What I learned from Fantasy Football

A few weeks ago, I finished up the latest fantasy football* (FF) season in 2nd place in my work league and 5th place in my friend league. Having played for 3 seasons, I am mostly past the initial disgust about bad luck and mostly jaded about the entire process. Having gotten this far, though, I do have a few different lessons from the experience.

(*for the uninitiated, fantasy football is a game where a group of people (usually friends) play “games” in a season where, each week, your team’s performance is determined by the statistics of how real-life NFL football players perform (e.g. you get 6 points for a touchdown or points per yards gained). Everyone drafts their team before the beginning of the real NFL season, and over the course of the season, you can trade with other teams, pick up and drop players, and change your lineup week to week. )

1. Actual game knowledge can be very deceiving.

“A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.” When you’re on a fantasy football website, there are going to be projections and rankings and all sorts of information to help you make good decisions. I have seen a lot of real football fans (i.e. people who actually watch and follow football and not just fantasy) try to outsmart the predictions with some obscure knowledge, but my experience is that typically, the football-naive (but fantasy savvy) people do better. Maybe you heard that your running back plays really well in sub-50 degree games or saw how fast he makes cuts and should crush a slower set of linebackers: the experts probably know that, too, and that he only plays that way in indoor stadums, and that his left guard still has a lingering injury.I think we tend to overvalue game knowledge in fantasy when rankings have already accounted for those facts.

2. Don’t trust anyone. Trust everyone.

As a follow-up to the point above, I think any single person’s advice is subject to a lot of biases. That’s true both for your friend who is the ULTIMATE BUCS FAN and Matthew Berry, ESPN fantasy expert. Instead, it is typically better to trust in the wisdom of the crowds and take aggregated data from lots of sources. Average Draft Positions (ADP) and consensus rankings (I use fantasypros) can wash out a lot of individual variation and get to a better answer.

3… Except when there’s hype.

Getting aggregated, individual advice works out really well, except when everyone’s individual opinion is based off of the same (potentially faulty) source of data. The wisdom of the crowds depends on people thinking independently, and everyone getting blasted by the media that Montee Ball or Ameer Abdullah is going to be the best rookie ever will mess up the average, too. Be skeptical of hype.

4. It’s nearly impossible to predict single game performances.

FF seasons are won and lost on luck. Despite what anyone tells you, you can’t predict when your #1 pick running back is going to get injured or suspended for who knows what. From week to week, you don’t know whether Calvin Johnson will catch a 60 yard bomb for a touchdown or not figure into the strategy that game. Very well-informed people may know what is more and less likely, but when you only have 1 shot in 1 league, it won’t feel like much of an advantage.

5. Don’t tweak your lineup too much.

Accept that you can’t predict a player’s performance and don’t lose faith if they have a bad game. I think the biggest mistakes happen when people make rash decisions from an example of a single game and forget the player’s body of work (good or bad). In the second week of this season, I moved Allen Robinson to my bench and dropped Steve Smith Sr. because they both did nothing the first week. Robinson had 27 points in game 2 (and went on to be the 4th best WR of the season) and Steve Smith Sr. averaged 28 points in the next 2 weeks (he ended up getting hurt, but it was still a bad decision).

My advice on known quantities in FF is to “move slowly”. The media, experts, and community tends to judge quickly and harshly with various rationalizations because we want to feel smart, make news, and have a sense of control. It turns out that there are very few people in the country who have control in the NFL, and almost all of them are standing on a field on Sundays and not staring at their fantasy matchup while sitting on their couch.

7. Move quickly on the waivers for unknown players and situations.

In my experience, week 1 is the most consistently important week on the waiver wire. Subsequent weeks can be important as injuries roll in, but those are unpredictable. After week 1, a lot of things become very clear: breakout players like Donte Moncrief get a lot of touches, or traded players are non-factors in the new scheme, or a James Jones comes back into relevance. A single good waiver pickup can make a season, so be willing to churn through the waivers until you hit a home run.

This point kind of contradicts the one above, but I think it’s consistent because you should move slowly on known quantities (i.e. experienced players in similar situations) but move quickly on the unknown (e.g. rookies or players on a new offense). It probably isn’t too wise of a strategy over the long run, but leagues are won by freak seasons and unlikely events, not consistent, slightly above average teams.

8. There is no justice in matchups and points.

No matter how well you manage your own team or how many points they score, you can still lose, and you have no control over that. It is painful, but one of the most common stories I hear about fantasy is about how someone scored the 2nd most points scored that week but lost to the team with the most scored that week. It’s rough, but that will happen, and you have no control over that. Just be happy to know that you could have beaten anyone else.

8. Your team’s performance will feel very personal, but it isn’t.

In individual FF leagues (not daily fantasy stuff), we all live in separate universes with individual choices made by individual people. As such, when the points roll in for the better or worse, it feels really personal. However, it totally isn’t: I can promise you that when Carson Palmer underperformed and you thought you were going to but you got saved by a Monday night performance from Dion Lewis, or when Jamaal Charles went down and you didn’t have any RB depth, there are many people across the country who are in the exact same situation.

The obvious reason is that despite all of us living in different leagues, the actual action all comes from a shared place: the National Football League. What happens to you happens to someone else, especially because fantasy has gotten so big so it has to happen amongst all of the combination of different league setups. Even deeper than that, however, the influence of experts and ADPs means that most leagues probably end up more similar than you might expect: a lot of people probably drafted CJ Anderson with the 8th or 9th pick, and knowing that they had a RB1, they used their 11/12 pick to get approximately a Dez Bryant. As such, when Anderson has a bad season and Bryant gets hurt, a lot of people saw their teams take a nose dive.

9. Fantasy is not worth getting emotional about.*

Following up on the point above, most of us have very little control over what happens in games. Although we can shuffle around our lineups, what really matters is what happens on the field, and there’s really nothing most of us can do about it. To the average fantasy player, it’s all just random, and it’s not worth beating ourselves up or worrying about the ups and downs that come along with it.

I also remind myself that as much as it hurts me that LeSean McCoy got injured, it hurts Bills fans more, and McCoy himself a lot more. Fantasy is just a game and doesn’t really impact your life that much.

*unless you have money on the line. My perspective is skewed by the fact that I don’t play in money leagues, so feel free to get emotional if there’s enough money to be meaningful in your life

10. Randomness sucks.

Reflecting on all of the points I made above, a common theme across all of them relates to the sheer amount of randomness in the NFL. Randomness is painful. It makes us rationalize. It leads to short-sighted decisions. It just reigns the way that FF feels, and I think that for most people, it’s a sensation we don’t encounter very often, and I think coming to grips with that is a major insight.

Despite the fact that probability and statistics (from some perspectives) really define life and how the universe works, it usually doesn’t impact our day-to-day decisions too much. We have built modern society around stability, and from moment-to-moment, we can usually find (thought sometimes incorrectly) clear cause-and-effect patterns to explain what we see or can otherwise rationalize what happened. I think most people engage in randomness most often in games: shuffling a deck of cards or rolling a dice is a way of introducing random events into a game, and we handle it pretty well because we can point to a dice and blame the randomness.

FF, however, makes us feel randomness in a totally different way. We can watch the games and research so much to make us think we know what’s going to happen. We can perform all sorts of transactions to gain some semblance of control about what’s going to happen. In the end, however, our seasons are governed by randomness, and the best way to win is to accept that and all of the pain along the way knowing that the little bit of signal that you find amongst the world is just making it slightly more likely for you to win some day.

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