Bales Goes Deep: The Shifting Daily Fantasy Football Landscape

Sep 08, 2015
Bales Goes Deep: The Shifting Daily Fantasy Football Landscape

I’ve written and deleted like four different intros to this article. I don’t normally have writer’s block. I don’t even really have it now, it’s just that...everything I was writing sucked. So I just thought I’d be honest and maybe that would get the ball rolling.

Editor's Note: 4for4 has an ALL-NEW DFS SUBSCRIPTION! It includes our revolutionary Lineup Generator, Stack Value Reports, Ceiling & Floor Projections, GPP-Specific Articles, Ownership Outlooks, DFS Theory Articles, Lineup Construction Articles, a Downloadable .csv with Projections and Salary Data, and much more! DETAILS HERE! (NOTE: This article is part of our DFS subscription, but enjoy it on the house this week! Previous subscribers don't worry, you'll get the same DFS content you got last season, but we think you'll want to UPGRADE to our DFS subscription because it takes our DFS content to the next level!)

I started writing for 4for4 a few years ago when Josh Moore contacted me to do a lot of the site’s first daily fantasy work. Now you guys are just crushing DFS content, led by one of the best in the business in Chris Raybon.

To be honest, no one really needs me here. Chris is the man, and when combined with John Paulsen—the man behind maybe the most accurate projections out there—I’m not really going to add much when it comes to identifying high-value players; the big dogs already got it covered.

But I’ll tell you where I can add a lot of value: long, philosophical rants that contain absolutely no actionable information, are barely useful at best, and misleading at worst. That’s my promise to you. And don’t forget that they also won’t be much fun to read. I try to be funny but I’m not.

For real though, I do like to step back and look at the broad picture in my writing, and that’s what this weekly column is going to do this season. I’m not going to talk about Tom Brady’s Week 1 value. There’s a good chance I won’t write a player’s name again the entire season. Let’s see how many weeks I can go talking about daily fantasy football without actually mentioning anything about the sport of football.

So what will I write about? I don’t know yet. But just off the top of my head, I can tell you some topics that interest me quite a bit that I’d love to touch on: game theory, cognitive biases (shout out to the doc, Ms. Renee Miller), predicting ownership and understanding public psychology, why I’ve creepily woken up between 4:45am and 4:49am EVERY NIGHT for the past eight days, player consistency, projecting ranges of outcomes, whether or not I should stop eating so much delivery food, how to actually find upside, why Lunchables are very underrated—the essentials.

Editor's Note: Enjoy this article on the house, but in the future it will be part of 4for4's all-new DFS subscription, which will be released this week! Stay tuned for more details!

Evolving as a Daily Fantasy Player

We all know evolution exists, but we also all know it’s powered by God. That’s science. I’m a big believer that we always need to be changing, adapting, and improving to stay ahead of the curve in DFS, which is why Step 1 in my Becoming a Better DFS Player and a Better Person Handbook that won’t ever be published is to pray each night for lots of touchdowns and receptions. It’s really important.

Step 2 is to forget Step 1 and realize that all of your success and all of your failures in DFS are the result of you and your skills. As much as it is fun (and right) to emphasize “the process” from day to day, it’s really not that fun to have faith in a process that is broken over the long run. Anyone can win in a given week; not everyone can win over an entire season. Few can win over multiple seasons. Trusting your process is something that makes sense only over short periods of times. At a certain point, we do need to be results-oriented, right?

Now, there’s a really, really ridiculously good-looking amount of variance in daily fantasy football because the season is just 20 or so weeks long, but you can’t just completely trust your process and assume what you’re doing is correct. Maybe it is, but maybe it isn’t. And even if you’re profitable, you can become more profitable. There’s always room to get better.

To me, daily fantasy sports needs to be approached scientifically. In science, we make falsifiable claims, test them, and then change our views if the evidence doesn’t match. We evolve.

This approach is a big reason why I’m a proponent of analytics and less bullish on film study than some others. Is film study useful? Of course, sure, probably, maybe, I don’t know. But it’s very difficult to quantify how much—it’s hard to falsify “man, he has fluid hips” or “that dude has heart”—whereas we can falsify the idea that tight ends are smart to use in the flex position in cash games.

So for me, it just comes down to trying to get better. Try to get a little bit better as a DFS player each day. Figure out one thing you didn’t know at the start of the day that will help you create a foundation of quality decision-making down the line. Question everything. Believe in what you are doing—if it is backed by stats. And have fun.

Also, be a dick to everyone around you when you lose.

The Future of Daily Fantasy Football

I believe the nature of daily fantasy tournaments—leagues that are ultimately governed by public opinion and game theory—is such that these leagues are going to become more beatable in the short-term, i.e. 2015. I think the opposite might be true of cash games, at least at higher stakes, but I’m not entirely sure on that.

Anyway, I think there’s going to be a pretty sick money-making opportunity in NFL GPPs this season. A lot of variance, too, especially in some of these leagues with top-heavy payouts, but definitely a situation in which smart players can profit.

This theme of evolving, adapting, and improving is really imperative in tournaments because what’s “optimal” changes all the time. The beliefs and actions of others have a fundamental impact on what’s right for you. To better demonstrate this, I’m just going to pull a quick excerpt from my latest book. I’m 100% doing that because it is highly relevant and totally not because I’m lazy or because I want you to buy the book.

DFS is my favorite game to play. I love it. But I like to play a lot of other games, too. I like poker, ping pong, darts, Stratego, Monopoly, foosball, and a bunch of weird games I made up and make my friends play. I even like Rock-Paper-Scissors and play it against a computer, like, every day. It’s a great way to practice completely overthinking things.

One game I play all the time is called Fun Run. It’s a mobile game and it’s sort of like MarioKart in that you race and there are question mark things you can get that have weapons to kill your opponents (lightning, a bear trap thing, a sword, etc). I don’t even really play video games at all but I really like this one because there’s quite a bit of strategy involved.

When I first started playing, I just tried to move as fast as possible and finish the race with the quickest time I could. Seems logical…faster is better in any race, right? Maybe, maybe not. You need to perform well to win, but the goal of any race isn’t to have the fastest time you can, but to have a faster time than everyone else. Those are similar ideas, but not exactly the same.

Thus, now my strategy is more about creating the largest possible difference between my time and that of my opponents. That might mean going out of my way to obtain an additional question mark, using a super low-variance strategy late in the race if I’m winning, taking more risks when I’m losing, and so on. In fact, the goal is almost never to minimize my time, but rather to maximize win probability.

Let me start a new paragraph and write that again: the goal in any zero-sum game is to maximize win probability.

This should sound familiar. While scoring a lot of points is a prerequisite for tournament success, your primary goal should not be point-maximization. It should be win-probability-maximization.

As I’ve mentioned, I think there are two layers of value in tournaments. There’s the traditional dollar-per-point type of value—expected production minus cost—and then there’s the usable value a player provides you. I think most players either overlook the second type of value completely or don’t understand how important it really is.

In short, we need to be concerned not only with the chances of being right on a particular player, but also (perhaps more important) the benefits it actually provides us if we are indeed correct. What are the chances we hit on a pick and what’s the payoff if that happens?

When you roster highly-owned players, you’re probably at least coming close to maximizing your point projection and the odds of your players “hitting”. There’s a reason they’re highly owned; no one is in 30 percent of lineups if they’re a lousy value. But in rostering the chalk in GPPs, we’re also minimizing the potential payoff. If you hit on a quarterback who is in 33 percent of lineups, you’re still completely even with one-third of the field. If you hit on one in five percent of lineups, you have a leg up on 95 percent of users.

Another way to look at this idea is to consider situations in which you’ve been trailing in a tournament. When you’re in, say, 50th place in a big GPP with two players remaining, it certainly feels a whole lot better if those guys aren’t in lineups ahead of you, right? If there are multiple lineups ahead of you with the same players left to go, you have no shot at winning. At that point, you’d certainly trade in those two players for a pair that is unique and gives you a shot at the win, even if they’re slightly less valuable, right? Of course.

Being contrarian leads to less fantasy scoring over the long run, but it also gives you more “outs,” so to speak, in the event that you need to jump other users (which happens almost all the time in a GPP). If pulled off correctly, it can maximize your win probability without maximizing points. In my opinion, it is a forward-looking DFS strategy that acknowledges fallibility—as opposed to a shortsighted “I’m going to take the best values because I want to score as many points as possible (and it couldn’t possibly be the case that I’m wrong about these guys or even that I’m right and they don’t work out).”

By going against the grain, you’re leaving yourself room for measurement errors, which is basically what my entire DFS strategy is about. I know it’s challenging to predict fantasy scoring, even in predictable sports, and it’s even more difficult to beat an entire field of really smart people. So for the most part, I’d rather focus on maximizing the benefit I receive if everyone else is wrong. I don’t need to be better than everyone else when it comes to projecting players; I just need to have a comparable level of predictive ability in that area if I’m putting myself in a better position when it comes to reaping the fruits of my labor. In being contrarian, I’m betting on low-frequency events that have asymmetrical payoffs such that, although I’m going to be wrong more than I’m right, I’m going to be overcompensated for being right when that happens.

There are times when we can have our cake and eat it too, acquiring high-value players who are also low-usage. In fact, I’d never recommend being contrarian just for the sake of it, picking off-the-map players with no rhyme or reason. However, the overarching idea is that we need to balance value with ownership, using game theory to determine which players provide not only the greatest traditional value in terms of dollars-per-point, but also those that offer maximum usable value in terms of increasing the odds of winning.

In short, others’ decisions in a marketplace setting are arguably the most important components in determining what’s optimal for you.

And guess what? Public opinion changes all the time. That’s especially true in the NFL, which is completely narrative-driven. One little news blurb from a beat writer who doesn’t know jack about fantasy can blow up a guy’s tournament ownership from five percent to 15 percent for no real reason whatsoever.

The way that people react to information is always changing, too, as is the ways in which they translate that information into a daily fantasy lineup. A couple years ago, almost everyone used a running back in the flex in DraftKings tournaments. At that point, it was incredibly advantageous to roster a wide receiver. Then it became common knowledge that receivers have more upside in PPR formats and the balance has since shifted. Site pricing changes, too. And there are some very obvious changes with the site pricing algorithms this year (especially at tight end) that I’ll get into in future posts.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that shit happens, things change, and if you want to win in daily fantasy sports, you need to be constantly adapting to new information. I’m going to discuss a lot of topics this year, but the underlying theme of all of them is going to be approaching daily fantasy football in a scientific manner, testing your theories, and evolving to stay ahead of the crowd.

If you’re looking for anything remotely useful in this article, here you go: I really like Larry Donnell in Week 1.

Editor's Note: 4for4 has an ALL-NEW DFS SUBSCRIPTION! It includes our revolutionary Lineup Generator, Stack Value Reports, Ceiling & Floor Projections, GPP-Specific Articles, Ownership Outlooks, DFS Theory Articles, Lineup Construction Articles, a Downloadable .csv with Projections and Salary Data, and much more! DETAILS HERE! (NOTE: This article is part of our DFS subscription, but enjoy it on the house this week! Previous subscribers don't worry, you'll get the same DFS content you got last season, but we think you'll want to UPGRADE to our DFS subscription because it takes our DFS content to the next level!)

*This article was sponsored by GrubHub—THE place to go for stuffing your fat face on game day.

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