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Fantasy Football strategy is the most highly debated, yet seldom agreed upon aspects of one of the most popular games in America.

After reading our own Michael Tomlin’s piece on draft strategy, I was very inspired by his views and advice. With the amount of shares and comments on the article, it appears that a lot of Fantasy Football players were also appreciative of his counsel. My philosophy has always been to share my first-hand experiences and showcase what works and hasn’t worked for me. Hopefully I’m able to offer at least one piece of information that can help other players test out my successes or avoid my failures. After reading Tomlin’s article, I asked myself: What can I do to improve my own Fantasy Football strategy and not pigeon-hole myself to preconceived notions and concepts?

I wanted to find a resource that examines the decision-making process and outcomes of those decisions, and fortunately I stumbled upon Game-Changer: Game Theory and the Art of Transforming Strategic Situations. I was sold with the first paragraph of the description.

“A radically new, and easily learned, way to outstrategize your rivals.

“The wise win before they fight, while the ignorant fight to win.” So wrote Zhuge Liang, the great Chinese military strategist. He was referring to battlefield tactics, but the same can be said about any strategic situation. Even seemingly certain defeat can be turned into victory―whether in battle, business or life―by those with the strategic vision to recognize how to “change the game” to their own advantage. The aim of David McAdams’s Game-Changer is nothing less than to empower you with this wisdom―not just to win in every strategic situation (or “game”) you face but to change those games and the ecosystems in which they reside to transform your life and our lives together for the better.”

Preach.

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Fantasy Football and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

I reached a section in the book about the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”, which I unfortunately have to admit that I was ignorant of. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept as well, I will provide a very basic breakdown. Albert W. Tucker is credited with coining the term and how the concept is presented today.

Two individuals are arrested for committing a crime together, but there is not enough evidence to arrest the criminals. Each criminal is placed in a separate room, and the police tell each criminal that they have different choices that will result in different outcomes. You can frame the concept in any amount of time, so I will use the example from Wikipedia.

A. Each criminal remains silent, and each criminal will spend one year in jail.

B. Criminal 1 rats on Criminal 2, but Criminal 2 remains silent. Criminal 1 will be set free. Criminal 2, however, will spend three years in jail. The situation can be reversed with Criminal 2 ratting and Criminal 1 remaining silent.

C. Each criminal rats on each other, and each criminal spends two years in jail.

This shapes a payoff matrix, which is showcased in the book.

Now, all of this falls under the umbrella of game theory, which I am certainly not the first person to study or discuss how it can correlate with Fantasy sports. Jonathan Bales and Kevin Zatloukal have excellent articles on game theory, but I was unable to find any Fantasy sports articles from any source discussing the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the book Game-Changer or the author, Professor David McAdams (Duke Fuqua School of Business).

Connecting Fantasy Football Strategy and Game Theory

How exactly does the Prisoner’s Dilemma have anything to do with Fantasy Football? Just like the choices of the criminals, there is a payoff matrix centered around Fantasy player’s decisions. If you elect to draft running backs in Round 1 and Round 2, in theory, you could have two top-tier backs by the end of the season. The tradeoff, of course, is that you could potentially miss out on top-tier talent at the wide receiver position. If your focus is to draft an elite quarterback in Round 2, your team can benefit from the consistency Aaron Rodgers or Andrew Luck can provide. But, you are also passing on the wide receiver and running back talent pool, which will become more scarce as the draft proceeds.

Those situations may sound relevant to the Prisoner’s Dilemma, but can Fantasy Football actually be tied in with the concept? For any game to be considered as hosting a Prisoner’s Dilemma, Professor McAdams states the following:

1. “Each player has a dominant strategy, a move that maximizes that player’s own payoff regardless of others’ moves. (Each prisoner has a dominant strategy to confess.)”

I think most Fantasy players agree that this condition exists. Of course, timing is also a critical element to consider. If you want to build your team around Marshawn Lynch but he is selected before you can add him, is your dominant strategy ruined? If you look at it from the perspective that you want to draft a running back in Round 1 at all costs, however, and you draft Eddie Lacy, Adrian Peterson or Jamaal Charles if Lynch is off the board, your dominant strategy of drafting a running back in Round 1 is still intact.

The second condition is a little trickier.

2. “All players are worse off when they all play their dominant strategies, compared to when each plays some other strategy. (Both prisoners are worse off when both confess, compared to when neither confesses.)”

There are a significant amount of strategies to not only build a roster but to manage your team successfully though trades, waiver wire additions and streaming options through the season. Fantasy Football strategy encompasses who you are playing against, your ability to identify risk and how active you are with managing your team. While certain strategies and concepts may work in a standard draft, you are in a completely different ball game when you play in a two-quarterback league, a dynasty league or a best ball league. You will have unique decisions to make in every draft you are involved with, so it’s not possible to say that following one concept to the T will win a league.

I do believe, however, that certain strategies are perceived as dominant, and the conditions exist that an entire league can be worse off when people implement what they believe is a dominant strategy. For instance, the running back pool becomes more shallow if you are determined to draft a running back in Rounds 1-2. This forces certain players with the same strategy to make decisions earlier than they would like. An extreme run on the running back position in a draft may force a player who is determined to draft a running back in Round 2 to draft Alfred Morris, although he has an ADP in the middle of Round 3 on FantasyFootballCalculator.com. The player determined to draft a running back in Round 2 will overlook potential value selections at the wide receiver, quarterback and tight end position. If you plan on drafting wide receivers in Rounds 1-3, the talent pool is shrunk and may cause players looking to build a balanced team to select a wide receiver earlier than they planned.

Lessons From the Teacher

Fortunately for me, I was able to get in contact with Professor McAdams, who was very gracious with not only his time but his advice. I was curious if a perceived dominant strategy mimicked the conditions of an actual dominant strategy, and Professor McAdams showcased his teaching abilities by exploring the bigger picture and giving me some food for thought to aid me in reaching my own conclusions.

People can feel threatened when new ideas or concepts are presented, but the game of Fantasy Football is an ever-evolving beast that requires continuous study of its mutations. Experienced players wouldn’t even touch rookie wide receivers a few years ago, but now look at how Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans have shifted perceptions in such a short time. As I expand my understanding of game theory, the Prisoner’s Dilemma and Professor McAdams’ work, my goal is once again to provide first-hand experiences of how game-theory concepts can be implemented, utilized and traps Fantasy players should avoid for the 2015 season.

I encourage everyone to familiarize themselves with Professor McAdams’ work. You can read his insightful article on Time.com “NFL Coaches Are Too Chicken for Their Own Good“, and visit the website to accompany the book Game-Changers which houses his blog and The Game-Changer Files.

 

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Jack Delaney

Jack's love of craft beer and gangster rap is only surpassed by his love of pass-catching running backs. He was a top-40 finisher and $1,500 prize winner for the 2014 RotoBowl, a top-50 finisher in the 2015 Mock Draft Online Championships, finished first in draft accuracy for quarterback rankings in 2015 on Fantasy Pros, and was a contributor to the 2015 and 2016 The Fantasy Football Guide.
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