How to Win Playing Daily Fantasy Football, Part 2: Tournament Strategy

After looking at salary allocation last week, we'll dive head first into winning tournament strategies using DraftKings-specific data.

We kicked off our winning daily fantasy football series last week with a look at roster construction and spending. Though it was – or I hope it was – helpful, we all should understand that salary allocation can differ depending on the contest you’re entering.

This is especially true of tournaments. Your goal isn’t to just win slowly when you enter a big tourney – you want to win it all. You want to walk away with a massive profit. And typically, to do this, you’d build a squad that has a high-risk, high-reward profile.

But before we make these assumptions, it’s important to see if the data agrees. And interestingly enough, it may not. Kind of.

Tourney Odds Are Great

Tournaments are interesting in the daily fantasy world because there are multiple ways to make money. Most may assume that you need to rank high in order to get paid out, but that’s not the case. You do need to perform well, but you can still at least make a little bit of cash by placing just a bit above average.

In fact, according to DraftKings-specific data, it may be advantageous to enter tournaments if your goal is to make small amounts of money, week by week. This is certainly counter-intuitive, but take a look at the chart below depicting the high and low scores for teams who saw a payout in head-to-head, 50/50 and tournament games last season

All Winners125129129
First-Place Winners155170142

Surprised? I sure was when I saw this. Not only do you need fewer points in a tournament to get paid, but the average points scored by winners was significantly lower than what we saw in 50/50 contests. That matters in tournaments, as first-place winners will make more money than simple “winners”. But in 50/50s, every winner’s getting the same amount of cash.

Again, this may not make a whole lot of sense, but the reason for it has a lot to do with the players participating in these contests. Tournaments are heavily advertised, so you’ll find a lot of casual players in them each week. That’s good news for an experienced player. This is nothing against casual daily fantasy footballers, but they’re not doing the type of research high-volume players – sharks – are.

You’ll notice that 50/50 and head-to-head contests are pretty similar, which makes sense considering your odds of winning both are 50 percent. The reason you see 50/50 games with a higher average first-place score is because more teams are involved.

As I mentioned earlier, the general approach to tournaments is a high-risk, high-reward one, while 50/50 or head-to-head lineups may look a little safer. This data doesn’t suggest you should shy away from that thinking, especially because you’re not playing in tournaments to get small payouts. Instead, it could simply suggest that going all-in with only highly volatile players isn’t the way to go.

And that’s where some of the data from last week comes in handy.

Spending in Tournaments

We now know that it takes a lower score to actually get a payout in a tournament than it would in the other two contest types. This should lead us to generally believe that our approach wouldn’t change as we enter tournament play versus another game type.

But the difference is that a daily fantasy owner entering a tournament should still strive to get top-dollar payouts. Does that mean you should structure your team differently than what we saw in last week’s article?

If you recall, we walked away with five big takeaways about salary allocation in last week’s piece:

1. Never spend a lot of money on your defense.
2. Go big or go home at the quarterback position.
3. Running back injuries are your friend.
4. Spend at wide receiver.
5. Spend at tight end, too.

These ideas still hold true in tournaments, but the key is to remember that, if you want large payouts, you’re going to want more volatility. That is, your goal may be to look at high-risk, high-reward players rather than safe options you’d typically find in 50/50 and head-to-head lineups.

Let’s take a look at number one above: never spend a lot of money on your defense. This, in truth, should remain constant in tournament play given the massive turnover at the D/ST position each week in fantasy football. As noted in last week’s article, 23 different defenses finished with between four and eight top-12 weeks. The top defenses on DraftKings were ones that didn’t rank as the best in fantasy football, but were merely value plays in that given week. This tells us that spending on a top-notch defense is rarely worthwhile, even in tournaments.

The quarterback position, however, is a little different. According to the data from DraftKings, folks who win in daily fantasy football spend less than the average team at the quarterback position. This is mostly because quarterback production is easy to predict each week, as the position is less volatile than the others in fantasy.

Even still, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees were high-end players in terms of win-loss ratio on the site last year, and their salaries were far greater than the rest of the quarterback position. But this is because they were consistent, easy-to-predict producers, which can often times win in head-to-head and 50/50 leagues.

According to the data, tournament lineups on DraftKings tend to spend more money on quarterback than they do in other contest types. But the winning teams see a larger difference in spending at quarterback than you’d see in 50/50 or head-to-head games. In other words, teams that are willing to spend less money at the signal-calling position in tournaments tend to perform better than a team doing the same in a 50/50 or head-to-head contest.

In general, the other three strategies remain fairly constant. If a running back injury occurs, remember to keep an eye on the guy replacing said injured running back. Since the tight end and wide receiver positions are volatile, remember that paying for them allows you to see a significant advantage at the inherently unpredictable positions. And because you’re not spending a lot of cash at quarterback and defense in tournaments, you should be able to have an additional stud or two in your tournament lineup at wide receiver and tight end. These players, too, are the ones who will typically produce monster weeks in fantasy.

Stacking and Punting: Viable Strategies?

Quarterback and Wide Receiver Stacking

In tournaments, many daily fantasy players will use a stacking strategy in order to aid in this high-risk, high-reward endeavor. The tactic is logical: If your quarterback goes off, your wide receiver more than likely will too.

The data that DraftKings sent over to us suggests that this may not be all that important to making money in a tournament. The truth is, teams that stacked a wide receiver with a quarterback won 1.30% less than teams that didn’t.

There are reasons, however, as to why this may not be significant. First, the data sample is quite large, so it’s difficult to really distinguish how effective such a specific strategy can be. Second, far more teams don’t stack than do, which brings more potential combinations of winning lineups. Remember, stacking is a high-risk, high-reward move, so it shouldn’t shock anyone to know that a lot of stacks don’t work out.

I think the general notion here is to stack when it’s obvious. If you run projections or use ours, and see a quarterback and wide receiver combo who are looking to blow up, then you should use them both. However, don’t stack just to stack. This could be a huge reason we see a lower win percentage among stackers – they’re forcing the strategy.

Punting Positions

To punt a position means to use a minimum salary at the lineup slot in order to spend a lot of money elsewhere. Considering we’ve already established you spend little money on quarterbacks and defenses in tournament play, this would mean that you’re going with a full-blown stars and scrubs approach to your tournament squad.

Interestingly enough, it may be best to punt at least one position no matter the contest type.

Take a look at the chart below showing what happens to lineups when teams punted a particular position.

Punting in TournamentPunting in 50/50Punting in H2H
Win Percentage Change+2%+4%+3%

Teams that punted in 50/50 and head-to-head matchups saw a more significant increase in winning percentage versus tournaments. Keep in mind, however, that it’s more difficult to win money in a tournament game from a simple probability perspective, so the strategy may still be more viable in that case.

Overall, it appears as though punting is a smart move. Clearly this depends on the player your spending the minimum salary on, but if you can get some production from him, it’s a worthwhile thing to do.

Bringing It Together

We now know four things about daily fantasy football tournaments on DraftKings. First, you actually need fewer points in tourneys to simply cash out versus 50/50 and head-to-head contests. However, that doesn't mean you'll be making mad bank - you still need to score a whole lot of points if you want to make the big bucks in a tournament.

Second, we've learned that paying for volatility makes more sense in tournaments than regular coin-flip contests. Quarterbacks should have lower salaries, allowing you to spend on wide receivers and tight ends. But to this point, having only a high-risk, high-reward team doesn't necessarily benefit your bottom line given the score you need to achieve to get a payout is lower than other contests.

The final two points are from a strategy perspective - punting works, but stacking may be overrated. With regards to punting, it's important to note that it's not just a tournament strategy. The data suggests that teams who punted actually saw an increase in win percentage no matter the contest. Stacking may be a worthwhile strategy despite the numbers, given the massive sample size we're dealing with. But the important thing to note is that you shouldn't force the approach. Do it when it makes sense to.

If you're digging what you've seen so far, next week we'll take a look strictly at the 2014 season, and specific players to target as we begin the 2014 daily fantasy football adventure.