Fantasy Sports for Beginners

by Johnny Fantasy

It’s that time of year again – summer is winding down, and hockey season is coming up in a matter of weeks.  You’re once again organizing a hockey pool and, as always, you have that one friend that’s a big sports fan, and who you’re convinced would really enjoy your league, if he (or she) would just give it a try.  But, they’ve never played a fantasy sport before, and they’re not really sure how it all works.  If only there were a straightforward introductory article that could bring them up to speed on the basic concepts….

Johnny Fantasy’s Introduction to Fantasy Sports

What are fantasy sports?

Fantasy sports are games where a group of everyday people compete against each other by managing “fantasy” teams of real-life players from a given sports league.  When the real-life players score points in their real-life sport, the fantasy team that ‘owns’ that player gets points in the fantasy game.  For example, if you’re playing in a fantasy football league and you have Tom Brady on your fantasy team, you will get points for the fantasy game each time Brady throws for a touchdown in the NFL.

Didn’t I see an episode of John Oliver’s show warning me what a scam fantasy sports are?

Yes, sort of.   John Oliver did an excellent piece on daily fantasy sports (of course available on Youtube here, because …the internet).  After fantasy sports had gained popularity, a bunch of companies realized that there was an opportunity to make a profit and created daily fantasy sports, which (not to jump to Oliver’s conclusion because I highly recommend watching the whole piece in the above link) are basically gambling games.  They are short-term daily games similar to traditional fantasy sports, but that cost money to play, with the chance to win money back (i.e. gambling).  This is not what we are talking about in this post, or what your nerdy friend is trying to get you to sign up for… unless your friend is a shill working for DraftKings or Fan Duel.

So do fantasy sports cost money?

Inherently, no – most sites that host (traditional) fantasy sports games (e.g. Yahoo, ESPN, CBSSports) do not charge anything to play.  You will need to create an online account with the host site in order to play, if you don’t already have one.  However, it is not uncommon for the members of a fantasy league to incorporate a money pool for the winner of the league to win at the end of the season (i.e. like your office March Madness pool – each player throws in $20/$50/ $100 at the beginning of the season and the winner(s) at the end of the season win/split the pot).  Additionally, some sites hosting fantasy sports offer ‘premium’ accounts that provide more features for the fantasy league and the league commissioner (your friend running the fantasy league) may ask each player to pay a portion of that cost.

How long does this fantasy game last?

A fantasy sports league will usually last about the length of the regular season of the chosen sport.  So, fantasy football will run from September to January, baseball will run from April to September, and hockey and basketball will run from October to April.  Similar to real sports, fantasy sports will typically have a regular season followed by a playoff to determine the final winner.  The ‘regular season’ of the fantasy league will usually end several weeks before the regular season in the real sport in order to ensure that all players are available for a fantasy league’s playoffs (since not all of the players on a fantasy team will necessarily make it to the playoffs in the real sports league).

While this sounds like the fantasy game lasts at least half a year, actually playing is not necessarily an all-consuming enterprise.  If you’re already a fan of the sport, you’re already doing most of the work (especially if you like to keep track of individual stats and scoring races).

So how exactly do these real world sports events translate into the fantasy game?

When the commissioner sets up the league, they can choose a number of options to decide how the fantasy game is scored.  Fantasy sports leagues are very customizable, and we are basically getting to the point where any stat that the professional league keeps track of can be used to score points in fantasy.  For example in fantasy hockey, the commissioner could choose Goals and Assists as scoring categories.  More complex leagues could also count Shots on Goal, Blocked Shots or Hits or a variety of other statistics.

But how is that a game?  How do you win?

Again, there are a lot of customizable options.  One of the most popular (called a ‘points league’) gives a certain number of fantasy points for each scored statistic (which is weighted to appropriately value that statistic in the context of the sport).  For example, a fantasy hockey league could count Goals as worth 5 points each, Assists as worth 3 points each, and Shots as worth 1 point each.  If you had Alex Ovechkin on your fantasy team, and he did a very Alex-Ovechkin-like thing and scored 3 Goals and took 7 Shots in a game, your team would get 22 fantasy points ((5 x 3) + (3 x 0) + (1 x 7)).  This would be added to your total and compared to your opponent’s fantasy score to determine who wins.  Even this comparison can be done in a number of different ways.  If you are in a ‘Head-to-Head’ league, each week you will face one other person in the fantasy league.  That week will be one big game between the two of you (a ‘Matchup’), and whoever’s fantasy team scores more total fantasy points during that week wins the Matchup.  That win will contribute to your win/loss record in the fantasy league overall, which will rank you accordingly in the standings.  At the end of the season, the top teams in the standings usually decide a final winner with a single-elimination tournament (or ‘playoffs’).

Is that it? That doesn’t sound so complicated…

No, not even close!  Again, fantasy leagues are super-customizable, so there are a bunch of different ways to work the scoring, but the basic idea that real life performance determines the success of your fantasy team is the same.  Here are other common ways that leagues can work:

Categories Leagues (rather than Points Leagues) – Instead of each scoring category (Goals, Assists, etc.) being weighted with a certain number of fantasy points, the total number of each statistic is compared to that same statistic of your opponent’s team.  For example, let’s say a fantasy hockey league counts Goals (G), Assists (A) and Shots (S).  If your team in one week scores 19G, 15A and 100S, and your opponent scores 15G, 20A and 90S, you would win the Goals category (19>15), lose the Assists category (15<20) and win the Shots category (100>90).  As a result you are 2-1, which can be scored in the league overall in one of two ways – the 2 wins and 1 loss could be added directly to your aggregate record in the standings (this usually how a categories league works), or the 2 wins and 1 loss can be used to determine the winner of the weekly Matchup, and you just get 1 win in the overall league standings (this is called a ‘weekly – one win’ setup).

Rotisserie Leagues (rather than Head-to-Head Leagues) – Instead of facing one opponent each week for a weekly Matchup, the points that your fantasy team scores are aggregated into a rolling total over the course of the entire season.  It’s one big free-for-all where you are matching your stats against every other person in the league all at once.  This can be done with either a points league (where the weighted fantasy point totals are compared to everyone else in the league) or in a categories league (where you get a number of points depending on how high you rank in each stat category in the league, and the winner is the team with the most of those points).

There are pros and cons to each setup, which I’ve discussed before .Think about what makes the most sense to you and ask your commissioner what format they’ve chosen and why.

How do I choose my fantasy team?

Fantasy teams are drafted – the whole league gets together (in person or online) and takes turns picking the real life players until everyone’s fantasy team is full (or sometimes the draft is held by ‘auction’, where each team is given a certain budget of fantasy money and the players are bid on).  This way, any given player can only be on one fantasy team in the given fantasy league.  Some leagues don’t have this exclusivity requirement, but then there tends to be a lot of overlap between the teams (this is more typical for playoff pools, which run during the real-life playoffs, when of course there are less players to choose from).

The league setup can be customized to determine how many players you can have on your fantasy team, and what positions you need to fill (i.e., how many, centers, right wings, left wings, defencemen and goalies you can have or play).  There are usually also a number of ‘bench’ spots – extra ‘inactive’ spots on your fantasy team’s roster where you can hold extra players, but who won’t score points for you in the fantasy league.

How do I use those guys on my bench? (Setting your lineup)

What’s the point of having guys on your bench if they don’t score you points in the fantasy game?  Well, you can adjust your roster to move players from the bench into active, point-scoring spots (and move the player formerly in the spot onto the bench).  This is where a lot of strategy comes into fantasy sports and is most of what actually constitutes playing the fantasy game.  For sports like football, things are a bit simpler as each NFL team only has one game per week, so it’s an easy decision to bench players that are not playing that week, and otherwise choose your best option for each roster spot.  For each weekly Matchup in football, you will only get one performance out of each roster spot (so you’ll choose your quarterback for the week not only based on how good your players are, but also based on which NFL teams those players are playing against that week – playing against a weaker opponent might mean they score more fantasy points overall in that game).

Hockey (as well as basketball and baseball) is a bit more complicated, since each NHL team usually has several games each week.  Some fantasy leagues can be set up like fantasy football, where you can only change your lineup (switching your players from the bench to active spots) once per week, so you have to decide which players will score more overall that week (and it may be better to choose a less talented player that is playing more games than a more talented player that is playing fewer).   But, many fantasy hockey leagues allow daily lineup changes.  This means that each day you can switch players on the bench to utilize more of the games that your players are playing in (however, there will be days where everyone on your fantasy team has a game, and so you will have to make a choice as to who you will put in an active slot to score you fantasy points and who you will leave on the bench).  This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to log in and set your lineup every day of the week – you can set your lineups for a whole week (or more) at once in advance, and then you don’t need to do anything again for another week.  Alternatively, you can make your lineup a game-day decision each day.

Can I make other changes to my fantasy team?

Yes!  That is the whole point of fantasy sports – you are managing your fantasy team.  You can propose and make trades with other teams in your fantasy league (and you should!  Leagues are generally more fun with more proactive managers and where there is an active trade market).  Also, there are usually many players that are not chosen during the draft.  Those are ‘free agents’ which you can add to your team (although you will have to drop another player from your team to make room, since your team will have a maximum roster size).  Doing these add/drops is key to fantasy success.  Over the course of a season, players that you expected to do well will end up having a bad year (or get injured), while players that no one thought would be worth drafting come out of nowhere and have amazing years.  To improve your team, you’ll want to drop the underperformers and pick up free agents that are performing better.   Some leagues have limits on how often you can do these transactions (either weekly or over the course of the whole season).  One of the biggest elements of strategy in fantasy sports is determining whether a player is just going through a cold streak and will snap out of it (and thus is worth hanging on to) or whether they just aren’t as good as you thought they were going to be and should be dropped.

Most leagues also incorporate the concept of ‘waivers’ in one way or another.  Usually, when a team drops a player, the league rule is to put them on ‘waivers’ for a certain number of days.  While a player is on waivers, no other fantasy team can add them, but teams can put in claims for them.  At the end of the waiver period, the team with the highest claim in the waiver priority will ‘win’ that player and get to add them to their team.  Waiver priority can be based on a rolling list (usually based initially on your draft position, but with the winner of each waiver claim moving to the bottom of the priority list for the next claim) or it can be based on a silent auction (where each team has a free agent acquisition budget (or ‘FAAB’) of fantasy dollars each year in order to bid on any waiver pick-up; highest bidder wins the waiver player and loses that amount of fantasy money from their budget).  Some leagues have a mandatory waiver system for all free agents – if you want to add any player to your team at any time, you have to put in a waiver claim for them and at a specified time each day, the waiver claims are processed.  This prevents a rush to the free agency pool when something significant happens (for example, a starting goaltender gets hurt and therefore the backup immediately becomes valuable).

What is a keeper league?

A keeper league is another of the many variations that fantasy sports can take.  In a keeper league, rather than redrafting from scratch each year, each fantasy team is allowed to keep a certain number of players from their team from the previous year to carry forward to their team the next year (without having to draft them).  The number of players that can be kept is completely adjustable – it could be just a few, it could be the whole team, or it could be based on some other factor (a salary cap, for example).  Keeper leagues can be fun because they require a different strategy in order to achieve long term success – a highly touted rookie may not score as many points this year as some more established veterans, but over the course of the next few years, they likely will, so you are often have to decide whether to focus on winning now, or building to win in the future.

So, should I join a fantasy league?

Yes – if you are a fan of the sport and any of this sounds fun to you, if you enjoy strategy-like games and if you have an open mind about it.  At the end of the day, fantasy sports are games of statistics, and there’s not really a way to make that fact not sound nerdy.  But, that doesn’t mean it’s not fun.  Fantasy sports are also a great way to get more into a sport – playing in a fantasy league will increase your knowledge of the players and give you incentive to watch more games.  Even if you are already a big fan, fantasy sports can broaden your appreciation and enjoyment of the sport – you’ll no longer just be rooting for your home team.  You’ll get to know and become fans of players from all around the league and enjoy watching games that you normally wouldn’t care about.  And best of all, you’ll be joining a growing community of fantasy sports enthusiasts that are usually eager to talk about their fantasy teams.

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