You might have witnessed something like this: you go over to your buddy’s to catch a game. He’s an Eagles fan and they’re playing the Patriots. The hype is too real. Then, Tom Brady throws a touchdown pass and… your buddy cheers. What the heck? Your buddy turns to you and says, “I want the final score to be 60-54 for the Eagles with Brady throwing 5 touchdown passes.”
Welcome to fantasy football, where you will find yourself actively cheering against your favorite team for the benefit of your fantasy team.
Chances are, if you have watched any football, you have probably heard of fantasy football. But the industry has been growing for the better part of a decade now, and it can be quite intimidating to just jump into something that many people are already intimately familiar with.
Luckily, Gamedayr is here to help you learn how to play fantasy football and hit the gridiron running.
Resources You Need To Follow This Article
Fantasy Football Sites
Daily Fantasy Football Sites
- Draft fantasy
Premium advice sites & tools: Draftdashboard, Rotogrinders
How to Play Fantasy Football (Step By Step)
I’ve delineated the steps on how to play fantasy football below.
Step 1: Pick A League
Paid vs. Free Leagues
There are plenty of places to find fantasy football leagues all across the internet, though there are some differences in the kinds of leagues you will find.
Take, for example, free fantasy leagues, which are often commissioned by major companies like Yahoo, ESPN and NFL.com.
All of these free leagues are managed directly by the website, and typically use standard scoring and positions. All you have to do is create an account, hop into one of the public leagues offered by the site, and they will find people for you to play with.
Moreover, all of these free-to-play sites also offer the ability to create your own league, where you take the title of League Manager and set up your private league to play with your family and friends.
Paid sites, such as myffpc.com and nfc.shgn.com, work in the same way, except their leagues have buy-in fees – usually between $100 to $150 USD.
The way these paid sites work is that the top 2 or top 5 win a prize – which can be anywhere between $200 to $100, 000. Yes, you read that right. One-hundred-thousand dollars. Pretty crazy, right?
Season-Long vs. Daily Fantasy vs. Dynasty
Season-long fantasy football is exactly what it sounds: fantasy football stretched out over the course of the season. Most season-long fantasy teams consist of one quarterback, two running backs, three wide receivers, one tight end, one kicker and one defense as your starting roster. Often, one of the three wide receiver positions will be a “flex” pick, where you can substitute a running back for a wide receiver.
Furthermore, the season-long format works by having your fantasy team go head-to-head with other fantasy teams, where you accumulate points based on your team’s real in-game production.
The scoring rules vary per league, but standard rules give 1 point per ten yards, and 6 points for every touchdown. Some leagues also designate points for receptions. That is why running backs are so highly touted in fantasy football, because the “work-horse” backs are rare but can net you some consistent, solid production.
Daily Fantasy, on the other hand, has you selecting players at different positions, and these selections only carry through the day’s slate of games. For example, if you think Wentz will light up the Cowboys, you might select him for that given Sunday. Come next Sunday, you might not think Wentz is viable and can select a different quarterback.
If you watch any football, you have probably already seen the commercials for DraftKings and FanDuels. These are the two largest DFS (Daily Fantasy Sports) providers around.
The point with DFS is to pick the best individual players who will score you the most points on that particular day. If Aaron Rodgers is playing against the Ravens defense, you might consider picking an inferior quarterback like Andy Dalton to pile on some points against a more porous defense, even if Rodgers is objectively better than Andy Dalton.
In a season-long setting, matchups play a little less of a factor when selecting/drafting your team. You want players who will net you the most and consistent amount of points over the course of the NFL season, which is long, arduous, and completely unpredictable.
As an example, consider: If Player A and Player B both net 300 fantasy points over the course of the season, but Player A gets almost all of his points in two or three games, while Player B spreads his over 16 games, then in a Daily format, you’d be best advised to select Player A, whereas in a season-format, Player B looks more attractive.
Then, there is the Dynasty format, which is simply a league where you retain your players from year to year. We’ll talk more about the scoring format down below.
Private vs Public
The difference between private and public fantasy leagues is simply that one offers the choice to play in a league with other people from the internet while the other is mostly for friends and family.
In a public format, the league randomly selects your draft position and the majority of public leagues are free to play. This is particularly nice for those who just want to play fantasy for fun, avoiding all the stress of losing money and keeping on top of everything.
A private league, meanwhile, usually but not always has a buy-in, and since you need an invitation code to join one, the players in the league typically know each other.
Moreover, a private league allows the commissioner to set the rules, scoring and even veto trades, which is not the case in public leagues, where everything is standardized. In public leagues, trades can only be vetoed if the majority of team managers vote to veto.
Head-to-Head vs Total Points
The Head-to-Head scoring system is the standard scoring system for fantasy football. In a head-to-head points league, your team goes “head-to-head” against another team every week.
You win or lose depending on how many fantasy points your players net you against the team you’re up against. It is possible to score 100+ in one week and still lose, while scoring only 60 points another week and winning regardless.
This means that you might see a team with the highest scoring output for the year miss out on playoffs if they are unlucky in their H2H matchups. The Total Points scoring system tries to mitigate this by granting a win to the top half of scoring teams and a loss to those that fall in the bottom half.
For example, in a 12-team league, the top 6 teams with the highest scoring output are awarded victories, while the bottom 6 are awarded losses.
Total Points does measure the true value of a team more accurately than H2H, but there is something undoubtedly fun about going up against your buddy and crushing them.
Types of Scoring Rules
The standard scoring rules go as follows:
For more information, including the customization options for scoring rules, check out ESPN’s article here.
Step 2: Drafting Players
Traditional versus Auction Drafts
Nearly all fantasy leagues use the snake-draft format to select their teams. In a snake-draft, the draft order is flipped and reversed every other round. So let’s say you pick first overall in your 10-team league. After the first pick, you will not make another selection until the 20th pick. Likewise, if you drafted last overall in the first round, you will draft first overall in the second round (and last overall again in the third, etc.)
While this is the standard format, there are some drawbacks to this format. First, the draft order is processed randomly, and yet it greatly benefits those who pick later in the first round. This is because picking towards the end guarantees you get two high-quality players right off the bat, whereas those that pick in the beginning have to wait a long time to make a second pick.
Auction drafts, on the other hand, grants an imaginary salary cap to team managers, and then places players on the auction block, where you can bid as much, or as little as you like for a certain player.
When a manager wins a bid for a player, the player is added to the roster and the auction value is deducted from the bidder’s salary cap.
An Auction draft presents some new wrinkles, especially if you’ve played fantasy football for years now and have gotten used to or tired of the snake-draft format. Moreover, an auction draft cuts down on dead time between picks – for example, dead time between picking 1st overall and then not picking again until selection 20 or higher.
This also makes every player available to every team manager, and there’s an added strategy of getting managers to overbid on certain players so that you can pick up more quality players down the road.
Picking The Best Players
Finding the best players is the *entire* point of fantasy football. In fact, there’s an entire industry set-up with services and websites ready to help you find the players that will have you winning big.
But the truth is that there is a lot of guesswork involved in filling out a team. That’s why I recommend doing a lot of research and committing some time to actually getting better at fantasy.
Check out websites like FantasyPros, Draft Dashboard, and Rotowire, which have extensive articles, analytics and tools to help you develop the best possible roster.
You will find amazing features such as the lineup optimizer. The lineup optimizer finds and picks the most optimal lineup it can based on your pool of players. Plus, it waivers wire cheat sheets, which finds players on the waiver wire that can make an instant impact on your team.
Consider Picking Up Some Long-Shots
Everyone knows Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Christian McCaffrey are the players to watch out for, but the truth is that fantasy football is a team sport through and through. Mahomes might be able to get you 30 points on an awesome day, but you’ll need a lot more than that to win games.
Everyone who has ever played fantasy has those long-shot players that came up clutch with some big points in big games. Personally, I’ll never forget drafting Adrian Peterson the year after he was out for the entire year with a season-ending injury. Most experts recommended against drafting AD, but that very next year he nearly broke the rushing record, running for over 200 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Making an informed decision and taking a chance on some long-shots can really take your team over the top. Fantasy is just like the NFL in a way, where one or two star players are not enough to win games. You’ll need a well-rounded roster full of contributors.
Consider Free Agents
Filling out your roster doesn’t just end with the draft. Afterwards, all the players who did not get drafted enter the free agent pool. This provides the perfect opportunity for finding valuable players who can contribute some solid points but might have otherwise gone unnoticed.
I remember one year finding Jerome Bettis in the free agent pool. I picked him up despite his lack of carries and despite the fact that he was clearly not the number one running back in Pittsburgh anymore. However, Bettis was the Steelers’ bruiser down in the endzone, and could often finish a game with a stat line of 5 carries, 2 yards, 3 touchdowns (18 fantasy points). That was a huge contribution from a RB2 or Flex player, and was the difference maker in a lot of close games.
Step 3: Manage
Arrange Your Line-up
The first thing you will want to do is decide which players to start or sit (hence, the myriad articles titled “Start ‘em/Sit ‘em” on the internet).
This means that you will have to analyze each of your current players, reviewing their past performances and studying their matchup. For example, if Drew Brees is on a cold streak, you might want to consider starting Dak Prescott on a hot streak.
You can actually make changes to your roster right up until the games start, so make sure to double-check your starters an hour or so before the games.
If you move a player off the starting roster, you will either have to bench that player or submit them to the waiver wire, where anyone can pick him up.
For DFS, you will pick your players based on the salary cap. Mahomes might seem like an attractive option, but at a cap hit of $8000, he does not give you much room to draft other good players. You’ll have to balance value with cap hit to find the best performing players.
Monitor Your Fantasy Points
When joining a league, it is important to know exactly what scoring rules and format you agree to before joining.
We have already discussed scoring formats above, but let’s dive deeper into scoring rules.
Defense and Special Teams, in particular, are areas you will want to monitor before joining a league. Some leagues designate Defense and Special Teams as one category (D/ST), and scoring will be based on turnovers and defensive touchdowns or on points or yards allowed.
It gets tricky with Special Teams because of what happens when a player scores on a punt return. In some leagues, the D/ST is credited with the points, while in others, the player is credited. This can make a huge difference. I used to have Hines Ward on my team and never received a single point for all of his Special Teams accomplishments.
You will also want to make sure that one or two players are not getting the majority of the points on your team, as a key injury could be devastating to your chances moving forward.
It is important to see where the points are coming from and try to balance your team’s point spread across all players.
Step 4: Bye Weeks & Waiver Wire
Bye weeks suck! All of a sudden, those 30 points you counted on from Carson Wentz? Gone! Now your fantasy team is handicapped for the week. Worst yet is if the majority of your fantasy team plays on one team – now you’re at a serious handicap.
Most leagues allow for a reserve list of seven to ten players, so your total roster size will usually be between 15 to 20 players. It is important when drafting to keep in mind bye weeks, as you do not want too many players with the same bye week, unless the players are such a steal that you don’t mind taking a loss in the middle of the season.
This is why being on top of the waiver wire is important. You will inevitably find yourself having to make changes to your roster over the course of the 16-week fantasy season, and you will often have to dip into the free agent pool to make additions.
The waiver wire works in a similar way as to how it does in the NFL. The worst performing teams have first dibs on any free agents.
Let’s say you have a 4-0 record and are looking to pick up Andy Dalton to substitute for Aaron Rodgers during the Packers’ bye. You submit a waiver wire bid. Then, a team with a 1-3 record makes a claim on the same player – that team is ahead of you in the waiver wire and will therefore pick up Andy Dalton.
Waiver wire order only comes into effect when two or more people try to pick up the same player. If you’re the only one looking to pick up Andy Dalton, he will be yours when the waiver period ends (usually a day or two).
Step: 5 Championship & Week 16
Most fantasy leagues end the regular season around the week 14 mark. This means that fantasy playoffs start in week 15 and end in week 17 of the NFL regular season.
It is not a perfect system by any means, as you will often find that good teams rest their players in weeks 15 through 17, preparing themselves for the playoffs. As a fantasy owner, you have to keep this in mind. If you own Lamar Jackson and the Ravens are 14-0 going into your playoffs, you will want to keep an eye on whether Coach Harbaugh is planning to rest Jackson.
Rested players can torpedo your season, especially when it matters most. However, once you are in the playoffs (usually the top 4 teams, depending on league size), it is winner take all, until there is one winner left.
The championship is awarded in week 17, once the top two teams in the playoffs face off and determine a winner, just like the Superbowl.
Fantasy football is a great way to further enjoy the NFL season, with the opportunity to make some money and/or enjoy time with friends or family or colleagues.
A fantasy league is a shared space where everyone is equal, and the unpredictable nature of fantasy football means no one should ever feel jealousy towards another manager for doing well.
If you are new to fantasy, I recommend you start off practicing in a free league to get a hang of the ins and outs. Overall, fantasy is not complicated to get into and you should have a good time.
It’s mastering fantasy that takes years of practice and commitment.