September 22, 2014
DFS and the State of Fantasy Baseball
If you play fantasy sports, you are familiar with DFS, even if you don’t play DFS. Short for Daily Fantasy Sports, in the past two years DFS has gone from a novelty to a mainstay, carving out a significant share of the fantasy sports marketplace. As a result, most websites that cater to fantasy baseball have started devoting a portion of content to DFS and/or partnering with a DFS service. Baseball Prospectus is no exception; in 2014, BP and Draft Street entered a working partnership, which then became a partnership with Draft Kings when Draft Kings purchased Draft Street earlier this year.
DFS arguably represents the biggest paradigm shift in fantasy sports since the Internet changed fantasy gaming from a game you played with friends in your neighborhood or your college to a game you could play with anyone anywhere in the world who had a working modem. Even if you haven’t played DFS, the appeal of the game is obvious. There are a number of great things about DFS, but the three biggest positives to in my mind are:
The combination of the advantages of DFS and the rapid growth of this portion of the fantasy industry has led some to fret about the potential demise of “traditional” fantasy sports. The rationale is that if an entire generation “grows up” playing DFS, eventually, Rotisserie and Head-to-Head (H2H) leagues will start receding into the background and eventually disappear entirely. Is this a possibility? Will there ever come a day when the vast majority of fantasy players are primarily DFS players?
This theory seems like a false dilemma. The biggest challenge to playing in both DFS and in a yearly fantasy league is time, but unless you are in a fantasy league that requires you to set daily lineups, you can carve out as little as half an hour to set your lineup for your traditional fantasy league. If you are truly devoted to micromanaging your decisions, setting a DFS lineup is a more time consuming task. If you are playing on multiple platforms with different scoring rules and different salary structures, DFS could potentially take two hours of daily preparation.
Another reason some think that DFS could eventually supplant traditional fantasy baseball is financial. However, this is another questionable conclusion. Most home leagues carry a nominal investment. Some leagues don’t even play for money, or simply ask the league to buy the winner a nice dinner or a night out. For a high school or college student, $100 or $150 might make enough of a difference not to play traditional fantasy sports, but the hobby has many adults 25 and older playing. Money isn’t likely to make this an either/or proposition.
I suspect the reason that some speculate about the possibility of DFS supplanting or pushing Rotisserie to the background is because the potential to win significant money in DFS is far greater. Granted, you can win big money in an NFBC tournament, but the upside of DFS is akin to logging into an online poker room. With just a nominal bankroll, a skilled player can do quite well in DFS and make more money in a month than he or she could earn playing fantasy baseball over the course of a full season.
For some players, this is certainly true. Nearly every DFS site promotes its biggest winners and/or lists its top 10 winners both by month and by sport. This is an extremely effective marketing strategy. I have often looked at these lists of big winners and instinctively thought, “Wow, with a little luck, that could very easily be me.”
A closer examination reveals that the reality isn’t quite that simple. The big winners month after month aren’t the gamers randomly winning one of the big five or six-figure contests. These winners do exist, of course, but more often than not aren’t the DFS players falling in the top 10 earners. Instead, the people winning big and winning consistently are the players winning scores or even hundreds of contests a month. The average earnings per win for these high end competitors isn’t $20,000 or $30,000 per contest, but as little as $800-900 per contest for the more consistent winners.
I haven’t analyzed DFS in great detail since DFS isn’t my area of expertise or my primary interest. However, it appears that the key to winning big in DFS isn’t what players you use or how you budget your money in individual contests but in how well you place your bets across multiple contests on a daily basis.
If you have a moderate amount of experience in any kind of gambling, this realization is intuitive and completely logical. Books that teach you about blackjack, for example, most certainly will provide a basic foundation on what your odds are in specific situations and whether or not you should hit or stand during an individual hand when the dealer is showing a certain card, and with good reason. You most certainly do need this information to be competitive in blackjack. But to have only this information is simply not enough to be able to tilt the odds in your favor. Nearly everyone who plays blackjack has this information or something very similar at their disposal. At a minimum, you also need to have a foundational knowledge of how to manage your chip stack. This knowledge includes concepts such as how much to bet in certain situations, how and when to bet progressively, and what kind of bankroll you realistically need to start with in order to maintain a competitive footing if things go poorly at the outset.
At the moment, nearly every single piece of DFS advice available is focused on what hitters or pitchers you should start and the best way to manage your DFS bankroll if you are playing in a cap league. You do need this information to win, but this information alone is not nearly enough to ensure success in DFS. You also need to know which contests you should and shouldn’t be playing and how you should be investing your “real” money in DFS. The best players in DFS are winning big not because they are playing Clayton Kershaw on the right nights but because they budget their real world money wisely, have a competitive bankroll, and have figured out how to play the contests that maximize their chances of success in DFS.
At some point, it is possible that a big-time DFS winner will publish his or her success stories and provide information on how to maximize your DFS investments. However, unlike in a casino game, there isn’t a strong incentive for current DFS winners to do so. A big-time blackjack winner who shares his strategies with the world isn’t risking his ability for future paydays, since he is playing against the house. Even if five other players at his table all used his successful strategy, it would have little if any impact on the other players at the table.
This is in stark contrast to DFS, where there are a limited number of contests and DFS providers. A DFS player who pointed other DFS players to the best contests to play and the best betting strategies could potentially cause significant damage his own earning potential. Many of the big DFS winners aren’t published or don’t talk much about their success, and the ones who do are often cagey or vague. Many of them fall back on the limited advice mentioned above and point to the best players to use in individual contests. This information is often well thought out, but given the random nature of daily player performance, it is evident that approach alone isn’t enough to create a winner. DFS has a high entertainment value, but at the moment, the DFS strategies published on many sites don’t provide nearly enough information to help the average daily contest player.
The limited amount of strong DFS information certainly shouldn’t come as a surprise. The first Rotisserie Baseball book published in 1984 contained the rules to the game but offered very little in the way of strong strategies. It wasn’t until a few years later that John Benson and Alex Patton started truly digging into the game and cracking the strategic nut. Eventually, this will happen with DFS as well, but at this stage, the published analysis simply has not come this far at this time.
There is another reason, however, that DFS will never replace Rotisserie or H2H fantasy, even when the strategic pieces improve. As I have mentioned multiple times in this piece, I find DFS extremely entertaining. It is fun to put together a lineup every night. If I am not lucky enough to have the first draft slot in my league, it’s nice to know that in theory I could still put Mike Trout in my DFS lineup every night if I wanted to do so.
This makes DFS similar to a salary cap game. It is possible. In theory, for me and another person to put the same exact starting lineup out there on the same night. It is more likely that I will see another DFS team with three or four overlapping players in its lineup. This is okay, but it takes away some of the fun that many derive from fantasy baseball.
One of the joys of assembling a fantasy baseball team is putting together a unique roster of players in a 12- or 15-team league and competing against other teams with entirely different rosters. This joy is particularly heightened in auction leagues where I can own both Andrew McCutchen and Giancarlo Stanton if I want to invest the $80 or so combined it will cost to own both of these players.
The rewards in competitive fantasy leagues carry over throughout the season as well. In mixed leagues, I am constantly scrutinizing the free agent pool and real life situations to see if there is a free agent out there who is better than the 23 active players I am currently carrying on my roster. In only leagues, this search goes down as far as Double-A, where I monitor performances to see whether or not there is a gem in the rough who might be worth adding to my team. Players like this often aren’t even available in DFS until after they have been playing for a few days, and by then, the thrill of finding a gem in the rough that no one else knows about is long gone.
My favorite element of season-long fantasy leagues is trading. I love a long and difficult negotiation with a league mate in a situation where we both need to make a trade but aren’t willing to give an inch and spend hours firing emails back and forth trying to get the other person to blink. Even if we don’t make a trade, sending these missives back and forth is so much fun. If you’re like me, after a trade you will spend the rest of the season peering over at the players you traded, trying desperately to figure out if you made the right move or not.
DFS is an attempt to try and capture a moment in time and an attempt to capture the best statistics of the day. It is a sprint, a mad dash to try to maximize the efforts of a group of players. Rotisserie and H2H are marathons. It’s fun to win at DFS, but it doesn’t leave me with a sustained feeling of contentedness. Winning a fantasy league on which I worked hard all year to put together a roster, maintain that roster, manage injuries, address deficiencies through trades, and suffer and persevere through the inevitable slumps gives me a warm glow that lasts all winter.
All of the above reasons could easily be classified as personal preference. Some people might find Rotisserie or H2H too time consuming and would prefer playing DFS as little as twice a month. Ce la vie. There is another element to Rotisserie Baseball that DFS cannot possibly replace.
Every April, I get together with 11 other guys from my home league and we sit down for four or five hours and do battle to try and put together the best team possible. But we do far more than that. We go out to dinner after our auction and talk about how we did. When the league started, we probably talked more about our teams than we do now that many of us have wives and children. We spend much more time talking our families now.
This conversation doesn’t end in April. We spend the entire year talking about baseball but also talking about everything else that is happening with us. These people aren’t my closest friends, but they certainly are my friends. They are part of the tapestry that makes up my life. I play fantasy baseball because I want to win, obviously, but a large part of the reason I play now is because these friendships are important to me.
To be certain, not every fantasy league will ultimately develop the camaraderie that my 28-year-old home league has (I am not an original member), but one of the most fun things about fantasy sports is the human element. DFS lacks this personal touch. This doesn’t make DFS useless or without its merits, but if I had to choose between DFS and my Roto league from a time perspective, it wouldn’t be much of a decision. I’d keep my home league.
There are always studies or analyses suggesting that as more and more people telecommute and use social media for the majority of their personal interactions that people will be less and less likely to seek out human contact. This certainly is possible, but at the moment seems unlikely. The draft weekend—whether it is in person or online, for football or baseball—is still a significant social component for many fantasy players.
Whatever the reasons, while DFS is definitely a welcome addition to the fantasy landscape, it doesn’t seem likely that it is going to completely supplant traditional fantasy sports anytime soon. The passion for Rotisserie/H2H is as strong as ever, and many of the things that drove us to play fantasy sports in the first place still only exist in the more traditional outlets of the game. The thought that opened this piece is worth repeating at its close. The choice between DFS and traditional fantasy sports is a false one. There are plenty of appealing aspects to DFS and Rotisserie Baseball that are mutually exclusive. Both types of games seem like they will have a place at the fantasy table, both now and for a long time to come.