The Perfect Fantasy Football League
August 23, 2014 | gregsauce
Last week, Jason Willan (@ConsultFantasy) asked the Twitterverse what would go into the perfect fantasy football league. As a frequent fake league commissioner, I have spent countless hours mulling this topic, so I resolved to gather my thoughts and share them here at TheFakeFootball. Unfortunately, the perfect league can only be “perfect” in the eye of the beholder. Different people want different things out of the game and people have more fun when they win, so success in a format generally breeds bias towards those settings. With all that in mind, what follows is merely my personal take and it won’t suit the needs of all the various breeds of degenerate out there in nebulous realm of fantasy.
Before I quantify my ideal settings, I want to talk about the goals of any given league. Typically, a commissioner needs to answer one or both of the following questions when setting up a league:
1. What managerial experience am I trying to capture?
2. What managerial skills am I trying to reward?
Let’s tackle the first one regarding what I so corporately call the “managerial experience”. Is the goal of the league to recreate the experience of being a GM in the NFL? In that case, you probably want a deep IDP dynasty league with starting lineups as close to actual football as possible and as many unemployed-in-real-life managers as you can find. Is the goal to have a fun league that you and your friends can use as an excuse to hang out on Sundays and knock back cold ones? Keep the rosters simple and throw more fantasy points at rare plays like long touchdowns and safeties to make the games a little swingier. The ideal league will find a balance between these two extremes in some way, but when in doubt, lean towards the beer-guzzling game of chance. Accessibility goes a long way towards keeping managers engaged and active.
Choosing what “managerial skills” to reward tends to be a little more complicated. I just noted the appeal of simple formats and the importance of accessibility, but the ultimate goal should always be to create a game of skill. The real game of football will do plenty of work on its own to introduce variance into our fake games, so the trick is to set up your league so that mastery of the format at least seems attainable. With that said, you also want to give your league’s managers as many possible routes to victory as possible. This is much more challenging in head-to-head football than something like rotisserie baseball, but I digress. In general, there are three key skills all leagues should try to reward: drafting ability, in-season roster management, and week-to-week lineup maximization. Let’s tackle each of these aspects individually:
Would you create a league where you had to start four running backs but only one wide receiver? Absolutely not. There would be no skill involved in knowing when to draft wideouts because there would be no scarcity, especially compared to the scarcity of RBs in a league where you need to start four. This is where offering many routes to victory is of paramount importance. You want your league’s drafters to be able to make an argument for most positions at any stage of the draft. The exceptions here are obviously defenses and kickers, but those become your game’s “skill-testers”. There is virtually no reward for taking a defense or kicker highly, but people still do it and those managers are often punished for making the incorrect choice. It can be tempting to eliminate positions like kicker from your leagues, but skill-testers are an important part of game design because they reward smart managers for avoiding traps. Without them, managers would only be rewarded for identifying positive attributes of players and positions.
In-season roster management:
There is some crossover skill here with drafting ability (e.g., planning for bye weeks), but what I’m really talking about here is a manager’s ability to intelligently make roster changes via the free agent pool and trades. Knowing who to drop and who to add or when to swap players with a rival are crucial to success in fake sports. Do you want to reward the managers who are quickest to draw their smartphone from their holster when a hot free agent materializes? Or would you rather use a waiver system to allow all managers access to the pool of unowned players? How should that waiver system work? Do you want to limit the number of trades per team each season? Should trades be reviewable and if so, how? Stew on those questions. I’ll give my answers a little later.
Week-to-week lineup maximization:
This is probably the greatest fantasy challenge of all and there are a few ways to test this skill. The best advice I can give in this regard is to go deeper with your league’s rosters – deeper starting lineups and deeper benches. The managers who are better at sifting through a greater assortment of options will rise to the top over time. My other suggestion is to embrace the flex. If you give managers more avenues to fielding a starting lineup, you allow them more opportunity to wring full value from the fake football sponge.
So what are the ingredients in the ‘Sauce man’s perfect league? Let’s start with the draft. Dust off your gavel and don the powdered wigs, because we’re going to auction. Snake drafts are fine and they certainly challenge drafters in a variety of interesting ways, but auctions do the same while giving every manager access to every player. Furthermore, there is very little in this game more entertaining than watching a bidding war between two of your leaguemates. With that in mind, we’re getting the entire league together in person for the auction. The convenience of an online draft is nice, but drafting face-to-face is the bee’s knees, the cat’s pajamas, and the Jacksonville Jaguar’s jersey rolled into one. Even if you have some out-of-towners who can’t make the draft in the flesh, get as many managers together as you can. Gone are the days of the LAN party, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a laptop draft party.
As a concession to the difficulty in wrangling players for a live draft, though, I have to recommend a 10-team league. Don’t pepper me with shouts of “n00b!” just yet, though, there is method to my 10-teamer madness. Twelve-team leagues are great too, of course. If you have 12 friends to battle with on the fake gridiron, please do so. With that said, the settings laid out in the balance of this piece are designed for a 10-team rumble. That is to say, we’re going deep with the rosters:
2 QB, 2 RB, 1 RB/WR, 2 WR, 1 WR/TE, 1 TE, 1 K, 1 D/ST, 9 Bench
My league is definitely starting two quarterbacks. If that’s too smelly a salt to sniff, then try a 1-QB, 1-QB/RB/WR/TE flex league instead. If you’re worried about someone trying to break the format by over-drafting QBs to force trades, you can limit each fake team so they can only draft QBs from up to four NFL teams during the draft. Managers could draft more than four total, but only if handcuffing to QBs they already own. The flex league will play out almost the same as a 2-QB league, only without the agony of intently caring about QB bye weeks or the grief associated with blowing a third of your FAAB on injury replacements like Mike Glennon and Case Keenum.
Seriously, though, 2-QB leagues are the future of fantasy football. We have universally played in leagues where all the NFL’s starting running backs are picked in fantasy drafts. Why shouldn’t that be the case with quarterbacks too, especially in the golden age of passing the football? Using the full slate of QBs (and handcuffing with some back-ups) brings the scarcity of QBs to a respectable level, on par with that of running backs in standard leagues. This deviation from the norm presents drafters with legitimate decisions between all three of our game’s premiere positions in virtually every round of the draft (or all four positions if you want to make tight ends more valuable, too). In standard leagues, 95% of experienced players are going to take a running back or a wideout in the first round. Isn’t it more interesting if quarterbacks enter that mix as well? I think so.
With a dual-quarterback setup, injuries to starting signal-callers can raise back-up QBs from the junkyard to the jewelry case faster than you can say “Bernard Pollard”, so we’re going to need a waiver system. Free Agent Acquisition Budgets (FAAB) are the best way to go because like an auction vs. a snake draft, FAAB allows all managers access to all players on the waiver wire. Setting the FAAB amount to start a season is pretty arbitrary, so I’d recommend a round number like $100. No matter the waiver setup you use, make sure there is a window of some length before game time on Sunday when managers can add and drop players in reaction to breaking news. Locking owners into their rosters for the entire week after waivers take place on Tuesday or Wednesday is a prescription for bad vibes.
When it comes to fantasy points, I’ve done a lot of research on the effects of various scoring settings between positions. Here is my preferred arrangement, with some notes on what may seem like odd choices:
Passing TD = 5 fantasy points*
All other TDs = 6 fantasy points**
25 passing yards = 1 fantasy point
10 rushing yards = 1 fantasy point
10 receiving yards = 1 fantasy point
30 return yards = 1 fantasy point***
Reception = 0.5 fantasy points****
Interception = -2 fantasy points
Fumble lost = -2 fantasy points
2-pt. conversions = 2 fantasy points
* This strikes a balance between “statue in the pocket” types and “can’t pass, might as well run” types of QBs. Check out my old Scoring Settings Analysis pieces for QBs for the data.
** Rushing, receiving, return, and fumble recoveries for TDs included.
*** You can take this or leave it, but I like adding some extra value to return men.
**** 1-PPR is too much, no-PPR isn’t enough. Dig, Goldilocks?
0-49 yard FG = 3 fantasy points*****
50+ yard FG = 5 fantasy points
PAT = 1 fantasy point
Missed PAT = -2 fantasy points******
***** Kickers are good enough nowadays that we don’t need to reward them an extra point for 40-49 yard boots. If your league allows, I like the idea of making 45-49 kicks worth 4 points, but these dudes should be close to automatic from 40-44 yards.
****** Every other position can sting you with negative points; it should be the same for kickers.
Defense/Special Teams Scoring:
Sack = 1 fantasy point
Interception = 2 fantasy points
Fumble Recovery = 2 fantasy points
Defensive or Return TD = 6 fantasy points
Blocked Kick = 4 fantasy points*******
Safety = 4 fantasy points*******
0 points allowed = 10 fantasy points
1-6 points allowed = 6 fantasy points
7-13 points allowed = 3 fantasy points
14-27 points allowed = 0 fantasy points
28-34 points allowed = -3 fantasy points
35+ points allowed = -5 fantasy points
******* Blocked kicks and safeties are often worth only 2 points in fake football, but how does that make sense? They are two of the rarest plays in the NFL and typically require extraordinary play from the defense to pull off. Let’s reward these plays accordingly.
Of course, you should always use fractional scoring (to discourage ties) and negative points (to encourage schadenfreude). Otherwise, feel free to tweak the numbers as you see fit. I would advise against the following, though:
1. Different PPR settings for different positions: Why should a tight end’s catch be worth more than a running back’s? Is there more skill involved? The answers to those questions are “It shouldn’t” and “No”, respectively.
2. Points awarded for completions: QBs don’t need help scoring points.
3. Points awarded for team wins: Like in baseball, there are too many factors that can factor into a win beyond a single player’s contribution.
Regarding how to play out the league, total points might be the truest test of skill, but head-to-head suits football better than any other fantasy sport. I don’t know about you, but I look forward to the strategy and the rivalry of one-on-one match-ups every fall. Still, I understand the desire to eliminate some of the variance associated with this format. Thus, I recommend the two-game weeks system implemented in Apex leagues – where you play your standard head-to-head match-up for each week, but you also play against the league average every week. Similarly, you can use a system where you award a win and a loss for each head-to-head match-up, while also awarding a win to the top five scorers and a loss to the bottom five scorers each week. The goal is to keep the spirit of fake football’s me-versus-you sensibilities while also rewarding the teams who perform well each week, regardless of match-up.
Now how about the schedule? For a 10- or a 12-team league, I prefer six teams to make the playoffs, with the postseason taking place in weeks 14-16. In this scenario, the 1- and 2-seed each get a bye in Week 14, while the 3-6 seeds play out the fake version of wild-card weekend. Unless it’s a keeper league (more on this in a moment), I recommend locking the eliminated teams so they can’t make pick-ups during the playoffs. To discourage inactivity from the bad teams down the stretch of the regular season, one of my leaguemates made a great suggestion for our home league prior to last season: have the last place team pay the next season’s buy-in for the non-playoff team with the most regular season points. This gives the basement dwellers incentive to stay out of last place and to accumulate the most possible points, even if they’ve been eliminated from the playoffs.
To wrap things up, I want to talk about keeper leagues. In general, I love the concept and the gameplay of keeper leagues. They add an immense amount of complexity to both the draft and in-season roster management. Nevertheless, I again return to the notion that I want all players available to all managers when I start up a league. Players kept means players unavailable in the draft, which in turn means that some strategies (e.g., drafting Graham + Gronk to open your draft) are taken off the table. While restrictions can breed creativity in some cases, restrictions can also simply breed necessity. I encourage all of you to play in a variety of league types – keeper leagues included – but for my money, the best and most elegant fantasy leagues are re-draft leagues.
That does it for this journey into the mind of Commissioner Gregsauce. I’m sure there are plenty of dissenting opinions out there and I’d love to hear them in the comments. Most of my favorite league settings ideas came from other fake footballers, so with your help, maybe we can make the configuration laid out in this piece even better. Thanks for reading and good luck in your upcoming leagues.