Is Fantasy Football a Game of Skill, or just Dumb Luck?

Forrest Gump. In the movie, he went to college on a football scholarship; had the distinction of meeting 3 acting presidents; owned a multi-million dollar shrimp company; and married the girl of his dreams. Yet all of these events happened purely by coincidence.

Serendipity. Happy accidents. Blind chance. Dumb luck. Maybe you know of a Gump type owner that stumbled his way to a title?

Do we really need to invest an exorbitant amount of time pretending to be fantasy scouts? After more than a decade of ranks, depth charts and player news, is all this effort the actual reason we may be successful? What about the years we slip a little? Does it really get us any closer to a fantasy title than the lazy slugs who solely or grudgingly rely on expert or league commissioner default rankings?

In pure Gump fashion, is fantasy football like a box of chocolates? Do we ever know what we’re really gonna get? That is the question on the table today. Joe Mica will argue will argue the luck side of things, while Tommy Landseadel rationalizes the skill side of things.

Is Fantasy Football Just Dumb Luck?

DRAFTING

Maybe we all have our own fantasy draft horror stories? On one side of the coin, have you ever nailed a draft? You snagged most of the top prospects, sleepers and high-ceiling studs – only to have a miserable season?

Then there is the other side of the coin: Someone doesn’t show for your league’s draft and he subsequently has the autopick unwittingly draft him a championship caliber team.

We’ve all experienced both.

In 2014, I remember an auction league where a certain Chicago Bears fan decided to fill his roster with as many Bears players as possible. (Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Jay Cutler, and the Bears D/ST) As ridiculous as this strategy was, he unbelievably started the season 3-2.

INJURIES

The fact that injuries are unpredictable is ample proof that this is out of our control.

In 2016, WR Keenan Allen lasted a little more than one-quarter into the new season. Teammate RB Melvin Gordon lasted 13 games, but then missed the most crucial part of the fantasy season.

Closely associated to this is recovery time. Player values will often reflect the expected recovery time. Of course, even with a degree, all of this is virtually unpredictable.

We’ve most likely all had a player or two gimp into the preseason with hamstring or foot issues. We were also probably reassured with glowing media reports of recovery within the next few days – ready by week 1. And by week 17, they were still nursing these same nagging injuries.

Not everyone is Adrian Peterson (who tore his ACL in December 2015 and led the league in rushing less than a year later in 2016). And not everyone is Tom Brady who has been rumored to be on the injury report with a shoulder injury since 2014.

Yet someone is bound to roll the tumbling dice on an injury risk hoping that he will pay off early in the season.

WAIVERS

Waiver settings can be a touchy subject. There are several different formats, and each format will come with its share of pros and cons. However, with our subject matter in mind, the whole idea of having a waiver pool is to give a fantasy owner additional help.

If you truly think about it, some arbitrary owner will have a distinct advantage because he will be awarded that week’s most coveted player – not because the owner was inciteful enough to foresee this – but solely because the waiver rules of his league dictated that he shall be awarded instant help or depth.

Some big-time catches that floated to the top in 2016 included Davante Adams (finished 7 among WR in standard scoring), Tyrell Williams (finished 13), Tyreek Hill (15), Kyle Rudolph (3), Cameron Brate (6), Hunter Henry (11), the Giants (5) and Ravens (8) D/ST.

Each of these originally went undrafted in one league, yet found themselves on fantasy rosters, and most likely helped their fantasy owners down the stretch.

Again for emphasis, no preseason planning was required to land these players from the waiver pool.

SCHEDULING

Perhaps this is the most overlooked aspect, and the least likely culprit, of a successful fantasy football season.

Have you ever had an owner annoyingly complain about how many points his fantasy team has scored, only to have a mediocre head-to-head record? Most likely, it could be the schedule.

Thanks to the ingenuity of a friend, he created a program which compared every owner’s schedule to the other 11 owners. The program generated 11 different head-to-head records. The differences were amazing!

The result of this program revealed that the owner who won the league with a 9-5 record could have had a sub-500 record had he played another owner’s schedule!  Conversely, two teams that ended with a league-worst 5-9 record would have had winning records had they had the benefit of a few other schedules.

*****

Forrest Gump said you can tell a lot about a person by their shoes. We consider so many statistics – both relevant and ambiguous – maybe we’re looking at the wrong things? Are our fantasy teams predestined by the randomness that comes with drafts, injuries, waivers and head-to-head schedules? At such times with such obvious answers, Forrest would often conclude by saying, “That’s all I have to say about that.”



Why Fantasy Football is a Game of Skill

I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that most people reading a fantasy football article two months prior to week 1 are going to be fairly easy to convince that fantasy football is a game of skill more so than luck. My side of the debate is (should be) a fairly easy one.

First off, I will start by admitting that there are certainly elements of luck within any fantasy sport. For the purpose of this discussion, we will attribute anything within an owners’ control to skill, and anything outside that control to luck.

DRAFTING

We have all drafted teams that we thought were going to be great that failed to live up to the hype. We have all seen mediocre owners luck into some amazingly good teams too.

A perfect example of that for me came two years ago in one of my leagues with a few college buddies. Every August we meet up for a weekend retreat where we conduct a live draft. In 2015, our resident drunkard was completely obliterated and unable to get to the bathroom without assistance before the draft even started.

The morning after, he was unable to recall that the draft even took place. His inebriated state didn’t prevent him from nabbing Devonta Freeman, DeAngelo Williams, DeAndre Hopkins and Tom Brady in the middle rounds along with his early round studs. The stars happened to align for him and he was able to assemble a nearly unbeatable juggernaut.

This story seems to favor Joe’s argument that fantasy football is all about luck. What if I told you that in the 10 years I have played in this league, my drunk friend has made the playoffs only twice and has appeared in the toilet bowl 5 times, compared to the one super bowl appearance?

Sure, even the blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes, but smart money is on the well prepared drafter. In that same league, we have 3 owners (myself included) that have combined for 7 championships and 25 playoff appearances over 10 seasons.

The logic here is simple. Even the best set of default ranks can be taken advantage of. The uneducated drafter is more likely to overpay for big names on the decline and less likely to be aware of breakout candidates. There will always be players who slip through the cracks, but the more research you do on the players and their situations, the more likely you are to avoid draft day mistakes and hit big on sleeper candidates.

Drafting is mostly about skill.

INJURIES

Injuries are one aspect of the game that are largely out of an owners’ control. They can happen to anybody, at any time. Bad luck on the injury front can sidetrack or even derail a potential championship caliber team.

That being said, a highly skilled owner is more likely to successfully navigate injuries to key players.  Whether that means using handcuff strategies to have a replacement on hand when that stud RB goes down, having high quality bench depth in general, or simply avoiding injury prone players on draft day. There are many ways a skilled owner can reduce the impact of injuries.  

WAIVERS

There are many different waiver systems in fantasy football. Some require a great deal of skill (like FAAB), others are more luck based (like weekly resetting waivers), and the rest fall somewhere in between. Regardless of format, the real art here is grabbing that breakout star before he becomes highly coveted on waivers.

Let’s take Jordan Howard, for example. Howard was drafted in most competitive leagues as the 2nd in line for carries in Chicago, but many impatient owners dropped him after he totaled five touches the first two weeks of the season. I was able to land him at that time in two separate leagues for minimum FAAB bids. I thought he was a must stash because Langford was only averaging 3.03 YPC after struggling down the stretch in 2015. It was only a matter of time before Howard would see his role expand.

I never expected those moves to pay off so soon, or so handsomely, but when Jeremy Langford went down with an ankle injury in week 3, Howard was the most coveted waiver wire play of the week. Owners with the foresight to buy low or hold didn’t need to worry about waiver order or how much of their FAAB budget to bid.

The best way to beat waivers is with a preemptive strike. Skilled owners are often able to do just that.

SCHEDULING

So this one is definitely luck. I got nothing here. We have all had weeks where our team goes off and scores 150 points, but the guy we face gets 152. Heck, I have even had seasons where my team led the league in total points scored, but ridiculously bad scheduling luck left me at 7-7 and out of the playoffs. If you play long enough, these things will happen to you too.

However, the uncertainty of the weekly head to head matchup is one of the things that make year-long fantasy football so unbelievably fun.

CONCLUSION

Luck can and will play a significant role in short-term results playing fantasy football. The serendipitous owner (like my drunk friend) may even stumble into a league title every now and then. Over time, however, results will largely be determined by an owner’s skill. Luck has a way of evening out over the long run.

The good news though? Regardless of how much fantasy football skill we do or don’t have, we can always improve our craft. Sites like Fantasy Assembly exist to provide a forum for those serious about fantasy sports to continue sharpening our skills. The more work we do, both in player research and self-reflection, the better we are able to maximize our chance to be successful.

So, which side of the debate carries more weight, luck or skill? Do you have any similar stories or anecdotes to share? Please share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.

 

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Joe Mica
Joe has been passionate about fantasy football since 2001. He has experience as an owner as well as a commissioner in H2H, auction, redraft and IDP leagues. He has written fantasy football columns since 2010. Submit any fantasy football questions you may have to me on twitter @JoeFMica