Daily competition is making the great American pastime, fantasy sports, even more immersive for fans
Author Adam K. Raymond Illustration Blair Kelly
Every year, as summer turns to fall, millions of Americans cast aside earthly worries and enter a fantasy world populated by sweaty men in tiny polyester pants. They examine these men closely, judging their histories and predicting their futures. Then they choose a handful of them to play on their fantasy football teams.
These fantasy drafts have become one of America’s homes for male bonding (with women also increasingly getting in on the act). The events bring friends together to talk sports (not just football, but baseball, basketball and hockey), eat unhealthy food, pore over statistical spreadsheets and criticize each other’s facial hair. Most fantasy sports enthusiasts agree that the draft experience is the best part of being in a fantasy league; unfortunately, traditional drafts happen only once a year.
In the last few years, however, a new variation on the game has popped up: daily fantasy sports, or DFS, which allow people to draft a new team each day. Now, competitions that have typically lasted for months are being condensed into a few hours.
“It gives people a sense of immediate gratification,” says Paul Charchian, president of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association and co-founder of fantasy site Fanball.com. Charchian has watched DFS grow into a juggernaut that’s attracted more than 3 million players who will pump $2.6 billion into DFS this year. By 2020, that figure is expected to increase six-fold.
Here’s how DFS works: Sites like FanDuel.com and DraftKings.com, the industry leaders, host contests with entry fees ranging from less than $1 to more than $1,000. The money is pooled and, after the sites take their cut, distributed to the winners, who, as in traditional fantasy, are those who have drafted the players who perform best. That might sound like gambling, but Charchian insists DFS is a game of skill, not chance.
Crucially, the government is on his side. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, which banned online poker, places no restrictions on fantasy sports.
As a result, many big corporations have gotten into the game. FanDuel counts Time Warner and Google among its investors; DraftKings is owned, in part, by 21st Century Fox; Yahoo, a longtime leader in the traditional fantasy space, launched its own DFS product in July. “Companies that normally are very touchy about gambling have embraced DFS,” Charchian says.
Professional sports leagues are getting in on the action, too: The NBA owns part of FanDuel, and Major League Baseball owns part of DraftKings. The investment is a no-brainer for the NBA and MLB. After all, DFS players like Ian Johns pay a lot of money to be able to watch every game they can—and that money goes to the leagues. Johns, a 30-year-old who lives in Las Vegas, began dabbling in DFS in late 2013. “It was right up my alley,” he says. “I love sports. I love math and numbers.”
Johns calls the money he spends to watch games “an investment. ” He treats DFS like a job. “I think if you want to win at it, you have to have a really strong desire,” he says. “It pretty much consumes my thoughts.”
As a fantasy sports player for more than a decade, I can relate, but my experiences were all of the traditional variety, spanning entire seasons. After speaking with Johns, I decided to take a crack at DFS. This happened in July, when baseball was the only show in town. I began by depositing $25 in a FanDuel account and buying my way into an MLB contest. I paid $5 for the chance to compete against 20,000 people for $100,000 in prizes. The odds of a big victory were slim: Just 30 contestants would win prizes of $100 or more.
Following Johns’ advice, I consulted the Vegas betting lines to see which games were expected to yield the most runs. I glanced at the advanced stats on baseball analysis site
FanGraphs.com, and I picked up tips on RotoGrinders.com and FantasyAlarm.com. I built my team by spending my fixed budget on players who have values assigned based on their projected production; that means superstars are expensive, scrubs are cheap, and teams tend to have a balance of both. At least, mine did. I spent big on Marlins pitcher José Fernández and power-hitting Reds first baseman Joey Votto. Then I spread my budget around on decent players who had an advantage that day, including lefty hitters Josh Reddick and Brandon Moss, who were both facing right-handed starting pitchers.
Immediately after the games started, I began to understand why DFS is so popular. FanDuel’s live app kept me abreast of my standing in the 20,000-person field, updating my points after each at-bat that involved one of my players. When I first checked, about an hour after the beginning of the night’s first games, I was in something like 2,000th place, putting me on pace to make $15 at the end of the night. I kept checking back as my position fluctuated. A hit would send me soaring up the standings, a strikeout back down. The dollar amount eventually dropped to $12.50, a $7.50 profit after accounting for my buy-in. A paltry amount, sure, but more money than I had ever made in a single day of playing fantasy sports.
Emboldened, I was eager for the next day’s slate of games. I started an account at DraftKings and played a 50/50 game, which rewards those who finish in the top half of the contest with double their entry fee and leaves the bottom half with nothing. I won that day—and the next day too. My initial deposit of $25 on each site was up to $90 total. And then day four happened: I entered five contests and lost every one. I hadn’t changed my strategy; the at-bats just didn’t go my way. One day, I stacked my lineup with batters playing in the hitter-friendly high altitude of Denver’s Coors Field. They combined for an embarrassing eight points. The next day, I nearly overcame four dismal performances with three brilliant ones, but ultimately finished two points shy of the money.
Four days after nearly doubling my initial deposit, my accounts had sunk back down to $11. Fortunes swing wildly in DFS, but I’m still playing, and not because I’m obsessed with making back the money I’ve lost. I’m just having a blast. The strategy is a challenge, and following my teams’ progress each night is a thrill. Every at-bat is a must-see, every article a must-read, every stat a must-analyze. I was obsessed with baseball before I started DFS; now, I’m addicted. For this longtime fantasy player, the game is just that much fun. The chance that I might go to bed $10,000 richer doesn’t hurt, either.
Freelance writer Adam K. Raymond won his first traditional fantasy baseball league way back in 2002.