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Fantasy, in Theory: May the Best Team Win

Musings on the unlikelihood of success.

The entire point of the fantasy football advice industry is to help you, the reader, achieve the best team possible. To help you draft the best players, to help you start the best players, to help you pick up the best free agents on waivers and to drop the worst players from your roster to make room.

That's our reason for existence. To make you the best. And we want that because we want you to win the championship.

Unfortunately, the best team usually doesn't win the championship.

One of my biggest goals in my writing is to help readers think probabilistically. There's a huge body of research out there demonstrating that human beings are really bad at this. We tend to round every probability we come across to 0%, 50%, or 100%. We'd rather increase our odds of winning from 90% to 100% than increase our odds of winning from 20% to 50%, even though the latter increase is three times as large.

Being “woke” to probabilistic thinking is one of the best ways to gain an advantage over one's leaguemates, in my opinion, because they're just as awful at thinking in terms of probabilities as everyone else. The owner who has the best grasp of the underlying probabilities will take the smartest risks that are most likely to pay off, will have the best contingency plans in place, and will be best positioned to take home the trophy.

Ironically, the owner who understands the underlying probabilities will likely also be the most pessimistic about his or her chances of winning the championship.

After all, an owner who has a 70% chance of winning any individual game— a dominant favorite— only has a 49% chance of winning two consecutive games. And an owner who has a 70% chance of winning in the regular season certainly has a much lower chance in the postseason where the competition is fiercer.

And this is assuming the 70%-chance-of-victory team managed to secure a bye, which is by no means a sure thing. If forced to play a third playoff game, that dominant squad sees its championship odds fall to 34%, (or really less than that, because again, the odds of winning in the playoffs are certainly lower than they are in the regular season).

If you look across your leagues, I'd wager a minority of them saw the title brought home by the “best” team, regardless of how you measure “best”— all play winning percentage, total points, record, potential points. That's just the realities of a single-elimination postseason format.

As a writer and a fantasy owner, it can certainly feel like a Sisyphean task. You can grind all season long and even manage to triple your odds of winning a title in the process... and there's still a three out of four chance you're going to go home without anything to show for it. (In a 12-team league, the default championship odds are 8.33%. Triple that and you still only have a 25% chance.)

This knowledge, this awareness of the underlying probabilities, can be a curse. It can serve as a reminder that no matter how much you work and how well you play you're still probably going to lose. But it can be a comfort, too, a reminder that when you do lose, (and you probably did), the blame falls far less on yourself and more on the fact that the odds were stacked against you from the get-go.

With most leagues done for the year and most championships awarded, I can only hope that you managed to take home some hardware for your efforts. Barring that, I hope you can find joy in the journey.

And for the few of you whose championships are yet to be decided, I can only hope that the best team will win. (Even though it probably won't.)