Should I play daily fantasy sports (DFS)?

Dear Sports Fan,

Yesterday you wrote a post explaining how daily fantasy sports work. Thanks! My question is, should I play daily fantasy sports (DFS)? I love fantasy football, so it seems tempting.

Fred (who isn’t me just lobbing a question back at myself. No, really)

Dear Fred,

No. You should not play daily fantasy sports (DFS).

Daily fantasy sports are a hot topic these days. If you watched football at all during the first weekend of the NFL season, you were inundated by ads for the two major daily fantasy sports companies, DraftKings and FanDuel. The two spent more than $27 million combined on television advertising during that period! In the days following that media blitz, there’s been a quick backlash against the industry. This wave was led by Joshua Brustein and Ira Boudway of Bloomberg Business, whose article, You Aren’t Good Enough to Win Money Playing Daily Fantasy Football described a landscape full of predatory professional gamblers armed with advanced statistics and personally designed spreadsheets. Their well researched and convincing argument was picked up by a horde of other newspapers and blogs, all quick to jump on the bandwagon and point out to their readers that they shouldn’t play daily fantasy sports because they won’t win. It was an important article, because it pierced through the advertising campaigns that suggest easy money is just around the corner. But, with apologies to Brustein and Boudway and the many people who agree with them, they are missing the point when it comes to deciding whether or not you should play. Gambling can be fun, as long as you don’t risk more than you can afford to lose. Long odds are not a sufficient argument against daily fantasy sports. The reason why you shouldn’t play daily fantasy sports isn’t because you’re almost certain to lose money, it’s because it’s not fun.

Daily fantasy football takes virtually every element of traditional fantasy football that’s fun and strips it from the game.

  • In traditional fantasy football, you play against your friends. Last weekend I beat my friend Brian in our fantasy league. This weekend, I face a tough game against my friend and old boss, Jack. In my only foray into daily fantasy sports, I came in 158,247 place out of 331,428 entries in a contest for $100,000. Who won? I have no idea, but it certainly didn’t contribute to any friendships. Traditional fantasy football leagues provide a way for distant friends to stay connected and close friends to get even closer.
  • Traditional fantasy football creates lasting ties to players. One of the arguments against getting involved in traditional fantasy football is that it changes a fan’s focus from their favorite team to the set of players who are on their team. Daily fantasy goes even farther in divorcing your rooting interest from the sport itself. In daily fantasy sports, you pick players for your team and discard them the next day. There’s no time to build lasting affection, like I have for some players who I’ve had for full seasons or more on my traditional fantasy team. For example, I might not know that Brandon Marshall is a mental health advocate if I hadn’t been following him carefully because he was on my fantasy team. Daily fantasy sports wouldn’t inspire me to celebrate when one of the young players who I’ve stashed on my bench for weeks gets an opportunity in the starting lineup or feel sad when an elder statesman loses his job.
  • Traditional fantasy sports encourages interaction between people and teaches basic negotiating skills. In a traditional fantasy league, if you want to improve your team during a season, you need to trade with another owner in your league. You need to look at her team and think about what she needs compared to what you need. Most trades happen when one person identifies something the other person needs and offers it to them for something they have a surplus of. It’s not about tricking the other person, it’s about analysis and negotiation. Daily fantasy sports are between you and your computer and that’s it.

So yes, you shouldn’t play fantasy sports because it’s a money pit, but so is taking up ice hockey, owning a boat, or having kids. At least those three things are fun!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How does DFS or daily fantasy sports football work?

Dear Sports Fan,

I keep seeing ads for DraftKings and FanDuel, two daily fantasy sports (DFS) websites. How does DFS or Daily Fantasy Sports football work?


Dear Ted,

In the football version of daily fantasy sports also known by its abbreviation, DFS, your job is to predict the combination of real world football players who are going to generate the best statistics in the coming week of games.

You are given a set amount of fake money to build your team with. In DraftKings, this is $50,000. In FanDuel, it’s $60,000. (I have half a mind to set up a competitive DFS site called CamelCaps.) The websites set fictional prices for each real-life NFL football player each week depending on how well they think those players are likely to do. A very well-regarded player in what looks like an easy matchup will be on the expensive end of the spectrum. A relatively unknown player or an unexciting player facing a difficult opposition will be on the cheaper side. Your job is to select nine NFL players (really eight players and one team’s defense) whose cumulative salary is less than or equal to the fictional pot of money you begin with.

Then, you sit back and watch the weekend’s NFL games play out. Just like in traditional fantasy football, your success as a fantasy owner corresponds directly to the success of the real players in their real games that you’ve selected to be a part of your imaginary team. At the end of the weekend, the imaginary team that has accumulated the most points from their players’ real-life performances, wins.

How is daily fantasy sports different from traditional fantasy sports?

If you want a primer on how traditional fantasy football works, read our post on the subject.

One key difference between traditional fantasy sports and daily fantasy sports is that in the daily game, your selections have no bearing on anyone else’s. If everyone in the world decided they wanted Eli Manning on their roster one weekend, they could all have him. In traditional fantasy sports, once a player has been selected by an owner, he is unavailable to everyone else. Traditional fantasy sports are a zero sum game. Daily are not.

This non-zero-sum nature enables DFS to involve far more people than a traditional fantasy league. By the time you’ve reached 14 to 16 people in a traditional league, it gets very difficult to find players who generate enough statistics to be worth using on your team. Think you know football pretty well? Talk to some 16 team (or deep) fantasy football owners and see how many of them are conversant with the fourth wide receiver on each of the 32 NFL teams! In DFS, your choice to have Eddie Lacy on your team doesn’t inhibit my choice to put him on my team, so there’s no upper limit to the number of owners who can compete against one another. Indeed, the competitions we hear the most about in television commercials – the ones that “guarantee a prize” of over a million dollars – have tens of thousands of teams competing directly for that prize. Notice the word “team” instead of person. In a traditional fantasy league, those two terms should be synonymous. In DFS, a single person is allowed up to 500 teams or entries in a single contest.

This brings us to the final key difference between traditional and daily fantasy sports – the stakes and the presence of professionals. Traditional fantasy sports are a bad bet for professional gamblers. First of all, they take a long time to pay out. Compared to a bet on a single game, which will pay out within hours of the game ending, tying your capital up in a proposition that will take 16 weeks (for football and longer for other sports) is virtually a non-starter for someone who wants to use their money to make more money. It’s just too slow. Daily fantasy sports speed up the process so that it is more attractive for professional gamblers. Likewise, the amount of money involved is much higher. Many traditional fantasy leagues have each owner risking $100 for the season. That may seem like a lot, and certainly winning $500 to $1,000 if you win a league is no joke, but spread out over the whole season, that’s only $6.25 a week. That’s less than going out to a movie! That’s less than just the popcorn at some movie theaters. Daily fantasy sports, with its multiple entries per contest and many potential contests per week, facilitate much higher stakes.