It's Time for Some Fantasy Football Game Theory
Niche post warning: I'm going to write about fantasy football. In particular, I'm going to share a few thoughts on the logic behind auction football drafts and delve into the dynamics behind their game play in order to suggest a variety of changes to make the game more compelling while not becoming overly complicated.
This is a "one for me" type of post but let's be honest all of these posts are "one for me." If you play fantasy and are in the weeds, skip ahead to the subhead titled "the 0.01% problem."
Fantasy football has felt stale for years. For those sickos who love auction style drafts, turned on notifications for injury reports, and google "dynasty keepers" to consider, I have a few ideas for how the game should experiment by mimicking elements of real-life front office dynamics.
Ground rules: if you play fantasy football, you should seriously consider choosing an auction draft format as opposed to a snake draft (Explainer at Pro Football Network). For the uninitiated, a snake draft pre-sets the order of everyone playing and then will go back and forth (snaking up and down the ladder) with players alternating picks. For example, if you were randomly awarded the first pick in the draft, you will need to wait until every other player has drafted twice until the snake gets back to you.
Whereas with an auction draft, everyone participates at the same time. Similar to eBay or a fancy art auction (never done one of those, but seen lots of movies, that counts, right?), anyone can bid on any player. The catch, every player has a fixed amount of money (typically $200 fake dollars) to play with so if you spend a lot of money early you will be outbid on players as the draft progresses.
Nearly every fantasy football player loves their first auction draft because it feels so exhilarating compared to a snake draft! Snake drafts introduce too much random luck for who gets the first or last pick. You lack the desired agency to control your own destiny. By encouraging more choice, fantasy auctions open the door to a variety of strategies and allow players to experiment in ways impossible with a snake draft.
the 0.01% problem
Yet by their third or fourth auction draft, most fantasy football players start to see the cracks in the game's logic. The ~30 to ~50 best players command nearly all of the league's total budget and the remaining players cost a fraction of their actual value. Over time, auction drafts start to feel a bit staid and predictable. The winning team usually winds up spending a lot of money on one to two star players and then gets lucky with an end of the draft (aka cheap) draft pick.
I was discussing this with a friend earlier this morning and he shared a screenshot with me of a draft he had earlier this year (note: his team is currently competing for the championship as he is one of the final two players left):
It's pretty obvious where he spent most of his $200 budget. What's not surprising is that this is basically the norm. The top players go for $50 or more and then the remainder either cost a few dollars or at most the mid-teens. You see lots of NFL players be "undervalued" because fantasy players simply don't have the budget to bid on them anymore.
The end of most auction drafts starts to resemble the most boring elements of a snake draft where everyone only has enough budget to bid $1 for a player so you have players waiting for their turn to nominate someone for $1 because no one else can enter a bid of $2. Meh. This then has the effect of some players just leaving the draft early and choosing to have the autodraft bot finish their draft for them.
1/4 baked ideas corner
I still believe that auction drafts are a massive improvement over snake drafts but we're at a moment where I'd love to see auction drafts iterate and improve over time.
My quarter baked ideas below:
First – increase auction budgets to a $500 minimum. It should feel psychologically permissible to more easily spend money during a draft. With a $200 budget, it feels too easy to fell like you've spent nearly all your money with two picks. To be clear, I understand how inflation works and players that used to cost $70 with a $200 budget will now cost at least $175 with a $500 budget but there are different dynamics at play when you start with a bit extra cash in your pocket.
Second – implement price floors for players. If fantasy football players entered drafts knowing that they couldn't wait to bid $1 for at least half of their roster, what would change? Take the screenshot above, what would've been different if Matt Stafford, DeVonta Smith, and Brandon Aiyuk (all NFL starters returning to their teams) all had price floors? How would that influence how much money is spent for the top of the draft?
How would we determine a price floor for a player? TBD! You could start with "expert" averages (note: this could be a good value add for why you choose Yahoo! over Sleeper, ESPN, or CBS) and then implement some dynamic pricing based off of aggregate data from other drafts. I'm less worried about the ideal formula and more interested in experimenting with this idea!
Let's stick with this "screenshot" example above. If we look at the results of the 2021-2022 season, DeVonta Smith and Terry McLaurin were both top 15 players (half ppr). In any reasonable world where these players are entering the season healthy, neither one should be "cheap" or "discounted" buys even with new teammates and other changes to their roster.
If we start with the premise to set a player's value based on their prior season (and tbd augmented by expert input and/or wisdom of the crowd), you now have a radically different and hopefully more interesting draft because these players now require an investment to add to your roster.
Third – default to allowing keepers. Fantasy players should be drafting for the upcoming two seasons. Every draft pick should be evaluated as a potential keeper for the next season. I've been in leagues with esoteric keeper rules and I think a superior solution would be to combine the benefits of price floors with keepers!
My initial pitch: you can keep any player you've drafted. Their keeper value should be a formula of their upcoming minimum value plus an escalating "tax" for how many years you've chosen to keep this player. The tax exists to help incentivize more players re-entering the draft pool to keep leagues more fun.
Keepers are incredibly valuable because when your fantasy season turns south (as it inevitable will), it gives you an incentive to still care and cling to a semblance of hope.
What about players picked up off the waivers? My $0.02: you should not be able to keep players taken off the waivers. It almost always winds up diluting the next season's draft and tbh there's no good way to price these players.
This is a rough draft and frankly I'm writing this to just have a link to drop in a few group chats for feedback to improve my own leagues. Hopefully I'll update this post at a later date (tbd) with some early results.