Growing up, I was the typical sports cliché. Son of a football coach. At a young age, I was at high school football practices. I was riding the bus with the team to away games. I was hanging out on the sideline during games. I was annoying the crap out of the teenage players who were way too cool to be seen with a silly little kid.
But even though basketball was my true first love in sports, football really grew on me. I started playing in middle school. You never forget certain moments that sort of shape your athletic career, and one of mine was my first ever interception. I played corner, and we were playing against a team from a town near me called Cahokia. These kids were insanely athletic and incredibly tough. Tougher than me, that’s for sure. At this point, at just 12 years old, I admittedly hadn’t fully embraced the whole hitting thing in football.
But I’m playing corner, the offense drops back to pass, and they’re throwing deep. The QB overthrows the WR, and I’m right there to pick it off. I take off down the left sideline on the return, and the next thing I know I am just flying through the air for what felt like an eternity. I got absolutely smoked (apparently by the QB who threw the INT) harder than I had ever been hit before in my life. Right in the chest, and I was sent flying through the air, crashing to the ground straight on my back near our bench. As teams do in football after an INT, my teammates run over and start celebrating, slapping me on the helmet, etc.
After everyone clears away, I’m still lying on the ground, and my dad is standing right there. I had the wind knocked out of me. I still can’t breathe. I’d never been hit that hard before in my life, and now I’m sitting here, 12 years old, and I can’t breathe almost a minute later. My dad walks over, seeing the sort of fear and panic in my eyes, and he asks, “You ok?”. I happen to be able to catch my breath right at that time, and while trying to suck in as much air as possible, I mutter to him, “I’m good.” My dad still tells this story to this day (he’s quite the storyteller, and we may or may not have a propensity to re-tell the same stories over and over in my family).
“That’s when I knew he was a football player.”
I ended up playing football all through high school and continued into college where I topped out as a decent defensive back at the D3 level. But I played 11 years of football altogether. By the time I was done playing and off into the real world after school, one thing became evident:
I was a “football guy”.
What I mean by that is this – I was a decent enough athlete for high school and small college ball, but I was a 6’0 180 pound kid. I was never going to be anything physically special relative to my competition or have any distinct, God given athletic advantage. I had to outthink them.
Being the son of a coach, I relied upon that a lot. I studied the game, schemes, opponent tendencies, watched tons of film and all the little nuances to help me become as good of a player as I could possibly be. I also talked a whole lot of sh*t during games. Like a lot. I figured if I wasn’t going to physically be able to outperform my opponents, I needed to try to use all these other little edges to my advantage.
If I wanted to be successful, I needed to do everything I could to exploit my opponents.
So we fast forward a few years into my “real world” life. I’m grinding the typical corporate 9-5, and I had always been a bit of a “gambler”. I bet on sports (mostly college basketball and football) reasonably successfully and played poker just well enough to not get crushed. Like everyone, I was obsessed with fantasy football. Played in multiple leagues with my buddies. But then I discovered Daily Fantasy (DFS) on Fanduel.
I thought this was the game that was made for me. I had been able to bet sports, play poker and season long fantasy football all pretty successfully, and I knew WAY more about football than most people. I was a “football guy” after all.
Very quickly, I found myself re-depositing every single week on Fanduel. I’d make a handful of teams every week into the “Sunday Million” using my supposed football expertise. I watched all the games (even sometimes re-watched). I knew the schemes and team strengths and weaknesses. But I’d be lucky to just not lose money any given week. I couldn’t figure out what was going wrong.
As I look back on it now, it turns out a LOT of things were going wrong. Despite knowing football and even knowing a reasonable amount about speculating on sports, I really had absolutely no idea what I was doing from a strategy perspective in DFS. After a lot of losing, I eventually took a step back and said “Ok, what’s going wrong here?”. That tends to happen when you’re losing money…
But similar to when I got absolutely hit sticked in little league football, that moment ended up being a pivotal one in both my career and my life. Of course I sought out advice and analysis from sharp DFS players creating content. I found great information on how to construct your lineups from sources like RotoGrinders. But most importantly, I took a step back and really theorized on several different things.
If I’m playing this silly game against thousands of other people just like me, I can’t just pick my favorite players and hope to win consistently. Even IF I truly was better at picking players than others, clearly the variance in that player selection on a weekly or daily basis is absolutely off the charts. But in DFS, I’m making lineups that need to beat my opponents’ lineups. I didn’t need to pick the perfect team. It was sort of lightbulb moment. Or more realistically it was a “duh, you idiot” moment.
The goal wasn’t to pick the best players or be the best predictor of the future. The goal was to make a lineup that bested my opponents in that given day or week. At first glance, it seems like those two things are related, but they actually are very, very different.
Yet again, if I wanted to be successful, I needed to exploit my opponents.
Taking that step back and looking at this from a macro perspective quite literally changed my life. I stopped relying upon this idea I could select ALL the best players every single week. It’s not that I didn’t have an edge in some form of player selection, but I realized quickly that there’s a big difference between having an edge in player takes and having an edge in ALL player takes. I realized what my opponents were doing was even more important than what my personal takes were.
After these realizations, I finally started to have some success in DFS. I won my first tournament – the NBA Sharpshooter on DraftKings for anyone that remembers the good ol’ days – back in 2015. I made my first live final – the DraftKings MLB Live Final in 2016. And let’s be clear, I am not some DFS whale. But this one “ah ha” moment spurred some success in DFS from that moment forward, which is ironically how I ended up here today.
And the funny thing about where we are today is that I honestly believe I’ve gone through the exact cycle that I described above in Best Ball. If someone as obsessed with this Best Ball thing as me is realizing I probably didn’t go about this game the right away for the last few years, then my guess is that there are lots of other people out there who it applies to as well.
What I mean by that is this:
Best Ball is incredibly fun. The industry has exploded even bigger and faster than someone even as bullish as me could have expected. But I’ve sort of gone through the same lifecycle of Best Ball strategy that I did with DFS. I have football takes like everyone else. I have been successful in fantasy football, DFS, and other similar ventures, like most of you probably have. So when you dive into Best Ball, you just start firing drafts. You, of course, evolve some strategy along the way, but it’s SO easy to fall into the same traps many folks like myself do in these peer-to-peer games that revolve around something like the NFL.
We all think we know better. It’s just human. I know better about the players. I know better about how to structure my team. I know which historical data matters. I know which Week 17 games are going to blow up and win me millions of dollars. And even when we admit we don’t know better, it’s just as easy to fall into the traps of the super micro strategies and forget to take a step back at specifically how we win games like this. That was my problem in DFS, and even though I’ve been pretty successful so far in Best Ball, I honestly think that was my problem in Best Ball too.
So, what does this all mean? I think we’ve gone about Best Ball strategy all wrong. And not because we haven’t uncovered some advantageous things, because we have. There is a ton of incredible and insightful analysis out there in this booming space. But for me, I never did the step that I described above in my DFS process. I never really developed a strategic plan for how I was going to exploit this game and my opponents to make my way to the top.
But that’s what we are doing today. Below are the 4 key exploitative areas where I think we should ultimately start our best ball strategy. Up until now, it’s been so easy to fall into the trap of starting with specific player takes, optimal roster construction, historical data and other similar elements. But those are just pieces to the puzzle, and when we view them in a vacuum without first establishing how they fit into how we are exploiting our opponents, they aren’t really gaining us as much as we think.
An Exploitative Best Ball Strategy
What Are Your Edges
One thing you find out pretty quick in any peer-to-peer game like this, especially revolving around sports, is that absolutely everyone believes they have an edge. As we know, that just can’t be true. In fact, very few people actually have a substantial edge. But maybe the more important fact is that everyone thinks they have an edge in TONS of different things.
They say “arrogance is the surest path to failure” and that couldn’t be more true in games like this. We are just one singular human. We have full time jobs. We aren’t NFL scouts. Even if we were, actual NFL scouts aren’t experts on every single player, every single team, every single coaching tendency. And yet, fantasy football players believe they know better about EVERYTHING. As I’m writing this, it’s May 25th. There are tons of NFL teams with murky depth chart situations, particularly at positions like running back. The actual NFL teams don’t even know the pecking order of their running back rooms, and yet fantasy football folks will tell you with 100% certainty they know how things will shake out, not just in Week 1, but over the course of the entire season. And frankly, it’s totally fine to have these takes. I have takes on basically every situation, team or player in the NFL too.
The difference is that just because you have a take, even a reasonable and well thought out take, that does not mean you have an edge.
For Best Ball especially, that distinction is not just overlooked most of the time, but we will conflate the fact we have a take with the the idea we have an edge. It’s an incredibly easy thing to do because there is an infinite amount of data, information and analysis out there. That information can both simultaneously be great info, while also not giving you any real edge over your competition. We’ll get into some details below about why that is, but sometimes it’s just the sheer fact that most data or analysis is descriptive vs. predictive. Or even if it’s predictive, there are other variables to consider when we are trying to factor in what gives us an edge over our competition.
And that’s where the most difficult part comes in. We all have different edges. My edges are different than yours. Your edges are different than someone else’s. I was able to carve out a successful DFS career for nearly a decade, but my “edge” was wildly different from the edges of other players who were successful. We’re all humans with different knowledge, perspective and abilities. Just like how my “edge” in my football playing career was different than the edge players who were better athletes than I had, how can my edge be the exact same as yours in another peer-to-peer game.
But it’s up to use to identify our own edges.
When I first started Spike Week a couple years ago, I honestly did act like I had an edge on basically every player in the player pool. I knew better. Despite what we all think, there is an incredibly tiny portion of the population that has a real edge in player selection over most of the player pool. I also thought I had a roster construction advantage. I’ve made money in Best Ball every year so far, including finishing 8th in BBM2 w/ Peter Overzet two years ago with a team we actually drafted together on stream, but it’s so easy to conflate being profitable or successful with having edges across the board. And going through this thought process to write this article has been enormous for me in identifying my specific edges. For 2023, I think I have a couple of very specific player take edges, and a couple other edges in some elements we’ll discuss below.
But it’s important to assess specifically what your edges are. Your specific edges can be what you use to exploit your opponents.
What Are Our Opponents Doing
The single most important realization for me in my career in this crazy fantasy sports space revolved around this subject. For my entire early DFS career, I was trying to predict the future. As I described above, I was a “football guy”. I knew football better than my opponents. These nerds didn’t understand coverages and run blocking schemes. I knew football, so I could better predict what was going to happen in football games better than them.
It took a lot of losing before I realized that no matter how much I knew (or thought I knew) about football, I couldn’t really predict the future much better than anyone. And even if I could in certain situations, it was only in very specific situations, not EVERY situation.
So I didn’t finally start having success until I came to that realization and then took it a step further. If I can’t actually predict the future to the degree needed for that to be the reason I win money, then how do I beat my opponents? Naturally that leads to you “well, what are my opponents doing?”.
This is may be the one thing in Best Ball that I feel is the most underutilized element of strategy. As Davis Mattek mentioned, it might be the biggest edge in Best Ball.
On one hand, it is, of course, a bit more difficult to wrap our heads around what our opponents are doing in Best Ball. But that’s what we thought in the beginning of every single market like this, including DFS or even sports betting. On the other hand, we have historical data we can use from past Underdog tournaments. We have current ADP. And we built best ball ownership projections here at Spike Week that are projecting things like player combinations, draft rates, stack ownerships, and more.
With all of that in hand, it’s actually kind of funny that nearly everyone in Best Ball ignores what our opponents are doing as part of their strategy. We focus on what worked last year, or in recent years. We endlessly debate every player in the player pool. We argue about the importance of Week 17 and tons of other variables. But we almost never consider what our opponents are doing as we develop our strategy for the season.
There’s this idea, which is mostly true in a vacuum, that you should “let the draft come to you”, meaning you hop into a draft and you don’t force any particular strategy. You just let the strategy fall to you based on the players available in the draft at each pick. That’s certainly not a misguided idea, but it also ignores this extremely important variable of what our opponents are doing.
In 2023, a particularly hot topic is that around the 2nd and 3rd round RBs. Historically, these type of backs would be more like 1st round picks, so the entire industry is clamoring over these guys. It’s a bit of a shock to the system to see some of those RB profile available at the 2/3 turn or even in the 3rd round. But everyone loves those guys. Everyone is taking advantage of those early RBs because they look so appealing. If you simply let the draft fall to you every time, you probably end up taking these backs in most drafts.
But what if all of our opponents are doing that exact same thing? We know that wide receiving pricing, particularly on Underdog, is crazier than it’s ever been. Every higher end WR with a pulse is going way higher than ever before, while every RB at every point in the draft is going lower. That means that mid to late round RBs are also very undervalued compared to what we’ve seen historically, yet our opponents just cannot help but dip their toes into those early running backs. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to draft those guys. But you’ll often hear things like “you can’t draft Tee Higgins over that tier of running back in the 3rd round”. And in a vacuum, there’s nothing wrong with that.
The problem comes in that it ignores what our opponents are doing (as well as some other variables). If all of our opponents are starting teams with these RBs from the early rounds, that is something we can absolutely exploit. It doesn’t mean we don’t like those running backs. We probably love them. But it does mean that other draft strategies and roster constructions are likely being underutilized.
So that’s why it’s not as simple as “just let the draft fall to you” because in doing so you aren’t exploiting potential gaps in the market. In Best Ball, we aren’t drafting just one team in our 12 team league. We are drafting several teams across various tournaments, sites, timeframes and more. It’s not that drafting these early running backs is bad in a vacuum, but if we are just doing it because we think they are the best pick at that spot, it’s possible we are not assessing the market as a whole and what our opponents are doing in their roster construction and draft strategies.
And that means our portfolio may not be exploiting certain elements of what our opponents are doing in their portfolios.
Lineups, Not Players
I spent somewhere around a year doing a weekly DFS podcast with Jordan Cooper called the Theory of DFS. I’ve become good friends with Jordan through that process, but I’ve also learned a ton from him. My favorite phrase that he uses frequently in regards to DFS strategy is “Lineups, Not Players”.
What that means in overly simplistic terms is that the players within a DFS lineup really don’t matter, but what matters is how the players come together within a lineup does. Jordan works for RotoGrinders like I do, and he will get tons of questions on shows about individual players. And that’s where this phrase comes in. Any individual player in a DFS lineup or a Best Ball draft can serve their purpose. But in DFS you’re creating an 8 player lineup. If that lineup contains one player who is extremely popular, or maybe even 2 players who are popular, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad lineup. It also doesn’t mean it’s a good lineup. It means that the lineup as a whole needs to be constructed in a smart manner given the fact that there are two very chalky players in it.
Best Ball is actually the exact same, but absolutely no on ever thinks about it this way. On Underdog, you get to select 18 players. They’re all just chess pieces. Every chess piece on the board offers you something different in how they can move around the board. Players in Best Ball are the same. Whether you had a good draft or not is how all those 18 pieces come together. And how they come together factors in a ton of different variables – projection, upside, structure, the tournament you’re drafting in, correlation, player archetypes, ownership and so many other macro concepts.
You’ll notice at the end of every summer in the Best Ball space, everyone rushes to post their player exposure screenshots on twitter. It’s fun, and it drums up tons of interest in Best Ball. Trust me, I enjoy it.
The problem is that this honestly tells you nothing about the teams you drafted. Your individual player exposures could be great, but how you constructed your teams around them was terrible. The opposite can also be true. This is a game of lineups and drafts, but far too often we view it as a game of individual player selections. And that’s exactly why we built all of our tools here at Spike Week. Both DraftIQ and Draft Hacker specifically help you build the right LINEUPS, as opposed to just give you our favorite players. We of course have a small subset of players we recommend in a vacuum over others, which you see with our Core Picks. We try to identify the small amount of players we think are an “edge” in a vacuum, and then continue to build upon that with our tools to help you build strong lineups around them or around other players you personally prefer.
ADP Value is Overrated
I am a naturally sarcastic person. To a fault. Sarcasm and hyperbole are just how I communicate, and I’ve found that doesn’t play very well on the internet where you can’t get intent across and everyone takes everything serious. So yes, that title, “ADP Value is Overrated” is hyperbole.
But I do think the idea of ADP value has become so engrained in our heads that it ends up driving our entire Best Ball strategy, and that’s the entire point of this long a** article. And it’s not that getting players at picks beyond where they normally go, aka ADP value, isn’t valuable. It absolutely is. The problem is that the psychology of this “ADP value” idea has taken over our entire brains. The reason we want ADP value is because of (essentially) two reasons:
- We want to get players with greater projections at cheaper prices
- The more value you get on players, the more unique rosters you can create (especially when combined with number one)
ADP value in and of itself is just descriptive. The “why” behind ADP value is the part that I think gets left behind far too often, including by me. But think about it, you’re in a draft, the player list is sorted by ADP. There’s some player at the top of the queue who has fallen 2 rounds past ADP. He doesn’t fit your team at all, but you say to yourself “well I have to take this value”. Every best ball player has been there. And even that may not necessarily be wrong to draft that player, but there’s a lot more than just ADP value that goes into that.
The main problem is we have become programmed to think ADP value is the top of the totem pole in decision making when it’s really just one of the 20 variables we need to take into account when we make a selection. This happens to me in EVERY draft I do. So I know it happens to everyone else, and I’ve seen it happen countless times. You’ll post a screenshot on twitter of a team, and you were able to get multiple different players a few picks past ADP. You’ll get comments like “love the value you got!”.
But in reality, ADP is quite literally *average* draft position, meaning the player goes a little before that number or a little after that number in most drafts. If you’re getting that player within a reasonable amount of picks to their ADP, it’s really nothing in the grand scheme of things, but the psychology of getting a player after ADP just overwhelms us. When you get a player even a couple picks after his ADP, it feels like a win. It feels like it was the right thing to do. It feels like it made your team better.
It’s possible that it did, but there are many other variables we have to factor in to make that assessment. Of course, the player has to fit within the team structure you are putting together. But you also have elements like “uniqueness” that absolutely play a part, which goes back to our two points about ADP value above. If you are getting a better projected player at a cheaper price, that’s good. If you are getting additional uniqueness because that player fell to a spot in the draft where he normally doesn’t go, that’s also good.
But it doesn’t mean that ADP value always trumps every other element. For instance, because of how ADP works, you end up with an ordered list of players from 1 to the end of the draft ranked by their ADP. But that list is mostly made up of large tiers of players that are all very similar throughout each pocket of the draft. In 2023, in my opinion we have a clear example of that in the late 3rd round all the way to at least the early 5th round. These players are all very similar, particularly when we look at each position. They’re basically in the same tier and project very similarly. But drafters simply will not move off ADP. It’s uncomfortable.
We know that the purpose of ADP value is to get better projections and more unique player combos, but in this instance, you really aren’t going to get a much better projection. Amari Cooper vs. Keenan Allen vs. Terry McLaurin are all very close. So if we just stick to ADP, we end up drafting the exact same combinations of players within that range that everyone else is drafting all because the psychology of ADP is engrained as the most important thing when we draft, as opposed to just one of several important levers we can pull to draft better teams.
It’s possible in certain situations such as this, that we can actually build a better portfolio of teams by ignoring trying to capture ADP value in a flat tier and instead focus on other elements. That could be unique combinations of players, stacking, or correlation, just to name a few.
When it comes to determining your best ball strategy, there are a TON of variables to consider. That’s what makes this game so fun. But what I’ve really started to learn over years of obsessing over this silly little game is how even super sharp people naturally overlook some key ways that we can build not just one team, but a portfolio of teams that gives us a better chance to win best ball tournaments. And the best way to do so is not through player takes, historical results or optimal roster construction, but it’s by taking a step back and figuring out the best ways to exploit our competition.