Alex was the Fantasy Content Manager for the National Lacrosse League between 2011 and 2014 and has played fantasy sports since 2003.
Are Fantasy Sports Luck- or Skill-Based?
There has long been debate about whether fantasy sports are more luck-based or skill-based. This debate has caused daily fantasy to run into legal trouble in some states where it has been considered gambling by courts and thus requiring regulation by the law. On the other side of things, however, a recent study from MIT suggests that most fantasy sports are indeed more skill-based.
I agree that success in most fantasy sports is due to luck rather than skill, since it requires a knowledge of players, statistics, and the ability to analyze statistical trends that help predict future performance. I have personally leveraged these skills to high success rates in a variety of fantasy sports, reaching "Diamond" ranking multiple times in fantasy football, baseball, and hockey respectively. I do think that the level of skill needed to succeed is increased the more often players have games in real life. For example, baseball players have games nearly every day so there is a higher level of skill involved in fantasy baseball as you can track player performance and adjust lineups accordingly by starting hot hands and benching during cold streaks. An active, knowledgeable manager should be able to guide their fantasy team through injuries. The same can be said of fantasy hockey since most teams play every two or three days during the season.
Fantasy football, though, is different for a variety of reasons. There is only one game each week rather than several. Therefore, if a player has one bad game, it might cause you to lose your entire matchup whereas if a baseball player has one bad game, there are another six games during the week to dilute the poor performance. Injuries are much more devastating in fantasy football than any other sport as well. If your star outfielder goes down for several months, that might be the difference between 10 home runs and a few batting average points between him and your replacement. At worst, you might lose a few stat categories a week because of it. If your star quarterback goes down for several months though, that is disastrous for your team as a whole and causes you to lose week in and week out, thus ruining your whole season. Why is this?
How Fantasy Scoring Works
The problem here is that fantasy football uses a scoring system that other fantasy sports do not. While other fantasy sports like hockey, basketball, and baseball use stat categories to judge head-to-head scoring, fantasy football is the only one that uses made-up "fantasy points." So in hockey, for example, there is a category for goals, assists, points, power play points, +/-, PIM and so on. Goaltenders have wins, losses, GAA, save percentage, shutouts, and so forth. If your team has more goals than the other team during your weekly matchup, you win that category. The team who wins the most categories, wins the match. Fantasy football doesn't work this way. Instead, your players are awarded make-believe fantasy points based on their performance. Gaining 10 yards rushing might net you one fantasy point per 10 real-life yards, while a touchdown will score you six fantasy points. Then, fantasy point totals are compared between the two teams to determine the weekly winner. This makes no sense and injects much more luck into the game.
One glaring example from the 2019 season would be Sammy Watkins' 198 receiving yards and 3 TDs in Week 1 against the Jaguars. In most leagues, this would result in about 37.8 fantasy points. Hopefully, you traded him high because in Week 2, Watkins had just 49 yards for 4.9 points and he has failed to score over seven fantasy points in any game since Week 1. That's a huge swing, and as you can imagine a 37.8 point performance out of what was most people's WR2 would cause them to cruise to victory in Week 1. Adam Thielen is another good example. Week 4 against Chicago, Thielen had just two catches for six yards. In non-PPR leagues, that's good for a measly 0.60 fantasy points. Then the very next week, Thielen caught seven passes for 130 yards and 2 TDs which was good for an eye-popping 25 fantasy points. While looking at defenses and real-life matchups can sometimes be a predictor of whether or not a player will have a good week, these huge point swings can also be completely unpredictable. Who would have predicted the 36-year old Frank Gore would rush for over 100 yards against the New England Patriots in Week 4? The Patriots have one of the best defenses in the league this year so the answer is nobody. Nobody would have predicted that.
Injuries also have a much heavier impact in this scoring system. For example, Drew Brees was forced out of the game against Los Angeles in Week 2 due to an early injury to his throwing hand. At the time he left, he had just 38 passing yards and an interception, totaling just 0.52 fantasy points. How many teams lost their Week 2 matchup strictly because of this untimely injury? There's no skill involved in that. That's all luck right there.
Fantasy football really should incorporate the category-based scoring system that every other fantasy sport uses to cut down on the luck involved. Stat categories for football could be something like; rushing yards, receiving yards, passing yards, offensive TDs, offensive turnovers (would be a negative stat), defensive TDs, defensive turnovers (positive stat), and field goals made-versus-missed to keep kickers relevant. Under this system, if your team had more total rushing yards than your opponent's team, you would win that one category. Then, the team that has won more overall categories wins the match. Simple. Clean.
This would make game-ending injuries like the one Drew Brees suffered in Week 2 much less damaging to your team as a whole. Yes, you would have to give up the passing yards category that week, but you could still win the matchup overall based on what the rest of your team did. Maybe the rest of your team could pull through and win the other categories for you? It would also cause the one single weekly performance of each player to be less likely to make or break you. Sammy Watkins catching 3 TDs in Week 1 likely caused many teams to win that week based solely on that one flukey game. Again, that's just not skill.
Sorry, Fantasy Football Is More Luck Than Skill
The way things are currently set up, fantasy football is more based on luck than skill. Sorry, but it's true. The examples above are just a few that could be pointed out as evidence from this season alone. How about Will Fuller V of the Texans putting up 217 yards and 3 TDs for 39.7 fantasy points in one game, when he has 227 yards and 0 TDs for 22.7 fantasy points in the other five games of the season combined? Or Packers' running back Aaron Jones exploding for 107 rushing yards, 75 receiving yards, and 4 TDs out of nowhere one week?
Having just one game played per week and a stat system that too heavily rewards or punishes a fluke statistical anomaly causes too many matchups to be won or lost based on occurrences that would be impossible to predict no matter how much time you put in looking at trends. It is clear that Yahoo! has already tried to address the flukiness involved in fantasy football with the rollout of "Best Ball" this year—which actually involves even more luck since you can't even add or drop players or manage your team whatsoever during the season. A new scoring system based on stat categories should be implemented into fantasy football, such as the one detailed above. This could be used to supplement, rather than replace, the current system. You could have "Classic Fantasy Football" using the old style of scoring and then simply "Fantasy Football" using the one new. Then everybody could be happy.
© 2019 Alex Hinkley