion market. I can't believe I just wrote that. That … that number was not planned.
… give me a second …
23 million people play fantasy football, and while I could not find an exact number, a not terribly scientific or thorough accounting of the number of Yahoo public leagues versus the number of Yahoo private leagues, indicates most play with standard rules. And many customized leagues are close enough to standard rules to, for my purposes, be comparable.
Fantasy football played by standard rules is a rotten game, requiring little skill, that, in its crappiness is a bad reason even to get together and drink. Here's why:
Way too much value at the top
Using Pro Football Reference's Fantasy Football tools*, I compiled the last ten years of VBD. If you don't know what VBD is, it's value above baseline. In a standard 12-team league, that means the value of the best quarterback versus the 12th best quarterback, the best running back versus the 24th best running back, etc. Since fantasy football is so designed to reduce all stats into points and put all points into a single bucket, it's easy enough to compare performance across positions. How good was LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006? 271 points better than Warrick Dunn, but also 130 points above top quarterback Peyton Manning. And what does that mean exactly? Well, there's a few ways to think of that.
Here's a graph of the average value of the top 84 players (12(QB + 2RBs + 3WRs + TE)) over that ten year span.
You may notice it resembles a power law probability distribution. It's not quite that extreme actually: the top 20% (the top 15 players) only account for 48% of all points above baseline. Now you might be saying
but I think the implication is clear: Value is concentrated in a few players. Value is especially concentrated in the very best player. The graph becomes very gradual after the first five most valuable players, so that the value difference between the most valuable player and the fifth most valuable player is roughly equal to the value difference between the sixth most valuable player and the 46th most valuable player.
Snaking the draft does not properly compensate
If you were to run a perfectly efficient snake draft, with the best player picked first, the second best player picked second and so on, the resulting teams would project to these point totals:
The most valuable player in any given year accounts for most of that advantage, and value levels out too quickly for a snake-style draft to make up for that advantage.
There is little skill to drafting the best player
You may argue that a draft is not perfectly efficient, and that's true. In fact, that the draft is not run efficiently only deepens the advantage of finding, or should I say, being able to pick that 2006 LaDainian Tomlinson or that 2003 Priest Holmes. 2006 Tomlinson, the most dominant fantasy player in our sample and probably ever, worth 97 points more than 2006 Larry Johnson the second most valuable player in 2006 by VBD, was projected to be the second overall pick. The projected first overall pick: Johnson himself.
True sleeper picks, players that go from mid-round status to become difference makers, are very rare. Most, like 2007 Tom Brady, 2011 Aaron Rodgers and 2004 Peyton Manning, are not so much sleepers as top-rated quarterbacks that have career years. The biggest sleeper of the last ten years was 2010 Arian Foster, who was projected to go at 43, but was worth 192 VBD, 86 more than second place Peyton Hillis. Hillis himself was a big sleeper, as was 2007 Randy Moss and 2004 Larry Johnson, but that's about it. And those picks, and I say this as someone that drafted Foster in 2010, that drafted Moss in 2007 and Peterson last season, are not evidence of some kind of superior gamesmanship or knowledge of the NFL, but a hunch rewarded by luck.
And that's fantasy football in a nutshell. If you pick in the top half of the first round, you have a massive advantage. Barring that, your best hope is something approaching dumb luck. The person that selected Rodgers in 2011 probably did so in large part because their second-round pick landed around 20. Had they the first overall pick, they would have been compelled to select Foster or Peterson or Jamaal Charles and likely had no chance to draft Rodgers. And had they drafted Peterson or Charles, they would have likely lost.
A head-to-head format, a season that often lasts only 14 weeks, and playoff formats that either admit half the league or compress the season to two games, all only further trivialize what little part skill has in winning at fantasy football. It's not altogether surprising when a dead team wins. That's damning. Even War requires participation. But there's a need to balance the accessibility of fantasy football with its fun as competition. So how to fix it without ruining it? And how to fix it without your suggestion being laughed at?
Use an Auction Draft Format
Advantages: This one's simple enough, and so I won't elaborate too, too much. Auction rids fantasy of its bias toward early round picks. It eliminates the mechanical picking from a list. There's a chance to draft the team you want instead of RB, RB, QB … etc. Managers must put their money where their mouth is when it comes to sleepers. Anecdotally, managers of auction-drafted teams seem more committed to their teams and more willing to play the season through.
Disadvantages: That might be because even with the aid of computers, auction drafts last a dog's age. I couldn't imagine conducting one in a bar among friends—which is incomparably more fun than on Yahoo! against strangers. Auction drafts do not eliminate the hugely disproportionate value of drafting that one guy that flips out. 2006 LaDainian Tomlinson would be worth well in excess of $100 in a draft budgeted for $260. I've yet to see three digits even approached in an auction.
Assign Buckets a la Fantasy Baseball
Advantages: By separating stat categories instead of reducing all to points, it's significantly less likely one player can more or less win you a season. LaDainian Tomlinson scoring 28 rushing touchdowns is then no more valuable than Rickey Henderson stealing 130 bases. It's valuable, very valuable, but it's not enough. You still need someone to score receiving touchdowns, passing touchdowns, passing yards, and whatever else depending on how you segment the stats. This allows for a more or less traditional fantasy draft, and traditional fantasy guides and websites are … well as useful as they ever are.
Disadvantages: For lack of a better way to put it, this sorta nerds up your league. That term's been co-opted. A nerd is now someone that likes technology and sci-fi and fantasy movies—or, as mainstream as an iPhone. But once upon yonder nerd meant weird or strange in some way, and that's the problem with attempting a set of scoring rules that I might be making up right here with this word, this word here. Here. And that means some of the fun is lost. Hemingway said “An intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with his fools.” To wit, I think common people strive to be different and strange people strive to relate. If fantasy football's one of your ways to connect with others, good luck explaining why Aaron Rodgers' three-yard scramble to kill the clock allowed you to edge out your rush yardage stat and win 7-5.
Also: it might not be fun. I've never tested this.
Reduce the value of touchdowns
Advantages: This is a no muss way of flattening scoring distributions. When Tomlinson scored 431 points in 2006, 186 of those points were rushing or receiving touchdowns. If he scored only four points per touchdown, his VBD would shrink to 218. That's still a ton but it's a step in the right direction. Shrinking it to two would level it further.
Disadvantages: The silly, over-the-top significance of touchdowns in fantasy football is part of the game's appeal. It's also rooted in the game's history, which (fantasy football history) is silly but not over-the-top. Six points per touchdown is intuitive, and allowing for such high value plays creates excitement.
Point per reception
Advantages: This ups the value of wide receivers, putting more high value players in the pool.
Disadvantages: It also ups the value of running backs, making top-end backs that much more valuable—especially since, in the spirit of simplicity, each reception is worth essentially 10 yards. So receivers may be more valuable, but many of the best running backs gain value too. Ray Rice was the most valuable back in fantasy in 2011. His VBD under regular scoring rules was 154. The most valuable wide out was Calvin Johnson at 149. The difference in receptions between Johnson and the baseline receiver, Jeremy Maclin, is 33 receptions so 33 points. The difference between Rice and the baseline back, Benjarvis Green-Ellis, is 67 receptions or 67 points. But that's not entirely fair, because Ellis would be displaced by some schmo that catches a lot of outlet passes. Even by receptions alone, the difference between the top running back, now Darren Sproles, 86, and the 24th running back, Marshawn Lynch, 28, is 58. That approaches the difference (68) between the top receiver, Wes Welker, 122, and the 36th receiver, Julio Jones, 54. In the modern NFL, great running backs tend to be good receivers. Great wide receivers are often high value receivers that trade targets for yards per attempt. Apart from awarding points to something that has no innate value, point per reception leagues devalue great deep threats, do little to reduce the value of top running backs, and sort of bury quarterbacks. As fixes go, it's a botch.
In fact, most manipulations produce a botch. It seems, running through my ideas at least, that an auction-style draft is for the best. It might take a long time but a season takes a much longer time, and better spent on something fair and skill-based than testosterone Yahtzi. People may still not realize just how valuable top players are and may underestimate just how high replacement value is in a shallow league, but that's part of the game. There's nothing unfair about exploiting opponent misconceptions and biases. Win, people will learn from your methods, and competition should improve.
Winning, knowing why you have won, being able to repeat and improve upon that method—this is the foundation of a good game. What undermines fantasy football, what makes it frustrating, lowly and kind of ridiculous, is that for all the server capacity wasted on mock drafts and sleeper lists and matchups and don't-draft lists, no one knows how to win with consistency. Organizing and executing an auction draft will take time. You might have to get a fourth Keller Pils to wash down your second cheese steak. But winning because you worked for it, winning because you're smarter, man that's sweet.