When I was young, I used to get the new copy of Madden the day it was released every year. I’d run down to the local GameStop, trade in some old games I didn’t play anymore and use every last cent I had to my name to buy the new game.
As soon as I got home, I ran straight to my room, popped the game in the console and immediately started looking through the rosters at the player ratings. Who was the fastest? Which QB had the strongest arm? Who were the best rookies? I would quickly determine my favorite players (with a particular fondness for those rookies) and hop into franchise mode.
It was fantasy draft time.
I didn’t want to play with a real NFL roster. I knew better. I had already determined who the optimal players were, and I was going to put them together to form a super team.
As I got older, I started to play a lot more against my friends. We would all pick our teams and do a fantasy draft for a little multi-person franchise. Now, I couldn’t just beat up on the computer with whatever collection of my favorite players. I had to be able to construct an entire roster that gave me an advantage over my buddies.
Which positions were most valuable? Did certain positions have less highly rated players? Which players did my friends like? How were my friends and the computer going to draft?
I no longer could start with just the players, but I had to start at the very top.
(And of course, I absolutely did not draft running backs early then either. Who needs to waste an early pick on a running back when I can just draft speedsters like Trung Canidate later?)
Of course fantasy football isn’t quite the same as Madden, but there are a lot of parallels between the two games when it comes to process. And it’s easy to fall into the same traps in fantasy football that I originally did in my childhood Madden days.
Drafting is the best part of fantasy football. And discussing the players is a whole lot more fun than talking about contest types, payout structures, roster construction and other macro level ideas.
Because of that, we all get so excited when it’s time to start drafting that we do exactly what I did when I would buy the new copy of Madden. Dive right into the players, pick our favorite ones and start drafting.
The industry has certainly advanced a lot in just the past year, so that statement is a bit of hyperbole. We have discussions about optimal roster construction, types of players to target and how we should handle our portfolio of best ball teams (diversification, etc.).
Even then, we aren’t really starting at the top. It’s more so the middle layer. I fall into the trap all the time… because it’s so easy. And most content or analysis is focused on that bottom layer or middle layer. It’s what the people enjoy. If you write a “My Top Sleepers for 2022 Fantasy Football Drafts”, the people are definitely going to be more interested than these high level peer-to-peer game conversations.
To be clear, that’s totally fine. This is supposed to be fun. That stuff is more fun. But far more often than not we ignore the top layer of the process. And if you don’t start with a thorough understanding of the game you’re playing, the rules, the payouts, the market, and how your opponents are acting, then you’re really missing the most important part if your primary goal is to win money at this thing. It is a game after all. A peer-to-peer game with insane levels of variance that’s not really “solvable”.
Especially now that Best Ball has become this crazy year-round game, it’s so easy to just dive into each new year, new sport, new tournament and start drafting. And thus the cycle of starting at the bottom (now we’re here?) continues, and we never end up really escaping it.
Instead, what I think we need to force ourselves to do is fairly simple, but extremely important. Before we start with any strong stances on players, optimal roster construction or really any strategic approach, we have to have a thorough understanding of the market.
If we assume that we understand the impacts of the payout structures, tournament field sizes and the tournament rules, then the next most important thing is probably the step that most people skip, that market analysis.
For me personally, the simplest way to do this is to just start drafting. A fairly large amount of my initial drafts are really just the feeling out process. Ideally, you’d probably combine that with an understanding of player and team level projections (or some form of statistical baseline, including ranges of outcomes). Particularly as we continue to get new contest types (SuperFlex, etc.), I find it really helpful to sort of dive in and start to get a feel for the rooms, understand ADP and some of the nuances of the format you’re playing.
Once you’ve developed that feel and understanding of how drafts work through that experience, you can start to put together that market level stuff. Who are my opponents valuing most? How are they constructing their rosters? Which positions are strongest/weakest?
We are starting to see a lot of great analysis in this space on win rates/advance rates, optimal roster construction and general historical data analysis. That’s definitely important, but it becomes less important if we are not doing the current year market analysis. If the player pool & ADP were the same as last year and our opponents were drafting the exact same as last year, it would probably be a lot easier to just look at last year’s data and draw some firm conclusions. But we all know those things aren’t the same as last year, and in fact we generally see some very significant changes in both the player pool and how our opponents are drafting. Just last year (2021), we saw a massive shift mid-summer in how drafters approached the tournaments on Underdog Fantasy. Nearly overnight, ADPs and how many constructed rosters shifted as the masses began to flock to WRs more heavily and earlier in drafts.
At that point, you couldn’t just continue on with whatever strategy you thought was best from the start of draft season. It was a totally new environment. The market had changed dramatically, so you needed to reassess the best path to take in your drafts in order to give yourself the best shot at winning the tournament moving forward.
That’s the same thing we need to do heading into a new season, and continually throughout the draft cycle. Start at the top and assess the market and our opponents. That allows us to best build a strategy towards beating our opponents in this game, this year, this tournament.
Everything is a chess piece, from players to roster construction to timing of drafts and much more. We don’t just move chess pieces in the way in what we think is best or what worked in our last match, we move them in a way that allows us to beat our current opponent.