I must have made the longest break since the start of this blog with my last article being from the 13th of June. In case any of you wondered, I am not dead, but merely moved to a new home, which in German translates to 3 months without internet. Just a few weeks ago I had the great honour of being paid a visit by the Telecom technician, so here I am again. Despite not having posted anything new in the last months I used every bit of kilobytes I got my hands on further exploring the new trends in the betting markets. In fact, I was lucky to get this no-Internet period in the middle of the summer when most gamblers are on vacation anyway. But not me! Since the bookmakers offered nothing of interest to me in July and most of August I decided to look further. A few innovative betting products caught my eye – I tried my luck at spread betting and also dived into the world of fantasy football. The later one I found pretty exciting so I decided to dedicate my comeback article to it. I will share with you my experience with fantasy football and will give you some tips for optimizing the performance of your team.
What is Fantasy Football?
The concept of fantasy football was not entirely new to me. The official fantasy game of the Premier League has been running since a long time ago and attracted millions of players. The game was basically a marketing tool for the league and for the players it has always been just for fun.
Than the fantasy world took an interesting turn on the other side of the ocean, where two big players emerged offering fantasy on a large scale, but with a bit of a gambling taste. Draft Kings and FanDuel were growing at an unprecedented pace and were striking huge sponsorship deals in NFL, MLB and elsewhere. The two have recently attempted a merger, which was blocked from the federal trade commission on anti-monopoly grounds. A political debate has been raging in the recent years whether what they offered, namely playing fantasy sports with money, should be considered gambling or not. Every state has its own opinion on that, but the fact remains that the growth of those businesses has put any European bookmaker to shame. Yet another instance of European high-street bookies missing an important (and incredibly profitable) trend. But hey, at least we got FOBTs!
Anyway, when this new fantasy trend emerged I thought it might be a great business idea to launch something similar for Europe, with the option to open accounts in local currency instead of only USD and a focus on football. Unfortunately I neither have the money nor the time to start anything like that, plus I recently found out someone got to it first.
FanTeam is on the market since 2013 and has meanwhile grown its base of active players significantly. The platform is running regular tournaments in several sports, but football attracts the most players by far. To my knowledge FanTeam are the biggest DFS (daily fantasy sports) provider based in Europe and offering accounts in EUR. Sadly, currently they don’t offer accounts in GBP, which I think is a pity. Since those of you based in UK would still need to exchange currency to play DFS, you might also want to consider the aforementioned Draft Kings and FanDuel. They also have football (soccer) on offer and you can open an account in USD there. The two sites have a different scoring system, which I have found a bit more complicated and more difficult for modelling. On the other hand they are more established and a lot bigger than FanTeam, which has its benefits.
But back to FanTeam. The average weekly Premier League tournament attracts around 700-800 participants. How does it work? You built a team of 12 players with a restricted budget of 100 points, where every player has a certain price arbitrarily determined by the platform. There are tournaments with different team size and budget but currently this seems to be the most popular format. How the players’ price is determined is an interesting topic in itself but not the focus of this article (I assume it has something to do with the expected points for each player as calculated by the platform).
Once you build your team (you have time until the start of the first game of the round) your players start collecting points and your team gets ranked according to your total points. The points are awarded based on a scoring system used by FanTeam (which does not differ much by the classical point system of the Premier League’s fantasy game). You get in the game by paying a rake amounting to 10% of your buy-in. The rake is where the FanTeam’s revenue comes from, while the buy-in goes towards the prize pool.
The more savvy punters among you probably already see the potential here. If you get to develop a system that picks the perfect team and you manage to score above-average in the weekly rankings you have a good chance of winning your rake back or even turning a profit. If you know a thing or two about probabilities in sports you could make a fairly accurate prediction on a number of events determining the point-outcome of a game. Of course, one also needs to factor in the expected variance, which in my experience is nothing short of what you are used to from the betting markets. There is a way to get around that and I will come to it later.
Another benefit of playing fantasy football as opposed to betting with a bookie is the business model. The platform makes its profit from the rake-in and the prize pool is formed by the entry fees of all the players. This means that the platform doesn’t really care about who is winning and how much, they only need to make sure everything is up and running. Stark contrast to the high-street “losers welcome” bookmakers who will kick you out at the moment they catch you making a cent of profit.
Furthermore, since the profit of the platform is independent from the outcome of the game there is much less risk involved for the company itself, so your money is arguably safer here than with a bookmaker. Again and again we hear stories about high-street bookmakers confiscating a player’s balance for whatever outrageous reason just to compensate for the losses they have made due to their terrible odds. I don’t see why that would happen here.
Getting started is fairly easy. You just need to make a deposit and verify your account. This could be done at a later stage but I always recommend doing it before depositing any money if the option is available. There are a few deposit options to choose from, including Skrill, Neteller and credit card deposit, which are all free of charge.
You get a 200% bonus, which you only get to release in the form of a 25% discount from your rake-ins. In other words, if you pay EUR 10 towards the prize pool, you would normally need to pay a rake of EUR 1 to FanTeam to participate in the tournament. If you have a bonus you will only need to pay EUR 0.75 and the EUR 0.25 discount will be released from your bonus balance. As you see it would take you quite some time to make a full use of your bonus. On the other hand there is no possibility for bonus abuse, which certainly improves the reliability of the provider. So all in all I find the bonus satisfactory.
So far I have chosen to participate in the weekly tournaments. I find them more exciting since you get the outcome only in a few days. There are full-season leagues available too, but I wouldn’t like to have my money locked in there for almost a year. On the other hand, a full-season tournament has the advantage that in the long term it evens out much of the variance, whereas in the single-round tournaments you are strongly dependent on the outcome of this and that game even if you make the perfect team.
As an example, a few weeks ago I have picked quite a few Man City and Tottenham players in my team. I have calculated a high expected score for all of them largely due to the fact that the betting markets gave those two teams the highest probability for winning their games and expected them to score a lot of goals. However, City only managed to win 1-2 with a late goal and less than stellar performance, while Tottenham disappointed with a home draw against Burnley. Meanwhile Liverpool smashed Arsenal 4-0, which came as quite a surprise to everyone.
You should expect things like that to happen all the time. The variance is big and especially in the weekly tournaments it might take some time for skill to pay off. One way players deal with this is to play with several teams in one week’s tournament. It is certainly an option, but first, it is sub-optimal since you don’t only run the team with the highest expected score and second, it requires even bigger time investment in analysis on your side, so for now I choose not to go this way and try to live with the variance.
Making your team
With this in mind, you could start building your first team. The approach I chose was to pick the players who would bring me the highest expected points. Calculating expected points for players is tricky and requires a lot of work. I must say upfront, if you are hoping to make easy money with fantasy football you should give up, since I have found the analysis is quite time-consuming. However, what I liked about it was that most of the information you need is out there so if you are willing to invest the time you can come up with a fairly accurate forecast.
The team format used in the weekly tournament includes 12 players, 11 of whom play and the last one sits on the bench and comes in in case any of the 11 doesn’t start. As you already see, it is pretty important that all of your chosen players start and guessing the starting line-up for each team is an important winning factor in fantasy football.
You have two restrictions in building your team. One is the budget, the other is the formation.
You have a certain budget available to buy players. For the weekly tournament it is 100 points. The price of players changes every week mostly in accordance to whom the team is playing against. The algorithm for calculating the weekly price of players is not disclosed by FanTeam (at least not to my knowledge). What is left for you is to determine a “fair price”, compare it to the ones offered by the platform and buy the players you consider a bargain.
The second restriction is the formation. Players have one of four positions, which are relevant for the scoring as well as for the formation (GK, MID, DEF, FWD). There are only certain formations that are allowed (5-4-1, 5-3-2, 4-5-1, 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 3-5-2, 3-4-3). If your 12th player needs to come in, the resulting formation also needs to be an eligible formation. Otherwise your sub stays on the bench even if someone from your starting eleven didn’t participate in the game.
Finding players who are a bargain and optimizing your team based on the restrictions above is the exercise you need to do in order to make the perfect fantasy team. To find out which players are sold at a discount you must first determine what amount of points you could expect to get from every one of them. To do so you must carefully study the scoring rules. As I wrote earlier, the scoring rules would be familiar to anyone who has played the Premier League fantasy game as they are not much different. What needs to be done at this point is to go through all the factors that may give points to (or take points from) a player, calculate how much points you expect that player to earn from each factor and finally sum it all up.
I do this by having a look at the betting markets for this game and making use of as many of them as possible. As an example, a defender who has played 90 minutes in every game of his team since the beginning of the season, would have a fairly high chance of starting and playing a full game this week. The market for a clean sheet for his team is at odds (say 1.9 for a clean sheet and 1.9 for no clean sheet). That means the team has a 50% chance for a clean sheet, which would add 4 points to the score of the player, or 50%*4 = 2 expected clean sheet points for this player. You repeat the exercise for all factors and all players, sum it all up and arrive at an expected score for each player for this round.
Picking the players
Once you have calculated the expected points of all players the question comes: Who do you need to buy? The best “value for the money” team would be one composed of the 12 players with the highest expected points/price ratio. The two restrictions , the set budget and the allowed formation, add additional difficulty to the calculation. You need to maximize your team’s expected points based on those two limitations. What complicates the function further is the “Captain” option. The Captain is one player from your team picked by you, who scores double. With this option high-scoring players who would normally be less of a bargain compared to mid-scoring ones could end up being more valuable to your team.
At this point I haven’t figured out how to mathematically optimize this function. I have a feeling you have to use some sort of linear algebra but I must dig into that further. The approach I am using at the moment is to arrange my team based on intuition. It is not perfect but it is still a working solution.
So at the end of the day you follow the above rules and arrive at the perfect team, in expectation at least.
That makes sense, so what results did you get?
Frankly, the results by now have been mediocre. I have played five rounds so far. In the first one I underestimated the required time for analysis, spent too much time calculating the players’ expected points and left too little for building the team. I ended up picking up a bunch of players in the last minutes before the deadline, who contributed for a nice team but also one with a total value of only around 80 points of 100 available. I was pretty pissed at my poor time management until I found out at the end of the round that I was only a few points short of the prize pool (15% of participating players receive some prize, of course the higher you rank the more you get).
Being super excited about the promising score of my team of underdogs I was sure the next round I will make it big. I didn’t know at the time I was up for a huge disappointment! Having a bunch of expensive players from two teams who were heavy favorites for the week I was hit by the variance with both teams playing well below expectation. As you have probably guessed, the two teams were the above mentioned Man City and Tottenham. I had a below average score placing me 500th from 775 teams. Quite some cool-off.
What happened? Obviously, in the first round the luck was with me and in the second one against me. I saw in practice what I should have already anticipated in theory – variance is an important factor here and even if you have the perfect model it would take quite some time to see some persistence in returns.
Then recently I joined a round of international games where luck was again on my side and I managed to score 3rd, winning EUR 56 on an entry fee of 10, evening out my FanTeam balance. So armed with my knewly found knowledge and quite a lot of patience I continue to compete in the weekly Premier League challenges. I am still pretty excited about DFS so I will continue working on this and will let you know how it is going.
In the meantime, I’d be more than happy to read about your experience with football fantasy. Did you already give a try to any paid fantasy football leagues and how did it go? Or maybe you developed a cool system for the official Premier League fantasy game? Let me know in the comments.
Also, a huge thank you to everyone who keeps coming back here even after such a long period with no new material from me. I really appreciate your interest and support and the thought that you are still interested in what I have to say keeps me and this blog going. Thanks again, you’re awesome. And see you soon!