Here we are on the precipice at the end of baseball's regular season. More than half the league will head home to their respective families and golf courses around the globe, while the others continue the march toward a World Series trophy. For the DFS gamer the season ends on Sunday, and while some grinders will turn their attention fully onto other sports such as football, basketball, and hockey, for the baseball-specific gamer – such as yours truly – there is precious little time remaining to enjoy the game of DFS baseball.
A large part of the appeal of DFS is the day-to-day nature of the game, which allows the fantasy baseballholic to roster those players that they missed on draft day or to enjoy the thrill of fantasy competition long after their season-long teams have bitten the dust. Personally, I played in four different season-long leagues this year, and it looks like all four will leave me wanting. I have been leading one league for most of the season, but a recent surge by an opponent has put me in second place and on the outside looking in; I am likely to finish top three in two of my other leagues, but am far enough behind the leaders that the prospect of winning was killed a month ago; and I have one team that has been through a gauntlet of disaster this season and was realistically out of it by the All-Star break.
For gamers who find themselves in similar waters, DFS has been the best recourse, feeding the baseball diehard with more research opportunities and the chance to roster those players that were missed in season-long leagues. The culmination of the regular season brings forth a period of several months in which we over-analyze the pockets of data that were generated and pore over the implications of off-season moves. For this writer, it is the official beginning of off-season mode, which involves researching and writing player comments for the Baseball Prospectus 2016 annual and compiling mechanical report cards for hundreds of pitchers, with only the winter leagues to quench one's thirst for live baseball.
Under these conditions, don't be surprised to see DFS diehards trying to squeeze every last ounce out of the 2015 MLB season. The difficulty, at least that I have found, is that the challenges of final-week play have inspired other gamers (those that still have funds left in their accounts, anyway) to try other sports, as the flood of newbies that were brought in by DFS football have quickly dried up from the DFS baseball landscape. In looking for tournaments to play for the last several days, it has been nearly impossible to execute the pro-dodging strategies that I employed throughout the season – I can't seem to find a three-team or five-team tournament of any denomination that doesn't include “youdacao” or “maxdalury,” gamers who rank fifth and first, respectively, on the Rotogrinders leaderboard. This is in sharp contrast to the last few weeks, in which games were heavily populated by new names and pro-dodging was an easy endeavor, but the current iteration has left me with two choices: play the pros or ditch those leagues altogether. Since “those leagues” refers to basically everything, I have found myself playing fewer tournaments over the past week than at any other point this season, despite the desire to enjoy DFS while there is still baseball left to be played.
In previous editions of our weekly journal, I have pondered the future of DFS baseball, and remarked on the differences to football in this format. Football is not only more popular – and therefore easier to find non-professional gamers – but the randomness of a 17-week schedule and each team playing one game per week means that complex algorithms have less opportunity to bear out, given the sensitivity of those systems to sample size. The game of football can feel crazy at times, which is beneficial to the casual gamer, and on a relative scale the DFS version falls into the same category; baseball might match that craziness on a per-day basis, but over the course of six months the pros and the systems out there have a chance to reap very real benefits, making baseball a uniquely profitable entity for those willing to sink the time and invest the money to make it work. For those who lack the bankroll or the time required to invest wisely, it is an uphill battle that might best be fought by behaving like a DFS chipper rather than a true grinder, just sticking to the occasional days when one particularly likes a lineup or slate of players.
This reality has become more obvious this season than in year's past, due to the expanded bankroll of a few pros and the proliferation of DFS-triggered prediction systems. It's a sad state of affairs for the regular gamer who wants to enjoy this relatively new version of the fantasy game, as it has slowly morphed from a game of challenging one's skills against the fantasy baseball community to one of challenging just a handful of pros who are armed with prediction systems which consider more factors than any one human could possibly calculate. In the extreme case, I worry about the eventual death of DFS baseball, as short-term profits keep the sites from creating a disincentive for the high-volume players to limit their investment, thus turning an ocean of potential gamers into a shallow pool of sharks. There are ways to combat this phenomenon, to give the whales and sharks incentive to play and to give the softcore gamers a worthwhile experience, but so far we have seen a copycat approach to the industry where the newer sites just follow the same blueprints – and fall into the same traps – as those that are more established.
It has been a wonderful season of grinding for this writer (I write about DFS for Rotogrinders in addition to BP), despite the fact that my bankroll is in the red for this year, but there is a very real concern that DFS baseball has already hit its peak, and if something isn't done soon then it will turn into an afterthought. I think that DFS football has staying power, and that sport alone will allow the sites to make money hand-over-fist for at least a few years, but there is more potential profit to be seen via DFS baseball due to the sheer number of playable days in each season. The site that figures out how to create a positive environment for all gamers will have a considerable edge, and the main sites should be leery of the fact that PokerStars – the online poker gargantuan that eventually dominated the industry – has recently entered the fray. One thing that PokerStars did extremely well was to reward the players, creating an environment that supported the whales, the sharks, and the minnows. As the popularity of DFS descends from its peak, some of the major sites will fall by the wayside, and I would bet that the one left standing is that which appreciates the plight of the many over the wants of the few.
We'll see how I feel after an off-season, but for now I have become admittedly disenfranchised with DFS baseball. The game itself has changed, not due to the rules and regulations but because of the habits of just a few players, and from the mountains of similar complaints that I receive from other non-pro gamers I am not alone in this frustration. The game is no longer about constructing a roster, as that aspect has become secondary to finding games that won't squash the bankroll, and when a handful of players are in literally every single tournament – whether it costs $1 or $1000 – then it becomes a game of how to beat those players. The projection systems have caused those players to have similar lineups, such that one has the feeling that he or she is trying to beat a computer at DFS baseball rather than come out ahead against a sea of humans. I hate to admit defeat at the “hands” of Deep Blue, but Bobby Fischer I am not (plus I'm still in my Matrix training), and the lack of available alternatives for one to hone his or her game has dulled the enjoyment that comes from playing the game itself.
I love DFS baseball and would hate to see it collapse, but the current incarnation is much less appealing than that which I fell in love with three years ago. The silver lining is that it's not too late for everyone involved to reap more out of this new industry – all it takes is a bit of out-of-box thinking and the willingness to do what other sites are not. In this sense, it's a parallel to the paradigm from which Moneyball was born. Stay tuned.
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