Fantasy Football 101 Beginner’s Guide – How It Works

History of Fantasy Football

Oakland RaidersIt all started in a room at the Manhattan Hotel in 1962 where three Oakland Raiders fans sat bemused by their team’s horrendous stretch of play – the team had only won three games in two years. Wilfred “Bill the Gill” Winkenbach, a limited partner in the team, Bill Tunnel, a public relations staffer, and Scotty Stirling, a Tribune reporter, had traveled cross-country to watch their team play. They founded the GOPPPL (Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League) that night and kicked off what would become an obsession for so many diehard football fans. The GOPPPL had its first draft in 1963 at Winkenbach’s Oakland home with eight members who were professionally involved in the AFL in some way. The team owners drafted players and tracked statistics in live games, but due to the time-consuming nature of the game (there were no quick-scoring apps or Twitter updates back then), it took a long time to pick up national recognition.

In 1989, the first national fantasy football competition took place – the Pigskin Playoff. This was the foundation for future Daily Fantasy Sports (more on that later) as it allowed significant numbers of players to participate across the country. In 1997, CBS launched the beta for the first publicly available free fantasy football website. Due to the massive success CBS had, all major sports media websites offered their own fantasy football platforms within the next three years. In 2010, the NFL released its own version of fantasy football hosted on the NFL.com website, which helped drive the growth of the game. Fantasy football is now the most important marketing tool for the NFL. Over time, fantasy football analysts like ESPN’s Matthew Berry have become mainstream media figures and a sitcom called the League, based on a fantasy football league was created in 2009. When DirecTV introduced Red Zone, which showcased every scoring play on every Sunday, the ultimate football fan’s paradise was created.

FanDuel was responsible for the next stage of innovation in fantasy football with the widespread introduction of Daily Fantasy Football (DFS), allowing fantasy players to create a new team every week and win millions of dollars in cash prizes. By 2015, FanDuel had over one million paid active users. Now, fantasy football is a global phenomenon with about 50 million players in the United States alone in 2019 per the Fantasy Sports & Gaming Association. Between countless platforms, scoring systems, and ways to play, the game of fantasy football has become a massive industry. Millions of football fans all over the world spend all day on Sundays watching Red Zone, celebrating when players they’ve never met score touchdowns, and screaming at the TV when players on opposing teams score. Fantasy football had a humble beginning with Bill “The Gill” Winkenbach, but never in his wildest dreams would it become a multi-billion dollar industry as it has.

Drafting

The fantasy football season kicks off on draft day, which is the best day of the year for so many people (myself included). There are a variety of methods to determine which players will end up on which teams.

snakedraft

Standard Draft: Each player takes turns selecting NFL players to fill their fantasy roster, with each player only able to be drafted once. The players who are drafted are kept by the teams for the entirety of the season unless their owner decides to drop or trade them (more on that later). In the majority of fantasy football drafts, a snake or serpentine format is used in which the individual with the first pick in the first round then has the last pick in the second round and the first pick in the third round, and so on.

Auction Draft: Auction drafts have also gained significant popularity in recent years and have become the preferred format for many leagues. An auction draft allows for any player to end up with any player, with draft positioning, not a factor. Team owners have a certain allocated amount of money (usually $100 or $200) and take turns bidding on players, with the winning bid earning the right to own that player in that season. Whatever amount of money the winning team bid on the player will be deducted from their budget for the remainder of the auction draft. A handful of leagues will use a hybrid of the serpentine and auction draft styles.

Drafts can be completed in a live or auto-format, but most leagues choose to have live drafts as it requires more skill from the team owners. Previously, all fantasy football drafts would be completed in-person, but with the rise of the Internet, drafts can be completed from any location. Some leagues still make their live, in-person draft a massive occasion with team owners traveling cross-country to participate in extravagant locations.

League Formats

head to head
Head-to-Head Leagues: This is the most common format for fantasy football leagues, in which a fantasy team in the league will match up against a different fantasy team in the league every week, similar to what actually happens in the NFL. The team that receives more points among the two rosters in the matchup will receive a win on their record for the particular week. Teams with the best win-loss record at the end of the league’s designated regular season will advance to the playoffs, with tiebreakers being determined by league settings.

Rotisserie Leagues: This is similar to head-to-head leagues in that you still draft a team full of players and are able to make transactions all season long, but instead of playing a specific opponent each week you score points each week that accumulate over the course of the season. The highest-scoring teams on the season overall will then make the playoffs. This is likely a more fair format for fantasy football, but it removes some of the excitement of matching up with your league mates each week – this provides the competitiveness which makes fantasy football fun.

Best Ball Leagues: This is an increasingly popular fantasy football format and can be utilized in head-to-head or rotisserie formats. Essentially, best-ball leagues remove the difficulty of weekly roster management (trades, waiver wire, setting lineup, etc.). Each team participates in a draft at the outset of the season and selects a team of players which usually includes more roster spots than a typical league would. Each week, a team’s scoring is calculated by the best possible lineup out of the team’s entire roster, regardless of who was designated a “starter”.

Dynasty Leagues: These leagues are much longer-term than the typical redraft league and begin with an initial startup draft, which allocates players to teams who then remain on the team for as long as the league is in place. Prior to each ensuing season, there is a rookie draft with all of the players new to the NFL. Trades take place as normal, but with players remaining on the roster they are traded to indefinitely.

Keeper Leagues: These leagues are a hybrid between the typical “redraft” league and dynasty leagues as described above. In keeper leagues, each team can designate a set number of players as keepers from their roster in the prior season who they would like to remain on their roster for the upcoming season. Keepers often cover a set cost, such as a loss of the draft pick they were previously drafted within the upcoming draft. Outside of the handful of players designated as keepers, the rest of the league selects their players in a normal draft.

Individual Defensive Player (IDP) Leagues: IDP leagues are designed for more committed fantasy players and aren’t for everyone due to the complex scoring rules and time-intensive roster management. IDP can be an addition to any of the types of leagues above and is often well-paired with dynasty formats. Owners will draft defensive linemen (defensive tackles defensive ends), linebackers (middle/outside), and defensive backs (cornerbacks and safeties) to their teams, in addition to the traditional offensive positions.

Positions

roster

Quarterback: The quarterback is the player who leads the offense and throws the ball to his receivers. It is increasingly common for quarterbacks to also run the ball, which can be a significant boost to fantasy football value. Lamar Jackson is an excellent example as he essentially resembles a quarterback AND running back in one player for fantasy purposes. Quarterbacks mostly receive points for passing yards and touchdowns but can also receive points for rushing production as well.

Running Back: The running back is the player who receives the handoffs from the quarterback in the backfield and carries the ball upfield. Running backs are also increasingly involved in the passing game and will receive points for receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns in addition to rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. Due to the dropoff at the position, many fantasy owners opt to spend the beginning of their draft loading up at running back before moving on to other positions.

Wide Receivers: The wide receiver is the player who catches the most passes from the quarterback and is the most involved in the passing game overall. There are a variety of types of wide receivers – deep threats who catch long touchdowns, slot receivers who see a ton of targets, and big-bodied possession receivers who pick up chunk yardage, to name a few. The commonality among all of them is they receive points for receptions (in 0.5 point PPR/PPR formats), receiving yards, and touchdowns.

Tight Ends: The tight end is almost always bigger than the wide receivers he plays alongside and takes on more of a role in the middle of the field, although the talent at the position is increasing and there are more do-it-all tight ends than ever before. Tight ends are traditionally heavily involved in run-blocking, as well, and don’t score nearly as many fantasy points as running backs or wide receivers.

Roster Breakdowns

Standard: In a traditional fantasy football league, each team’s starting lineup will consist of one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, one tight end, and one or more flex players. Any position out of RB/WR/TE can be inserted into the flex spot(s). Each team usually has a handful of bench spots as well.

2-Quarterback: This 2-Quarterback (2QB) leagues operate very similarly to standard leagues except, as the name suggests, each team is allowed to start two quarterbacks instead of one. This makes the quarterback position more valuable than it would be in a standard league.

Superflex: Superflex leagues are a hybrid between standard leagues and 2QB leagues in which any player can be placed into the team’s starting flex spot, including quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, or tight ends.

IDP: IDP leagues can operate in conjunction with any of the above roster layouts, but in addition, each team will start a set number of IDP players. The most typical layout is to have two starting defensive linemen (DL), two starting linebackers (LB), and two starting defensive backs (DB), as well as a set number of IDP flex positions.

Scoring Formats

Offensive Scoring

  • 1 point per 25 passing yards
  • 4 points per passing touchdown (sometimes 6 points)
  • 1 point per 10 passing yards
  • -2 points per interception
  • -2 points per fumble lost
  • 1 point per 10 rushing yards
  • 6 points per rushing touchdown
  • 1 point per reception (PPR leagues); 1/2 point per reception (Half-Point PPR leagues)
  • 1 point per 10 yards receiving
  • 6 points per receiving touchdown

Kicker Scoring

  • 1 point per point after try (PAT) converted
  • -2 points per PAT missed
  • 3 points for field goal converted from 17-39 yards
  • 4 points for field goal converted from 40-49 yards
  • 5 points for field goal converted from 50-59 yards
  • 6 points for field goal converted from 60+ yards
  • -2 points for field goal missed

Defense & Special Teams (DST) Scoring

  • 2 points for a blocked kick
  • 2 points for a safety
  • 1 point for a forced fumble
  • 1 point for a fumble recovery
  • 2 points for an interception
  • 1 point for a sack
  • 6 points for defense/special teams touchdown
  • 10 points for defense allowing 0 points
  • 8 points for defense allowing 1-6 points
  • 6 points for defense allowing 7-13 points
  • 2 points for defense allowing 14-20 points
  • 1 point for defense allowing 21-27 points
  • 0 points for defense allowing 28-34 points
  • -2 points for defense allowing 35-41 points
  • -4 points for defense allowing 42+ points

Individual Defensive Player (IDP) Scoring

  • 1 point for a tackle
  • 0.5 points for an assisted tackle
  • 2 points for a sack
  • 1 point per 10 yards of lost sack yardage
  • 1 point for a tackle for loss
  • 1 point for a quarterback hit
  • 1 point for a pass defended
  • 3 points for an interception
  • 3 points for a forced fumble
  • 3 points for a recovered fumble
  • 6 points for a defensive touchdown
  • 2 points for a 2-point conversion return

Gameplay

championshipThe season starts with the draft in which each team owner takes turn selecting the players they want on their roster for the season. In dynasty leagues, the rookie draft replaces this in which all of the recently drafted NFL players are selected to teams. See more on drafting above. Once the team rosters are set, the season can begin. Each week every team owner is responsible for setting their lineup with active players and will look to maximize their lineup based on talent, opportunity, and matchups. The only league format where owners are not responsible for setting their lineups is best ball (see above). In a given matchup (or an overall week, depending on league format) the fantasy football team owner will accumulate points for the players who are active in their lineup. In head-to-head leagues (the majority of leagues), a team is awarded with a win for the season standings if they outscore their opponent in any particular week. Most head-to-head leagues have some form of playoffs in which the most successful teams from the season qualify for the postseason and can compete to win the league. It’s important to note that the fantasy playoffs take place somewhere between Week 13 and Week 17 and aren’t typically in conjunction with the actual NFL playoffs.

Waiver Wire/Free Agency

ito smithAt the beginning of the season, each player who was not drafted to an active roster will be placed in the league’s free agency pool where they can be claimed if a team owner would like to drop one of their current players. In the majority of leagues, there is some kind of a waiver wire system to determine which teams get the first right to the best available players. There are two main ways the waiver wire is run. The first, and likely most common, is based on the inverse order of the standings. The lowest-placed team (based on win-loss record or total points, depending on league settings) gets the first right to make a claim on the player they want, with the rest of the players moving down the list in a fixed order. The other way that waiver wires can be run, and my personally preferred method, is with a Free Agency Acquisition Budget (FAAB). Each team gets a certain amount of money at the beginning of the season ($100 or $200, but it’s irrelevant what the starting amount is) and can bid on players throughout the season. Whichever team places the biggest bid on a particular available player will earn the right to have that player on their roster. This is a blind bidding process so teams cannot see what other teams have bid on a player.

Trades

tradeIn addition to waiver wire bidding, most leagues allow players to be traded from team-to-team like what actually happens in the NFL. In dynasty formats, team owners can also include future draft picks in any trade proposal. Most leagues have a trade approval system, either the league’s member voting on the validity of the trade or the league’s commissioner approving or vetoing the trade. Most leagues also have a trade deadline, usually around Week 11 or Week 12, which prevents losing teams from shipping all of their good players to winning teams in such a way that promotes unfair collusion and competitive imbalance. Any position can be traded for any other position, but fantasy owners are responsible for ensuring they can still field a full starting lineup after making any trade.

League Platforms

yahoo fantasy sportsAs fantasy football has blossomed into a billion-dollar industry, various websites have pushed through tons of innovation to compete for users each season. Each platform has various pros and cons, but the most commonly used platforms are the ones provided by national sports media corporations like ESPN, CBS, Yahoo, and the NFL itself. All of these platforms offer a website as well as a streamlined app where team owners can access their lineup and matchup information. However, there are plenty of third-party apps that have grown in size and popularity in recent years. These platforms often offer additional customizability and flexibility, as well as the benefit of being entirely devoted to fantasy football. Some of the best examples of this are the Sleeper app, Fantrax, and MyFantasyLeague.

Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS)

draftkings mobile app icon

One of the fastest-growing facets of fantasy football has been through Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS) platforms that allow players to easily draft a new team every week without any long-term commitment. With our society increasingly favoring instant gratification above all else, it’s no wonder platforms that allows users to win millions of dollars in cash prizes with quickly-created fantasy football lineups have seen massive growth in popularity. The most commonly used DFS platforms at the moment are FanDuel and DraftKings, with FanDuel credited with the beginning of the DFS revolution and DraftKings surpassing them in overall usage. In addition to these two giants, there are a few smaller companies gaining traction in the industry such as MonkeyKnifeFight, DRAFT.com, FantasyDraft, and others. Some of the giants in the fantasy sports industry are entering the DFS arena, as well. Yahoo has already done so and ESPN is considering a move into that market. DFS football typically follows the 0.5 or full point PPR scoring format, with IDP setups being pretty rare at the moment.

FAQ

What is the difference between PPR, Half PPR, and standard leagues?

PPR (point per reception) scoring is becoming increasingly popular in fantasy football. In PPR leagues, as the name suggests, all players earn an additional point for each reception they have in addition to typical standard scoring (see above). In half-point PPR leagues, players earn 0.5 points for a reception.

Where can I find a great league?

The best way to ensure you are playing in a fun league is to participate with friends who you know are football fans. If this isnít possible, itís advisable to find league-mates online somewhere like Twitter or Reddit ñ some way to vet your leaguemates to ensure their commitment.

How do I make sure my league-mates are involved all year?

The best way to do this is to create a centralized communication platform where league members are constantly trash-talking ñ GroupMe or other social media platforms can be great for this. Weekly prizes, newsletters, or video conferences can be great tools for involvement as well.

What is the best setup for a redraft league?

I believe the most tried and true way to set up a redraft league is the following: 12 teams (or smaller), 1/2 point PPR, starting lineup with the following ñ 1 QB, 2 RBs, 2 WRs, 1 TE, 1 FLEX, 1 K, 1 DST, 5 bench spots, 1 IR (injured reserve).

What is the best scoring/matchup system for fantasy football?

The most fun way to play fantasy football is in a head-to-head format. Although this creates some unlucky scenarios for owners, itís the most fun to be matched up with a different friend each week. Also, make sure your league is using fractional scoring.

How many keepers should each team be allowed to keep in a keeper league?

In most keeper leagues I find that the best number of players to allow teams to keep from year to year is two or three. Any more than that, and the draft will not be nearly as fun as none of the best players will be available.

What day of the week should the waivers process?

The fairest way to handle waiver wires is to process them every day. Most leagues have waivers process once a week, but if news breaks after waiver day then it becomes a competition between who can get to their phone the fastest to pick up the new player.

  
There are few things I love more in this world than the sweet glory of fantasy football. It's a year round sport and championships are won and lost well before the draft. When I was 15 I put together my first fantasy league and I was hooked for life.

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