Fantasy football owners tap new technology and advanced metrics to secure bragging rights in their leagues, even if their drafts weren’t stellar.
If it were a country, Fantasy Footballia would be the 20th largest in the world, with a population larger than France, Great Britain, Spain and Italy.
That’s because nearly 75 million people are expected to play fantasy football this year, a 31 percent increase over last season. Those fantasy owners will spend a reported $4.6 billion on the pastime this year.
The rapid increase in daily and weekly fantasy leagues also indicates the growth won’t be slowing down anytime soon. But with prize money on the line and more competition than ever before, how can a fantasy player win his or her league? The answer is in the data.
“People play fantasy football for fun, for the social aspect and because they like to win. But with all the information out there, it’s turned into work,” said Ilya Tabakh, founder of fantasy football research company Edge Up Sports. “We’re doing the heavy lifting with technology.”
As the industry grows, so too do the number and complexity of the tools available to help people succeed. Here’s how Edge Up and others are helping fantasy football owners optimize their draft picks and weekly player lineups.
Some owners took a chance on Cowboys backup quarterback Brandon Weeden in Week Three. They shouldn’t have — he produced about eight fantasy points. Other teams lost because they left Frank Gore and his 22 points on the bench, another bad move.
Statistics and media company Football Outsiders can help. It uses play-by-play data going back more than 20 years. That information is supplemented by a team of analysts watching film — to develop new metrics to evaluate NFL players and teams.
Led by data guru Aaron Schatz, the Outsiders make weekly fantasy picks for ESPN. They tipped players off to Gore and Weeden in their column, and also told owners to take a chance on Panthers receiver Ted Ginn, who had 13 points.
Football Outsiders has a player performance-forecasting model, named Kubiak after the former backup quarterback and current Broncos coach. In late August, they used Kubiak to compare each player’s Fantasy Points Over Baseline to their Average Draft Position.
The model warned people that Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford was terribly overrated in fantasy drafts. They also said that the Broncos defense (49 points allowed through three games, third best in the league) was a bargain.
Schatz and crew also analyses assumptions made by announcers. Recent articles examine which receivers really have the best “catch radius” (the ability to reach and get to passes that other receivers would miss) in the league.
The Outsiders warn fantasy owners about potential setbacks, too. For example, a running back who has 370 carries will likely get hurt the next year, and running backs start to decline after age 28.
Similarly, receivers peak at age 30, and quarterbacks break down after age 32.
Who’s hurt? Who’s slumping? Fantasy football owners need to keep up with current news to help set their weekly lineups or make waiver-wire pickups.
“Most people will read football analysis at the start of the season, and find a few analysts that they trust,” said Tabakh. “There’s an ocean of information out there, though. You’ve got players and coaches talking, statistical projections and football analysts making predictions.”
Some outlets, like rotoworld.com and CBS Sports’ player news section, are devoted to a real-time bombardment of the latest news on each player in the league. Rotoworld also offers a “most-searched players” feature, allowing owners to see which players other owners are concerned about.
Still, even the most watchful owner isn’t going to get to everything that’s out there.
Tabakh’s Edge Up uses IBM’s Watson supercomputer to support its artificial intelligence techniques, surfing the web — including Twitter — to collect all mentions of players on a user’s fantasy team.
The supercomputer then evaluates each mention and produces a general trajectory of the player (trending up, trending down) is produced. “It’s kind of like a Rotten Tomatoes score for Tom Brady,” Tabakh said.
Tabakh explained that the algorithm also considers the source, and whether or not the source is generally positive or negative.
“While a fantasy player on their own may read two or three different sources, we’re looking at 2,000,” said Tabakh.
Nothing derails a fantasy season faster than an injury to a key player. While there’s plenty of information out there updating the status of a player who’s already hurt, fantasy owners have very few options to help them predict an injury.
ScoutPro, one of the leading fantasy projection services in the industry, partnered with Dr. Andrew Lalaji, the founder of Inside Injuries, to develop an Injury Report Card for each player. The report card takes into account a player’s injury and surgery history, to determine his likelihood of getting hurt again.
Although he may return this week, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered an MCL sprain in Week Three, for instance, has had a report card grade ranging from C+ to B+ in the last two years.
“Rothlisberger has suffered from multiple Level II injuries throughout his football career and has a history of concussions,” the report card warned.
Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo, injured in Week Two, has been a consistent low B.
“A herniated disc, a Level I injury, ended Romo’s 2013 season,” the report card read. “He underwent an endoscopic microdiscectomy and took four months to fully recover. Romo has also suffered multiple Level II injuries to his throwing hand.”
Report cards are supplemented with visual elements to help fantasy owners better understand the injury. The site features a body map that shows specifically which parts each player has hurt, along with representative X Ray and MRI scans of each injury.
With systems available to help predict everything from this week’s stats to possible injuries, and a supercomputer trolling Twitter to keep up on breaking news, fantasy football’s equivalent of Team Moneyball will help the tech-savvy owner take home the top prize.
Shawn Krest’s work has appeared on CBSSports.com, ESPN.com, MLB.com, The Sporting News and dozens of other publications. His book, “Baseball’s Meat Market” will be released by Page Street Publishing in March, 2016.