DFS Tournament Strategy

DFS Tournament Strategy

1. Forget Cash Game Mentality

For DFS players who are used to playing cash games, where the goal is to just get a winning score, tournaments can pose a big challenge. Fantasy owners have to forget all about trying to put together a lineup that has valuable and safe players that will definitely produce a respectable score in order to cash. The key difference one must realize is that, in a tournament, first place has extreme value. The biggest upside a cash-game player has is doubling his entry fee. Tournament prizes can be hundreds or even thousands of times the entry fee.

So what changes does a cash-game player have to make? First, do not just put a cash game lineup in a tournament. While there is a chance that the lineup could earn a prize in any given tournament, a properly constructed cash-game lineup is particularly unlikely to take first place. A cash-game lineup, filled with steady, high-floor players, will be up against tournament lineups with more upside. Winning tournament lineups do not play it safe: They embrace volatility, knowing that if the right combination hits, the payoff is huge.

In summary, the philosophy of a cash game is to win one of the prizes, as they are all the same value. The first-place winner is the same as the last team to win a prize, so there is no incentive to welcome risk. Safe, solid lineups win more often than not, and that is the lineup style of choice in a cash game.

Tournament philosophy is completely different, as the goal is to finish as high in the contest standings as possible to earn those big prizes given out to the best scores. Taking on risk here is not only suggested but required. An appetite for risk, however, should not be confused with reckless abandon. Selecting a lineup constructed with some players that can “hit it big” in a given week can result in a Top 1% finish and a big prize. Without taking on some level of risk, achieving a first-place score is almost impossible.

2. Lineup Construction—Value, Upside, and the Right Combination of Both

There are many ways to build a lineup for a given contest. By studying the most successful strategies that have resulted in top finishes in tournaments, several themes can be extracted. Combining the right groups of players that meet certain criteria is not necessarily a guarantee for success, but by considering how to build a lineup for a tournament, we can increase our chances of winning a top prize.

Value plays do matter, but upside matters more

When finding the right players to put in your tournament lineup, many will target value plays first. That’s a good starting point, as these can be the foundation of a solid score that leads to a top 1% finish. Most weeks, numerous value plays can be found for cash games, but a key question has to be asked first—what does it mean to be a value play for a tournament?

Back in the discussion of cash games, we defined a value player as a “3x player,” which means that the player is expected to score at least three times as many fantasy points as his salary divided by $1,000. That means a $7,000 wide receiver has to be expected to score 21 or more fantasy points to reach value for a cash game. For tournaments, the bar needs to be raised. As one learns by studying successful tournament lineups at DraftKings, lineup scores in the range of 200 total points are required for a top-10 finish. That translates into a tournament value player being a “4x player” or better. (Note that to win a gigantic GPP like the Millionaire Maker, 5x players are the target.) The requirement of 4x severely reduces the population of value players each week. This guideline can help a DFS owner narrow the list of players that can be considered for their weekly lineup.

To find players that can reach tournament value, a DFS manager should calculate what it would take for a player to reach a high enough fantasy score to achieve the necessary salary multiplier. Going back to our earlier example of a $7,000 wide receiver, he needs to get to 28 points to get full tournament value. One way to see what that would take is to start with a baseline of 100 yards and a touchdown and see what that would work out to be in points. Let’s assume this player needs six catches to get to 100 yards and find the end zone. With DraftKings’ point-per-reception scoring, a 6-100-1 stat line yields six points for the six catches, 10 points for 100 yards, and six more for the score—a total of 22 points. What also has to be considered is the bonus scoring on DraftKings, where a player achieving 100 yards receiving gets another three points. That brings the 6-100-1 performance up to 25 total points. That's not quite at tournament value yet, so tweaking the numbers upwards to 7-120-1 gets the total to our desired level of 28 fantasy points. So the question a DFS owner needs to ask about a given $7,000 wide receiver is this: How easily can he attain a statistical performance of 7-120-1 this week? If the answer is that he can do it pretty easily, or that he is likely to get 7+ catches, 120 or more yards, and a touchdown, then he passes the test and can be on the short list of options for your tournament lineups.


Another way to find players capable of hitting the 4x tournament multiplier is to consider upside plays. These are players that typically do not cost as much as normal weekly starting fantasy options, but given their lower salaries they can reach value with their matchup for the coming week. A typical example is a backup running back that is expected to see far more action than expected due to an injury to the normal starter. A $5,000 running back that should get 20-25 touches is not normal, but when it does happen (and it happens far more often than most realize) then he immediately gets on that short list for DFS tournament consideration.

Note that this same player is likely to be on cash game lists as well, and for good reason. Any player with a high probability of getting to tournament value is, by definition, a cash game option. This goes back to the mentality discussion earlier in this section where you have to remember what your goal is for each and every lineup you create. Some players will pass the criteria for both cash and tournament rosters, but that does not mean that all of the cash players will be worth a tournament lineup spot.

True upside plays often come from opportunities that arise during an NFL week. Injuries, suspensions, benchings, and depth chart changes can turn a minimally priced player at the bottom of the DFS salary list into a player with upside value. It is not hard to imagine a former backup player that is suddenly receiving starter snaps producing more fantasy points as a result, and thus having a much higher likelihood to reach tournament value based on that new status. These players have to be at the top of a DFS manager's weekly list for lineup consideration.

Variance and Volatility

Variance is a term thrown around quite a bit in DFS discussions. Variance is simply a term borrowed from statistics that measures the volatility in the fantasy production of any given player. With football scoring being so “event based,” it is easy to understand how varied a football player’s numbers can be on a weekly basis. Consider a simple example of a wide receiver that catches five passes for 70 yards every week of the season. At face value, that variance appears to be zero; he produces the same exact stat line every week for 16 weeks. But introduce an event that can change his numbers, and his variance will increase. Let’s say that in four of those 16 games, one of his five catches results in a touchdown. Now 25% of the time his score increases because he found the end zone.

Due to the nature of scoring plays being relatively rare, there is substantial, inherent variance in DFS football production. This volatility in production is often considered a negative when it comes to cash games, as a cash-game player wants to have a safe and productive roster. Unlike cash games, tournaments force a fantasy owner to consider variance a positive factor and to embrace the volatility in scoring (within reason). Rostering a wide receiver that only scores once in a while is a risky play in a cash game, but a tournament player is an eternal optimist, focusing on his team’s potential when the stars align and his players do hit it big.


It goes without saying that if you finish at the top of a tournament, you definitely do not want to split that top prize with anyone else—but that is not the main reason you want to have a unique lineup. If a DFS roster has a player that is not owned by many other teams and that player has a huge game, that team is that much further ahead of the competition.

Immediately after a tournament begins, DraftKings will start to display the ownership percentage of each player – the percentage of lineups in that tournament that have that player (or team) on their roster. For example, in a 1,000-entry tournament that has 100 teams using the Seattle defense, the Seahawks’ 10% ownership will be shown. At DraftKings this ownership percentage will only be shown for players whose game has started, since at DraftKings you can change your rostered players right up until kickoff for each player (This is another good reason to have your later kickoff players in the flex lineup spot—more on that tactic in our roundtable discussion).

One way to think about uniqueness is to remember the old saying, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” If a player is on everyone’s roster, his performance helps all teams by the same amount—which is to say that it helps no one. If just a few teams lack that player, those teams will find themselves ahead or behind the great morass of teams that do have him (depending on his performance) and that is a good situation for those few teams. Being one of the top few teams half the time and one of the bottom few teams half the time is better in a tournament than being stuck in the middle all the time. Uncommonly owned players are the ones with the greatest potential to pull you away from the middle and separate you from the crowd. This is where a savvy DFS owner can improve his chances by finding players that are likely to be off the beaten path.

A running back that is suddenly active at the last minute (or starting due to a last-minute scratch) could increase your uniqueness, just like owning a player who is coming off of an injury that many will want to avoid. The key is to find players who will be uncommonly owned for reasons other than being poor values. Rostering a unique player who performs poorly will uniquely hurt your team, so you're looking for players with decent value that others are overlooking…not for players with terrible value that others are rationally avoiding.

Discussions about the value of unique lineups continue in DFS circles, as it is not clear whether a unique lineup is truly necessary to win the top prize in a GPP contest. There is no question that winners of major contests typically have at least one high-performing player who is not widely owned. It is also true that winning rosters do not typically have a great number of such players—usually three at the very most. Even in tournaments, there is such a thing as too much risk.


Tournament lineups that finish at or near the top of GPP contests often have what are considered “stacks,” which are teammate pairings of quarterback and either a wide receiver or tight end. The theory behind this goes back to embracing upside, as a big game by a receiver or tight end for a given team assures a good game by the quarterback. Lineups that have one of the best wide receiver performances of the week will greatly increase the chances of having a prize-winning roster, but that likelihood significantly increases if the lineup contains that receiver’s quarterback as well.

Another stacking concept that is sometimes used by successful lineups is pairing a combination of an NFL team’s running back and defense. A team with a big lead and a strong defensive showing will likely run the ball in the second half of the game, resulting in bigger numbers for the lead rusher.

Correlations: Positive and Negative

The reason it makes sense to stack a quarterback with his wide receiver (or a running back with his defense) is that their performances are positively correlated with each other. This means that the performance of one of the pair is tied closely to the other, and that the direction of the performances is the same (a good game by one usually means a good game by the other).

Players' performances can also be negatively correlated together: a good game by one usually means a bad game by the other. For example, taking two running backs from the same NFL game (usually opposing starting running backs) can give a negative correlation. While it is quite possible that one of the two backs will have a big game, it is rare for two backs in the same game to both put up big numbers.

In tournaments, positive correlations are sought after, while negative correlations are to be avoided.  

One of the best (and easiest to avoid) examples of negative correlation is a team defense opposite your starting quarterback. If the quarterback has a big game—exactly what you want—then the defense is not going to have a good performance. Similarly, when the defense has a great game, the quarterback probably won't. In general, you should avoid rostering a team defense that faces any of your offensive players.

Which games to target; Vegas is your friend

Players who score a lot of points can generally be found in high-scoring games, so that’s a good place to look for them. Which games will be high-scoring? We can't know for sure, but we can get a pretty good clue from the sports books. By looking at the betting lines published on any number of sites, you can find both the expected point total (i.e., over/under) and the point spread for every NFL game in the coming week. By doing some simple math, you can calculate the expected number of points a team is expected to score for each game. Here is an example:

Philadelphia (51)

Dallas (-3)

The 51 represents the total expected points for the Eagles-Cowboys clash. Dallas is favored by three points as shown by the “-3” next to Dallas, so by subtracting that number from the total we have 48 points. Distribute that evenly to the Eagles (24) and the Cowboys (24), add back the three points by which Dallas is favored, and the team totals are Cowboys 27, Eagles 24. Now that is not a guarantee by any means of the outcome of that contest, but it is a very good indication of what Las Vegas expects to see as the most likely outcome.

By doing the math for all of the coming contests for the week, we'll see that several teams are likely to be at or near 30 points or more. Those are the teams that should be targeted for offensive players. Taking players in contests with totals near the higher end (usually 50 points or more) is also a good idea. Building a lineup around players in high-scoring games is a worthwhile tactic.