This is the 154th installment of The Labyrinthian, a series dedicated to exploring random fields of knowledge in order to give you unordinary theoretical, philosophical, strategic, and/or often rambling guidance on daily fantasy sports. Consult the introductory piece to the series for further explanation.

A few days ago, the first American Pie movie turned 18 years old. [Insert here suggestive age-related joke that would make Matthew McConaughey blush and/or say, “Alright, alright, alright.”] I haven’t seen this movie in maybe 10 years — but I still have way too much of it committed to memory.

Here’s one of my favorite scenes:

There are so many great snippets of dialogue in that clip:

  • “Jim, I want to talk about masturbation.”
  • “I never did it with baked goods.”
  • “It’s like, um, practice for the big game.”
  • “It’s like, uh, banging a tennis ball against a brick wall — which can be fun; it can be fun — but it’s not a game. It’s not a game.”
  • “Do you want a partner?” “Yeah. Yeah, yeah, I want a partner.” “You do want a partner?” “Oh, I, I want, I want a partner. I want a partner. Of course.”

I realize I basically just wrote out the entire scene in bullet points, but whatever.

Here’s why I’m bringing this up: The daily fantasy sports site DRAFT has recently started offering season-long best ball leagues for the 2017 NFL season. These draft-only leagues are fun, and lots of people are starting to try out the best ball format — you should check out our articles on the top 100 players and 10 pivot plays — but I think it’s important that we think about best ball in the proper context.

For serious DFS players, participating in a best ball league is like banging a tennis ball against a brick wall. It can be fun — but it’s basically just practice for the big game.

Everybody Needs Practice

I just spent about 10 minutes watching Allen Iverson’s May 7, 2002, “We talkin’ ’bout practice” rant. Yeah, we’re in here talking about practice.

When I say that best ball is basically practice for DFS, I don’t mean that as an insult. Everyone needs practice. Just like winter, the NFL regular season is coming. We’re about a week away from the start of training camp. If you’re not thinking about the NFL right now, you’re already losing to your competition.

The earliest weeks of the NFL season are the best. In general, they offer the most profit potential of any period of time in DFS. Why is that the case?

  • There are more players (and more new players) at the beginning of the NFL season than later in the year. DFS has gotten tougher since our site launched in June 2015 — which is why everyone should subscribe to FantasyLabs (#NailedIt) — so there’s not really ‘soft money’ anymore . . . but the money tends to be the softest within the first month of the season. Being in playing shape right when the season starts yields the most positive expected value.
  • Additionally, there’s the most uncertainty in player situation and ability at the beginning of the season — especially for rookies and players on new teams or with new coaching staffs — and DFS uncertainty can lead to profitability. If a player is to be drastically mispriced at some point of the season and provide a world of Plus/Minus value, it’s likeliest to happen when the season is young. For instance, there are some promising mid-round rookies (and late-round first-year players) who have the potential to emerge as fantasy contributors this year. The time to capitalize on them is early in the season — before they’ve broken out and experienced salary escalation.

Basically, the time of the NFL season to be your best is at the beginning. That’s when being your best is most profitable.

And drafting in best ball leagues before the season starts can help you prepare for DFS. They’re sort of like glorified mock drafts in terms of how they can be used — except people take them seriously because there’s money on the line. (There’s nothing like having skin in the game.) There are multiple benefits to doing best ball drafts in anticipation of DFS: It forces you to research NFL players before the season starts. It encourages you to open up our NFL Trends tool and DFS Ownership Dashboard and find exploitable patterns. It prompts you to explore our NFL Models and create some models of your own. Playing best ball helps you start thinking about football again.

On top of that, participating in offseason drafts give you a sense of the NFL fantasy marketplace. Best ball players as a cohort tend to be sharp — these are people degenerate enough to grind NFL contests for money in the ‘offseason’ (there is no offseason) — so playing best ball can give you a sense of not only what sharp players are thinking in terms of player valuation but also what early-season sentiment on exploitable players might be. By participating in best ball drafts, you immerse yourself in the NFL market and begin to get a sense for what the market might look like in the early weeks of the regular season.

So basically playing best ball is about working your NFL evaluative muscles into shape before the season starts and gaining an appreciation for how the market of hardcore degenerates values players.

But here’s what best ball is not about: Money.

Don’t Confuse Practice With the Game

Years ago in some old RotoViz email thread Fantasy Douche said something like, “Oh really? I thought best ball leagues were for people whose collective winnings would barely buy them a plasma TV.” I don’t remember the context — I think he was responding to someone who said that the best ball marketplace is hyper efficient because money is at stake — but what stuck with me was the big point Douche was making: Best ball leagues aren’t really about money.

It’s nice that they have money attached to them, because skin in the game is good and the opportunity to earn money on one’s ability is always welcome — but best ball leagues are not about the money. DFS is an investment — or at least it can be if you are serious about it and have a process that isn’t awful. Best ball, however, is just a game in which some small amounts of money change hands.

Again, I don’t mean to diminish what best ball is. It’s a great offseason opportunity for serious fantasy players to stay on top of their NFL game. But it’s not going to make people rich, even if they happen to play in some of the few high-stakes best ball offerings available at DRAFT. Nevertheless, there are people who act as if best ball is the fantasy be-all and end-all. It’s not. Although I think that the head-to-head best ball league is the greatest seasonal format of all time, best ball doesn’t compare with DFS — and it really won’t whenever seasonal DFS leagues eventually come into vogue.

When I say that best ball isn’t about money, here’s why. Let’s say that you play in a number of 10-person DRAFT best ball leagues that each have a $10 entry and each have $90 in prizes: $45 to first, $27 to second, and $18 to third. Let’s say that you play in 10 of these leagues and are an exceptional player: You win two of them, finish second in two more, and place third in a fifth league. That 50 percent cash rate is unbelievable and totally unrealistic, but whatever. For the purposes of this example, you’re a fantasy gawd. So how did you do on that $100 investment?

  • x = (2 * $45) + (2 * $27) + (1 * $18)
  • x = $162

Congratulations. In July and August you put $100 into 10 best ball leagues. You wait an entire NFL season. And then in January 2018 you get $162 — again, on an unsustainable 50 percent cash rate: A measly 62 percent return on investment despite having perhaps one of the greatest fantasy seasons of all time.

Best Ball Is Not About Money

Best ball is not about money — at least not in the way that DFS is — because of a few factors:

  1. Time Delay: Whereas NFL DFS presents you with multiple opportunities (slates) each week, thereby enabling you to accumulate and reinvest money rapidly across a series of investments, best ball locks up your money for six to 10 months. Playing DFS is like investing in a freely exchangeable stock. Your time horizon is short. Playing best ball is like owning a non-transferable long-term speculative note. You have to wait forever to get your money back — and the ‘interest’ earned on the principal is never as exciting as you’d think it would be.
  2. Scalability: NFL DFS is scalable. If one is skilled enough at it, one can grind out a living playing the game. In DFS, it’s possible to enter enough contests, put enough money into play, and win enough money per contest to earn a livable income over an extended period of time. In best ball, it’s not possible. Best ball doesn’t offer enough contests, enough high-stakes contests, and enough monetary upside per contest to make it a livable game. For instance, in some guaranteed prize pools the winner receives 50,000x the entry fee. Even though best ball is similar to a GPP with its all-field format, the most a best ball winner is likely to receive is 10x (maybe 12x) the entry fee. Best ball is simply not scalable the way DFS is.
  3. Structural Exploitability: There’s little (if anything) in best ball leagues that inherently gives players an edge or increases their odds of winning money. In DFS, though, it’s possible to gain fairly easy edges because of how the game is organized. For instance, in GPPs it’s possible for you to take advantage of overlays or to exploit the predictable field with a contrarian ownership strategy. It’s possible to benefit from players who have high Bargain Ratings because they are underpriced by a site. It’s possible to construct unique lineups through the way you deploy players with dual eligibility or use the flex position. There are lots of ways to find edges in DFS because of how the game is structured.  In best ball, that’s not so much the case.

So basically I’m saying that best ball is an inferior, less lucrative, less timely version of DFS. That might sound horrible, but it isn’t — as long as you’re not playing best ball for the money.

Best Ball Is All About the Money

OK, I lied. You should play best ball because of the money — the DFS money. I love best ball. It’s a low-maintenance format that demands absolutely nothing from us during the season. In that regard, it’s the perfect complement to DFS. But if you’re a serious fantasy gamer then you play best ball not because you love it. You play best ball because it helps you win DFS money later in the year.

So sign up for as many best ball leagues as you can, obsess over the projections and valuations of every player in the NFL universe, and celebrate the fact that the season — not to mention NFL pre$ea$on DF$ — is just around the corner.

But don’t forget what best ball is really about. It’s about DFS.

We talkin’ ’bout practice.

Start practicing.


The Labyrinthian: 2017.59, 154

Previous installments can be accessed via my author page or the series archive.