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The Science of Fantasy Football

Across the country, millions of people have spent the last few weeks feverishly studying figures, boldly predicting future performance, and deciphering bewildering trends. Armed with reams of research, they congregate in meeting rooms and living rooms, in person and on their computers, where they will test their theories and attempt to outmaneuver their adversaries.

The best of them will earn the begrudging respect of their foes, and may even earn significant financial rewards. Using the same skills that breed success in the stock and real estate markets, people across the country are preparing for the fantasy football season. This is a key weekend for fantasy drafts as fans select their teams before the kickoff of the NFL season on Sept. 4.

What most fans probably do not know is that scientists, in addition to playing the game, are studying it.

Fantasy football offers fans the chance to make the personnel decisions for their own football team. As fans compare players and develop strategies for the draft, it might surprise them to learn that academics are studying the same issues, revealing insights about real sports and even aspects of everyday life.

The object of fantasy football is simple: compete against other fans to accumulate the highest total of what are called fantasy points. These points are awarded based on the performance of real football players in real games. A roster usually includes quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, kickers, and, for a small dose of simplicity, the defense from one NFL team. Every weekend fantasy teams face off against one other team, and the highest point total wins. The most common way to assemble a roster is via a draft. There are typically ten or more tense rounds, the pressure mounting as fans agonize over each choice then wait breathlessly for their next turn, hoping the best players somehow evade selection by rival teams to remain available.

Jeffrey Ohlmann, an assistant professor of management sciences at the University of Iowa, has a simple, important goal: finding what he calls "better ways of doing things." Most days he might tackle truck routing or fleet management, designing the most efficient method for solving those problems. Similar modes of thinking have helped him address another complicated issue, the strategy of real sports league drafts. Ohlmann and Mike Fry, from the University of Cincinnati, and their team simulated fantasy drafts in order to better understand the optimal draft strategy.

When a fan picks a player for a fantasy team, she knows exactly how many of the other teams in the league will choose players before her next pick. Most leagues have at least 10 teams, and depending on the draft format, fans may be forced to wait for all the other teams to pick two players before their next pick. Therefore, determining which open spot to fill with a given draft pick can be complicated. Ohlmann's research concluded (and demonstrated mathematically) that teams should weigh multiple variables when making a draft pick. They should compare the estimated productivity of the players being considered, the team's need at each position, and the needs of all the other teams. In addition to looking at the players who have been picked, the drafter must look at all the available players, it's especially important to look ahead to the next round of choices and to weigh the expected production of their pick against the players likely to be available.

This strategy of looking at more than just the pick at hand is something that fantasy players can put to use in their own drafts. If you need to pick both a quarterback and a running back, how do you decide which to pick first? Ohlmann said that the best method for success is flexibility, that adjusting to the way that other teams are drafting is vital. One strategy that can assist people making those decisions is to look at what Ohlmann called the marginal value of a player.

If you are facing the choice between a running back and a quarterback, you should start with the number of fantasy points you expect each player to accumulate. That does not necessarily mean you should choose the highest scoring player. You should also consider the difference between the players you would be able to claim with a later selection. If the difference between the quarterback you could choose now and the one you would be able to choose in the next round is ten points, and the difference between the running backs you could choose twenty points, then the team will score more points overall if you select a running back now and wait one round to select a quarterback.

Many fantasy experts will say that you must take a running back with each of your first two picks, while others will say that if you can get Tom Brady or Peyton Manning that you grab him as your quarterback and fill in the rest of your team as best you can. Ohlmann suggests being flexible and adjusting to the way the other teams draft. "Don't go into your draft with a fixed plan, because this strategy is sure to be destroyed the first time your competitor selects the player you covet… You can't control who your competitors will select." What you can control is how well you prepare.

Research plays an enormous role in fantasy football success. First of all, in order to play, fantasy players must become familiar with football. They must identify the top performers, how much playing time they are likely to get, and make reliable predictions about their statistics for the year (which is incredibly difficult). According to Joel Sokol, a professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, this is because a player's statistics depend so heavily on playing time and the strategy of his real life NFL team. Not only can injuries reduce a player's time on the field, but a multitude of factors, from the score of the game to the opposing team's strengths, can influence his production.

Sokol was originally drawn to his chosen field in part because he saw how he could apply its lessons to improve his fantasy baseball team. He studies complicated phenomena like protein structure modeling, warehousing, and manufacturing, in addition to all sorts of issues in sports. His experience has helped him develop a wide range of insights to suggest ways to build a better fantasy football team.

Touchdowns are extremely valuable in fantasy football, but predicting how many a player will score frustrates even the most experienced fans. According to Sokol, "for the majority of running backs, yards gained last year are a better predictor of future touchdowns scored than touchdowns scored last year." He also suggests that drafting consistent, reliable performers early on in the draft will pay off, combined with choosing riskier players later on in the draft to provide some good potential. The earlier the draft pick, the more important it is to find a gem.

Even when armed with the best research and killer insights, the best fantasy football players sometimes make lousy projections or fail to predict emerging stars. According to Ohlmann, "I liken picking fantasy players to stock-picking. It's an imperfect science."

That does not mean that you should blindly listen to your gut and pick a player just because you have a good feeling. "Fantasy footballers that are consistently competitive year-after-year typically combine players who are consistent with players who are 'high risk, high reward.'" Grab that young running back that stands to step in if a star falls injured, but not early in the draft. Pluck that wide receiver you expect to blossom in a new offensive system. Be flexible enough to adjust to the way others are drafting, and choose the player who will provide the best value to your team with each pick. Recognize that you are teaching yourself about a complicated system and that the lessons you take from fantasy football may help you analyze other, seemingly unrelated, complicated problems you will tackle in the future. But most of all, have fun, and be sure to tell everyone who questions your obsession with this lowly game that some very smart people have made it part of their career.

Learn More: Using Stats to Your Advantage

Georgia Institute of Technology engineer Joel Sokol advocates diving into the deep pool of statistics available on the Internet. Some uncommon stats may reveal some very useful information. If a quarterback consistently misses open receivers (people keep lists of this stuff), his ineptitude may be shrouding the talent of a wide receiver ready to explode onto the scene. Sokol once read an article stating that Michael Vick was the worst quarterback in the league in terms of recognizing open receivers, "so it wasn't that surprising to me to see [Atlanta Falcons wide receiver] Roddy White's emergency last season playing with different [quarterbacks]."

Sokol also suggests checking if a quarterback is consistently better on certain types of throws (long, short, to the left or right, etc.). Passing statistics broken down by the area of the field where the ball is caught, he said, "can really make a difference for a fantasy player, especially if the QB is being switched to a new system." He expects that the truly dedicated may be able to go even further, to analyze stats based on situations and formations. Because players and coaches change teams so often, knowing how a running back responds with and without a fullback leading him, or how often a coach likes to throw long passes, can help fans make much better projections.

Fantasy Football Helps Real-World Learning

How do people build a base of knowledge about an endeavor like fantasy football, and what can that tell us about the way people learn about complicated subjects? These are the types of questions that two members of the Games, Learning and Society research group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are exploring. Richard and Erica Halverson are studying the way people develop strategies for fantasy sports in order to understand what people take away from playing these types of technology-enabled games. Their research has mostly focused on baseball, but many of their insights transfer to football as well.

Their view is that learning to manipulate complex and abstract systems like fantasy football is a vital twenty-first century skill. They see it neglected in schools, and feel that figuring out the methods people use to inform themselves about such intricate topics will reveal meaningful insights. They think fantasy sports hold the secret to teaching people to make insightful predictions. According to Richard Halverson, "Fantasy sports introduce the world of the real estate speculator and the stock trader to everybody… It's grounded in an activity that has common reference to everybody. People can make their predictions, they can see whether their predictions bear out, and it's a no cost environment for most people."

There are countless questions to answer, and with future research Richard and Erica Halverson may be able to apply their findings to a wide variety of situations. "We're just trying to make sense of what kind of learning happens in fantasy league structure. And the next question for us to consider is: If we can identify the principles that govern fantasy leagues, can we apply them to other contexts like Congress, or real estate, or other markets that have mysterious working principles that if you could develop effective methods of prediction, that you could learn a whole lot more about the systems than just by looking at them."

Top Five Draft Day Tips

Joseph Menicucci is a chemical engineer who has “well over” twenty years of fantasy football experience and is one of the hosts of a fantasy sports internet radio show. He stresses five easy strategies for a successful draft:

1. Do what it takes to be informed. Before you get to the draft, do a quick sweep of NFL news to find out the latest news about injuries, position battles, and suspensions.

2. Keep track of every draft pick of every team. This will prevent you from committing the faux pas of drafting a player that was already taken, and also allow you to identify who you need to grab right now, and who you can hope to get with your next pick.

3. Collect running backs and wide receivers. If you are on the clock and don't know what to do, grab another running back or wide receiver. You might even grab a backup at running back before you have a starting quarterback, tight end, defense, and, most especially, kicker.

4. Keep your information to yourself. You were taught to play nice and share, but giving away all of your sleepers and busts will only limit your chance of winning the league and irritate other owners who are prepared.

5. Stay focused. Turn off the cell phone. Keep the trivial conversations to a minimum. And save the suds for after the draft.

Inside Science News Service is supported by the American Institute of Physics.