“Hey, this was a great birthday, thanks for all the gifts . . . now leave me alone so I can play with my new Harry Potter Legos and read some Malcolm Gladwell books.”
— Matthew Freedman, April 7, 2017

Not much embarrasses me, although I am embarrassed to say that before this weekend I had never read Gladwell’s Tipping Point. Full disclosure: I still haven’t read all of it — I read slowly — but I’ve read the introduction and about two-and-a-half pages of the first chapter, so I’ve probably read enough to be a world-class expert on the book and maybe even life.

Anyway, this article is about the daily fantasy tipping point.

The Tipping Point: 20 Percent, No More Than 25 Percent

When I was in college and attempting to make females think I was smart by taking them to bookstores on dates — which never happened, by the way — I would frequently see Gladwell’s Tipping Point and, since it was a New York Times bestseller, I would ask the young lady I was with if she’d happened to read it.

When she would answer in the negative, that would give me the opportunity to say that it was about [insert here some topic that sounds incredibly smart, deep, and humanitarian], and then I’d tell her she should read it because it was better than even The Notebook and would change her life forever.

And then we’d make out.

Again, this never actually happened.

Honestly, in college I thought Tipping Point more or less was about how much money waiters made off of their tips. Why not?

Anyway, it turns out that (per Gladwell) . . .

Tipping Point is the biography of an idea, and the idea is very simple. It is that the best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends, the ebb and flow of crime waves, or, for that matter, the transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth, or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.

So that’s what the book is about: The epidemiology of life.

To Gladwell, epidemics have three key characteristics:

  1. Contagiousness
  2. Little causes with large consequences
  3. Rapidity of change

When all three of those factors converge and we get “that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once,” that’s the Tipping Point.

Because I’m a nerd, I’d like to think about the ways in which these three factors apply to DFS, specifically in guaranteed prize pools.

DFS Epidemics

Epidemics are nature’s way of separating not just the strong from the weak but also the anomalous from the usual. When a world-threatening disease breaks out, who are the people who live?

  1. The people with strong immune systems
  2. The people with genetic mutations

In Talebian terms, the people who survive are the robust. The people who thrive are the antifragile.

GPPs are essentially population centers housing the huddled masses of weak lineups ready to be decimated by the Black Swan appearances of slate-wide epidemics. When DFS epidemics break out, the lineups that cash are robust. The lineups that win are unique — mutated — abnormal — which is why it almost always makes sense one way or another to be a DFS contrarian.

Contagiousness

The DFS industry is essentially an echo chamber in which #hottaeks, ideas, and perspectives circulate and take hold on a perpetual slate-to-slate basis. What this means is that, when a player is chalky, he’s often really chalky. (Pro subscribers can look at our DFS Ownership Dashboard to get a sense of what I mean.) Essentially, the logic that drives ownership in most slates is a DFS contagion, and the same players who appear in a disproportionate percentage of lineups are DFS viruses.

When a DFS tipping point is reached and randomness strikes, the weak overexposed lineups infected with the viral chalky players do not survive.

If the opinions of influential people in the industry weren’t so contagious, the situation might be different — but as it is now GPPs are exploitable because too many lineups are weighed down with too many ‘optimal’ plays. This isn’t to say that influential people in the industry shouldn’t share their opinions. I think it’s great when guys as knowledgeable as FantasyLabs Co-Founders Jonathan Bales and Peter Jennings (CSURAM88) share their DFS insights. The problem is not with them or other players who have a lot of influence. The problem lies with the people influenced influenza-ed. Metaphorically, they should be injecting themselves with a vaccination-strength does of toutiness. Instead, they’re taking 100 times as much as they should.

That was a horrible pun partnered with a worse analogy, but you get the idea: GPPs suffer from contagiousness. At a DFS tipping point, a high percentage of them experience an epidemic of dead lineups.

What’s the key to having lineups that aren’t contagious? Develop your own DFS process, do your own research (Pro subscribers find our Trends tool helpful in this regard), create your own Player Models, and construct your own rosters with our Lineup Builder. Basically, use the Labs Tools to discover a portfolio of positive Plus/Minus players who are uniquely yours.

Your risk of catching the DFS contagion is minimal if you decide not to be where others are.

Little Causes With Large Consequences

Epidemics are often caused by small changes in circumstances. For instance, when Gladwell discusses the 1995 syphilis outbreak in Baltimore, he identifies three potential explanations for the epidemic:

  1. The increase in crack cocaine usage
  2. The breakdown of medical services in the city’s poorest neighborhoods
  3. The demolition of particular public housing projects

Significantly, Gladwell says that “what is interesting about these three explanations is that none of them is at all dramatic.” In Baltimore even before 1995 there were issues with crack, medical services, and housing. What caused the syphilis outbreak wasn’t that these factors became problems but that they became slightly bigger problems: “It takes only the smallest changes to shatter an epidemic’s equilibrium.”

In Adam Levitan fashion, Gladwell explains the importance of small changes by talking about his dog:

I remember once as a child seeing our family’s puppy encounter snow for the first time. . . . It wasn’t much colder on the morning of his first snowfall than it had been the evening before. It might have been 34 degrees the previous evening, and now it was 31 degrees. Almost nothing had changed, in other words, yet — and this was the amazing thing — everything had changed. Rain had become something entirely different. Snow!

In DFS, we sometimes dismiss the significance of small changes, but such changes make huge differences in GPPs. In a vacuum, the difference between playing 25 and 26 minutes might not seem substantial for an NBA player — and in any given game it probably isn’t — but in the aggregate that difference is huge . . . and epidemics always take place on large, aggregated scales.

In GPPs, small incremental differences can be deadly, especially when it comes to marginal decreases in opportunity, which is why the gap between the leadoff batter and No. 2 hitter in the same lineup is enormous. Any reduction in point-scoring opportunities — no matter how small it is — can kill GPP lineups. When a pitcher is put on a pitch count, or a quarterback’s team decides to run the ball more, or a goaltender’s defensemen allow fewer shots on goal (and limit his ability to accrue saves), that small change can result in a DFS tipping point.

When a player’s opportunities are diminished just a little his potential to produce a GPP-winning performance is drastically reduced. In GPPs, small changes in opportunity — especially for chalky players — can cause an epidemic.

Rapidity of Change

Epidemics move quickly. If they didn’t, they probably wouldn’t be as fear-inducing as they are. The rapidity with which the epidemic can spread is probably its primary feature. Per Gladwell:

Of the three, the third trait — the idea that epidemics can rise or fall in one dramatic moment — is the most important, because it is the principle that makes sense of the first two and that permits the greatest insight into why modern change happens the way it does.

When the tip occurs, it happens immediately. To borrow from Chinua Achebe borrowing from William Butler Yeats, things don’t just fall apart. They explode apart.

In DFS, rapidity is the key to epidemics. Slow changes don’t impact GPPs much, because the dual markets of salaries and ownership can keep pace with slow changes, but when suddenness strikes GPPs can be dominated by a tipping point.

To this point I’ve talked primarily about the negative repercussions of DFS epidemics — and the characteristic of rapidity is applicable in a deleterious framework — but not every epidemic is bad. Indeed, Gladwell describes the reemergence of Hush Puppies in 1995 and the drop in New York’s crime rate in 1996 as social breakouts. I doubt it’s a coincidence that the word almost everyone uses to describe an unexpected and massively positive athletic performance — “breakout”– is synonymous with “epidemic.”

Often GPP-winning lineups feature players who break out with unexpected performances. Why do these breakouts occur? Usually because a player experiences a sudden increase in opportunity, which DFS platforms and DFS players fail to notice or value appropriately.

An Example: Jay Ajayi

In Week 1 of the 2016 NFL season, Jay Ajayi was inactive for the Dolphins. In Weeks 2-4, he was competing (somewhat unsuccessfully) with Damien Williams and Kenyan Drake for snaps and touches. In Week 5, he emerged, playing 30 snaps (to Williams’ eight and Drake’s seven), earning 81.25 percent of his team’s 16 running back carries, and securing the team’s only goal-line carries, one of which he converted into the team’s only rushing touchdowns.

In Week 5, Ajayi had a sudden change in circumstances, essentially becoming the lead back — but he was still only $5,800 on FanDuel and $3,500 on DraftKings in Week 6, when he was massively ignored by the majority of GPP players.

Of course, in Week 6 Ajayi broke out with a 204-yard, two-touchdown performance (on ‘only’ 73.53 percent of the team’s running back carries). The lineups that rostered him that week benefited immensely from the DFS epidemic that resulted from Ajayi’s rapid increase in opportunity relative to his salary and ownership.

When DFS epidemics occur, they’re often the result of flash misvaluations in the market. If you wait a slate to capitalize on them, you might be too late.

The Tipping Point: Not About Waiters?

If you want to tell me how this book ends, go ahead. I probably won’t finish it.

The Labyrinthian: 2017.34, 129

This is the 129th 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. Previous installments can be accessed via my author page or the series archive.