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Reality Sports Online Product Review

Reviewing the pros and cons of Reality Sports Online's salary cap keeper leagues

I was recently invited by Reality Sports Online (or “RSO”) to participate in a new type of keeper league put together by USA Today featuring several notable names from the fantasy community. My initial reaction to the offer was similar to what I assume most people's would be; I asked “who are Reality Sports Online?” After having gained some experience with their platform, I have a decent feel for that answer, and I wanted to share my opinions with our readers in case some of them were wondering the same thing.

So Who are Reality Sports Online?

According their “About Page”, RSO debuted in 2012 and is the product of NFL insiders who decided to create a fantasy product that better simulated the actual NFL experience. Their mission statement is “to pioneer, and become synonymous with, a new category of fantasy sports by developing realistic front office platforms across multiple professional sports, which provide customers with an unparalleled user experience.”

And Did They Succeed?

To a large extent, yes. At its core core, Reality Sports Online’s platform is a contract keeper league meant to simulate running an actual NFL franchise. I’ve seen contract auction keeper leagues on other platforms, but RSO manages to make the process simultaneously simpler and more detailed. The core of talent acquisition every year is a rookie draft, analogous to the annual NFL draft. All rookies are automatically given predetermined long-term contracts, (either three or four years, depending on league settings). Rookie contracts are based on draft position, similar to the NFL rookie draft. At some point after the rookie draft concludes, a free agent bidding period takes place. Any player who does not currently have a contract is considered a free agent, and an auction is conducted among all of the teams in the league as they negotiate for these free agents’ services. For the first season of the league’s existence, this free agent bidding period will cover every player in the entire NFL outside of those drafted rookies; however, bidding teams will have the option to offer players “long-term contracts” ranging from two to four seasons, and long term contracts will keep these players off of the auction block in future seasons. Long term contracts are a limited resource and must be guarded carefully; in the league in which I participated, owners needed to sign eighteen players, but only had six multi-year contracts to give. Once those contracts were handed out, owners could only bid on the remaining free agents with one-year deals.

Contract length is a significant factor. Perhaps the most unique part of the league management system is that the auction process has been framed as a “negotiation” with free agents, and the players certainly have their preferences. They love deals that offer a high annual per year value (or “APY”), but they will be willing to trade a little bit of per-year value in exchange for a longer contract, more guaranteed money up front, and a little bit more long-term security. If one owner offers Calvin Johnson $20 million for one year, for instance, another owner could counter by offering $21 million for one year… or he could instead offer $18 million a year for four years. Long-term contracts keep costs down and serve as powerful negotiating tools, but they also carry risks of their own; if a player receives a 4-year offer and promptly suffers a steep decline or career-ending injury, his owner will be left footing the bill, as longer contracts carry more guaranteed money and steeper penalties if the player is cut.

The league interface is not the very best I have ever seen, but it is one of the better ones on the market. Information is typically presented in a clear and uncluttered manner, and navigation is simple and intuitive. Commissioner options are robust and easy to use, and there are ample information pop-ups to explain anything that might be confusing. Some information was easy to miss- the advanced scoring rules, in particular, took a little bit of looking to access. Some of the information that I would like to see is not available. For instance, I can sort all player contracts based on total value, or total years, but I cannot sort them by average value per year. There are a few other minor pet peeves in terms of data presentation. If I sort a list, they do not provide an ordinal ranking number for each player- so for instance, if I want to see where Rob Gronkowski checks in in terms of guaranteed money in my league, I need to sort the list and then manually count the names until I get down to Gronkowski (he ranks 21st, by the way.) It would be handy if a ranking displayed automatically and I didn’t need to count. Also, every time I attempt to sort a list by a variable, it first sorts in ascending order. I need to click a second time to get the list sorted in descending order. This is totally counterintuitive- if I click to sort by maximum contract size, odds are good that I’m much more interested in the fact that A.J. Green is signed for $106m than I am in the fact that Mike Gillislee is signed for $0.5m. It seems that descending should be the default sort order, and ascending should be the alternative. But these are minor pet peeves, the types of nagging little details that keep a very good interface from being truly great.

Additionally, throughout the entire system are tiny little touches that let you know that RSO’s management team truly cares about simulating the NFL experience as accurately as possible. The salary cap they use is identical to the NFL’s salary cap, and it rises in lock-step with the league’s. Contracts are calculated automatically from two simple parameters (length and total value), and they resemble actual NFL contracts- they have signing bonuses and tend to be slightly back-loaded to give extra cap flexibility in the first year. The slotted rookie salary system is very similar to the one adopted by the league in the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement. Even the leagues themselves can accommodate up to 32 teams in up to 8 divisions with a maximum roster size of 53 players, a point of parallelism that I am sure will be lost on no one. If you have ever wanted fantasy football to be the single most realistic NFL simulation ever achieved, I’m pretty sure this is the platform you have been looking for.

The Downsides

What RSO does, it does exceptionally well, but it is not without its flaws and limitations. The gains in realism sometimes come with a cost in competitive balance. The initial rookie draft, for instance, is a great example. There is an option to make the initial rookie draft serpentine to make it a little bit fairer. That’s good in theory, but the talent drop off in rookie drafts is much, much steeper than it is in veteran drafts; the owner selecting 1st, 24th, and 25th is going to walk out of the draft with a dramatically better class than the owner selecting 12th, 13th, and 36th. Slotted contracts help offset this slightly, but the rookie pay scale doesn’t grow as fast as the rookie talent level, which means the top picks still provide a much bigger advantage. And you wouldn’t want the rookie pay scale to increase at the same rate as the talent level; in future seasons you would WANT the top rookies to be more valuable than their contracts so that bad teams can improve. It’s only a problem in the initial draft when pure luck is determining teams’ fates. Someone will get lucky and roll the #1 or #2 draft position this year, and that owner will enter the free agent auction with a leg up on the rest of the league. It would be better for competitive balance if the first year had no rookie draft and instead placed the rookies alongside the veterans in the free agency auction, though of course that would be a step away from their goal of simulating the NFL as faithfully as is feasible.

Another problem is with the rookie pay scale itself. The scale can be seen here. Basically, how it works is that they have allowed for 32 draft slots per round (to accommodate up to 32 team leagues). However, if you only have 12 teams in your league, you will only use the first 12 pay slots from each round. This produces an odd quirk: in a 12-team league, the 13th pick is pick 2.01, and costs $5.56 million over four years (if you opt to use four-year contracts). In a 14-team league, though, that same 13th pick is pick 1.13, and costs $11.49 million over four years. It’s the exact same pick, it yields the exact same player, and yet the contract value in a 14-team league is more than twice as high as it would be in a 12-team league. This means in larger leagues, later draft picks quickly become outright bad deals. The 21st pick of the draft in a 10-team league might yield someone like Paul Richardson for $3.66 million dollars over four years. The exact same pick in a 32-team league would yield Richardson at a price of $9.07 over four years, a simply massive discrepancy that seems difficult to justify. By the time 20-30 picks have come off the board, it’s entirely possible that I don’t think any player still around is even worth offering a contract at the slotted prices in larger leagues. The rookie contract structure closely resembles what actual NFL rookies receive, but the fantasy value of players and the NFL value of players is not the same; this is one area where modeling the service too closely to the NFL has a negative impact from a fantasy standpoint.

I’ve spoken with the customer service team at RSO, and they have been very responsive, friendly, and helpful. As I mentioned earlier, the commissioner options are robust, and it is possible to use them to create workarounds for these problems. Doing so eliminates one of the big advantages that RSO has, which is just how little setup is truly required for such a complex league. The other option is to just accept these little quirks and the small impact they have on the league’s competitive balance. Unless you’re in a high-stakes league where a perfectly level playing field is of the utmost importance, it’ll probably be okay to just accept that modeling reality creates some inefficiencies, but that those inefficiencies are a small cost to pay for the fun of more accurately modeling reality.

Overall, the draft and auction interface was smooth and unobtrusive. By and large, everything just worked. I feel compelled to use the “by and large” qualifier there, though, because we did run into a few hiccups in our auction. Each owner is supposed to have twenty seconds to nominate a player for auction, and then everyone bids until such a time as ten seconds have passed since the highest current bid was received. Perhaps a half-dozen times in my auction, that ten-second timer ran awfully quickly, resulting in players being added to rosters for the minimum salary almost immediately after they were nominated. This wasn’t a deal breaker; our commissioner was active and managed to pause, back up the auction, and resume the bidding on the player in question. It was a minor annoyance, affecting maybe six players out of the 216 nominated, but I feel it bears mentioning. It would probably behoove you to ensure that your commissioner remains active and engaged throughout the draft in case a mishap like that happens on the clock.

To prepare you for the one-of-a-kind free agency auction, RSO offers the ability to set up free “mock auctions”. You can invite as many of your friends to the mock as you want, or you can mock against a built-in AI. These mocks are a fantastic feature that let you experiment with the product and see what you think of it before you commit any money. Unfortunately, there seem to be some bugs in the AI’s behavior. After much experimentation, I believe the AI is bidding based off of last year’s projections, because it keeps going nuts over players like Ray Rice whose values have declined sharply, all while letting me grab breakout stars like Nick Foles, Eddie Lacy, and Julius Thomas for the minimum salary. In terms of using the mock auctions to get a feel for how the platform works, this isn’t an issue- bizarre bidding behavior or not, a single mock left me well-acquainted with the process and prepared for my first live auction. And I wouldn’t be surprised at all if that particular quirk was quickly patched in the coming weeks. In the meantime, just be warned that the team you are able to assemble in the mocks (especially if you’re not above abusing the bugs) will not be representative of what you will be able to achieve against actual living opponents.

In terms of cost, RSO is one of the pricier league sites out there. Leagues cost $9.99 per team, which is a bit more than some of the other popular league management sites. The case behind this premium is pretty easy to make- they have certainly positioned themselves to fill a unique niche in the market. They have also set up an option to collect the $10 dues from each team individually, an option I’m sure harried commissioners will be glad for since it means no longer having to track down random owners who are delinquent on their dues.

The final drawback to Reality Sports Online is that it really is a niche product. It’s not the kind of league you’re going to want to start up with a bunch of buddies from your office. It’s a commitment. Preparation for all of the facets is going to take some extra time. The draft and auction are going to take some extra time. If I’m doing a snake draft with 11 other experienced drafters, we can usually handle an 18-round affair in 60-90 minutes. When I did the RSO Free Agent auction with 11 other experienced fantasy insiders, the entire experience took about four hours. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Future years should take less time simply because there are fewer free agents to bid on, but nothing about RSO really says “casual”. Which, to be honest, is part of the draw. They’re appealing more to the fantasy diehards, the purists, the guys who are always in search of something new.

The Final Verdict

So given all of this, what are my thoughts on Reality Sports Online? I think they have a unique product that truly stands out from their competition. It is not a perfect product, and there is still clearly room for improvement, but the concept is compelling and the execution is fun, if not quite flawless. It shows the type of innovation that, as someone who loves fantasy football, I want to see rewarded. If I was only in one league, I would not want this to be it… but it’s a product that will really appeal most to those fantasy addicts who are already in several leagues and looking desperately for something new to sink their teeth into. I enjoyed the process of assembling my first team, and if given the opportunity, would do it again. If you think that it might be something you’d enjoy, I’d recommend setting up a mock auction and trying it out for yourself for free.