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Best Ball State of the Union

By :: MJohnson86

Welcome to the One Week Season 2022 NFL Best Ball “State of the Union.” This article is a view of the landscape from a big picture perspective of the format, tournaments, and industry at this time. The outlook and landscape of this area of fantasy football will change year to year, and many of the things are theoretical or opinion based, but it is an important exercise to think about from a big picture perspective to understand the game you are playing. Here are some key things to keep in mind as you venture into the Best Ball waters heading into the 2022 NFL season.

Variance and Uncontrollables

You don’t actually have to beat all of the people in your contest, you just need to win each of the smaller contests on the way to a championship. Just like the NCAA tournament, there is a lot of luck involved in your “draw.” It is possible, and possibly even likely, that two people who draft the *exact same team* of 18 or 20 players would have wildly different results. It would not be surprising for the entry that wins BBM3 or the DK Milly to have a duplicate roster that doesn’t even make it out of the first round or a subsequent playoff round. Last year, I had teams that finished 4th place in their Round 1 (Weeks 1 to 14) leagues that actually outscored teams I had that took 1st place in their Round 1 league. This continued in the later rounds as well, as I had a team in the big DraftKings $6 tournament that advanced to the finals with 175 points in Week 16 but another team that was eliminated in Week 16 that scored over 200 points. When you think about it from a “draw perspective,” you probably don’t want the best overall team for the first 16 weeks if you want to win in Week 17. Just based on the laws of regression and what we consistently see during NFL seasons, the recipe for success is likely a team that just “survives” the early rounds and then smashes in the finals. Obviously, so much of that is out of our control with the “draw,” which makes Best Ball more exciting and scarier at the same time. All we can do is use good process and game theory to give ourselves the best chance of winning and taking advantage of our “good draws.” Luckily, we’ve got some great articles and content to help you out with this!

Contest Size and Structure

The Best Ball Mania 3 on Underdog Fantasy and the Draftkings Milly Maker are by far the highest payout contests and therefore receive the most attention and discussion from content providers. The final rounds of these contests will feature 470 and 969 lineups, respectively. Something to strongly consider is that the “optimal” strategy for contests with fewer than 200 finalists will be very different than the optimal approach towards the big contests that are being touted and discussed across the industry currently. Most of our competition will likely not make this distinction and build differently as a result, meaning they will be building suboptimally for these contests. This is a huge opportunity to gain an edge as our expected advancement rates should be very similar across most tournaments for each of the first three rounds (regular season and first two playoff weeks) but our odds of taking down a tournament in Week 17 are much higher in some of the “non-headliner” tournaments. Examples of these tournaments:

  • Underdog “Puppy” tournaments ($5 entry) – 115 finalists
  • Draftkings:
    • $25 entry, $500k Touchdown Dance – 27 finalists, $100k to first
    • $3 entry, $300k Play-Action (20-max) – 135 finalists, $30k to first
    • $4 entry, $400k Front Four (20-max) – 135 finalists, $50k to first
    • $12 entry, $100k Fair Catch (Single Entry) – 22 finalists, $20k to first
    • $200 entry, $200k Double Spy (Single Entry) – 10 finalists, $50k to first
Market Maturation Process 

There is a huge crossover from the NFL DFS community/industry to NFL Best Ball. The DFS industry is composed of so many mathematical minds and data-driven people. Those tendencies are naturally leading to a lot of dissecting the results of the only two years of large-scale Best Ball tournaments that we have as a sample size. This results in such a strong inclination to “follow the leader” and attempt to use strategies that worked in the last two seasons that it forms opportunities for us to exploit edges. The current landscape is very similar to the early years of DFS when everyone was just figuring things out (something Xandamere has also pointed out recently in our podcast series). 

To sum it up, we are still early in the game, and with each year and more data, we should gain knowledge about what is optimal. A few years from now, when we look back at this point in the Best Ball market’s growth, I am not sure if my thoughts and philosophies from this year will look right or wrong, but I am almost certain that what most of my competitors are doing will be wrong – which is something we can and should be trying to exploit. 

Understanding Baseline EV and risk

From a purely mathematical standpoint, we can have a decent idea of what we are actually risking and/or likely to see as a return. For BBM3:

  • 2 out of 12 teams (16.6%) from each league will advance, locking in $35 for their efforts.
  • If you were to max enter (150 rosters), this means a baseline expectation of 25 teams advancing if you are performing perfectly even with the field.
  • In the next round, it is 10-person groups – meaning a 10% advance rate would be expected and a “standard” expectation would be 2.5 teams advance to Round 3, locking in $75 as the minimum payout from that round. 
  • In Round 3, you are in 16-person groups with one person advancing. This would mean your 3 teams (we will round up) would have just under a 20% chance of having one of them advance to the Finals, where they would be locked in for a minimum of $1,000.
  • Using these numbers, we can figure out our expected return:
    • .2 * $1,000 = $200 (20% chance of one of the three teams going to Finals)
    • 2.8 * $75 = $210 (accounts for the rest of the three teams who make it to Week 16)
    • 22 * $35 = $770 (assuming lowest payouts for the rest of the 25 teams who advance from Round 1)
    • $200 + $210 + $770 = $1,180 expected payout for performing at a level “even with the field”
    • $3,750 (cost to enter 150 lineups) – $1,180 = $2,570 expected loss

These numbers are not a guarantee for anyone’s return and I am not saying you can’t make money from Best Ball. However, I do think these numbers can give you a good baseline expectation for Best Ball and help you make decisions for your bankroll and how you will attack these tournaments. Due to the long season and nature of the contests, it is reasonable to think of these baseline expectations as somewhat predictive. 

(Note: What I mean by this is that for a regular season NFL Sunday main slate it would be much easier to completely whiff on having any teams “cash” if you max entered, but there should be a reasonable baseline performance expectation of teams advancing for anyone playing Best Ball who is at least somewhat competent. From there, things like player rankings/selection, draft strategies, roster construction, and game theory can then raise or lower those expectations for each individual depending on how sharp they are.)

Obviously, there is a ton of variance at play and it’s unlikely anyone will actually see a return exactly as outlined above, but if we know the “average” return would be about -70%, it becomes much easier to accept and seek the variance needed to actually win these tournaments and see positive ROI. A common issue for many people who play DFS is playing too safe as they get too focused on “cashing” for specific lineups. When some of those lineups min-cash they usually get close to 2x their money and are “rewarded” somewhat immediately, which reinforces the suboptimal plays and allows people to slowly bleed off money. The difference for Best Ball is that a lower percentage of teams are getting paid, you are waiting 5+ months to get paid, and the return for the “min-cash” type of teams is lower. For me, the takeaway here is that just staying with the herd and playing how everyone else plays is likely to keep you around that baseline expectation and just hoping to get lucky. If we stray from “popular” thought and are wrong, we are really only “being risky” with the roughly 30% of our investment that we would expect as a baseline return. Meanwhile, the upside from there for being right is immense. The risk-reward calculation is very clearly in favor of chasing game theory and leveraging the field. Luckily, we’ve got you covered there!