DFS For Dummies: Part III, Game Selection & Roster Construction

Strategic lineup construction + optimal game selection = profitable daily gamer.

This series of articles entitled “DFS for Dummies” details what I learned over the course of the previous 24 months while playing daily fantasy.  I will outline the habits and strategic thinking of successful daily players to help you make your learning curve far less expensive and much quicker than mine.  The series is broken down into 4 smaller articles to keep things focused and to allow the reader to refer back to them as the DFS season progresses; this is the third installment of the larger series.


An instrumental component of becoming a profitable player in daily fantasy football is ensuring that you enter contests that allow you to win most consistently.  Far too many daily players swing for the fences and enter those 10,000-entry contests that pay out five-figures to the winner; winning such a contest can change everything, but most players lose their entire bankroll before they hit pay dirt (for more on bankroll management, see Part IV of this series).  Thus, this section of this ongoing series on daily fantasy football will cover the types of contests that are offered by the various sites, why you should be playing some of them, and how to construct a winning lineup for each type.

In the daily fantasy football industry, there are two primary types of games:  cash games and guaranteed prize pools (GPP’s).  Cash games are generally those games where the top half of finishers (or close to it) are paid; GPP’s are the industry term for larger tournaments that pay out the top 10-20% of finishers (for a more detailed analysis and description of the various daily game formats including rake structures for each, see this excellent writeup by FootballGuy, James Brimacombe: http://subscribers.footballguys.com/apps/article.php?article=brimacombeFDdifferentgames).  The payouts for the former are typically about twice the entry fee, whereas the prizes for the latter can represent life-changing sums.  In this third installment of our ongoing series, “DFS for Dummies,” we break down the individual types of games, their pros and cons, and discuss how you should approach each type of game to maximize your return on investment.

Head-to-Head Contests

A head-to-head (H2H) game is exactly what you think it is--a game against a single opponent.  It’s a winner-takes-all (minus the house ~ 10% rake) scenario.  The key to winning H2H games is ensuring points--you cannot afford to take unnecessary risks and have poor performance at any position!  To ensure you do not roster players who are subject to failure, you should always be looking for two things: consistency of scoring (lesser variance) and a player’s ‘floor’ score for that given week.

For consistency of scoring, you must find players whose team leans heavily on that player to make plays; for WR’s and TE’s, you want a heavily-targeted receiver...for RB’s, look for guys who routinely get > 20 carries (bonus for RB’s who catch passes, too)...and for QB’s, roster players who will throw often.  Drew Brees, for example, is a classic H2H QB because he runs a pass-heavy, high-scoring offense; in 2013, there were only 3 games where Brees threw less than 35 passes.  Logic would suggest that at least some of those 35+ passes find their way into a receiver’s arms and into the endzone.  On the contrary, QB’s, like Cam Newton, who find themselves in a “run-first” offense will vary greatly from week to week, making them poor choices in a format where you need to ensure production from the position.  The aforedescribed concept of variance (Part II of this series) applies here, too--you want to focus on players who have the lowest historical week-to-week variance.  Let’s take a closer look at a few WR’s from 2013 to get a better feel for what we’re describing…

Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, playing under the same system with the same QB, finished the season with less than 1.5 fantasy points/game difference at the conclusion of the 2013 season (15.72 versus 14.29, respectively).  Yet, if we examine their numbers more closely, it becomes clear that one of them is the type of WR that we want to target in our cash games:  Brandon Marshall.  Marshall’s performance from week-to-week was much more consistent than Jeffery; the provided chart shows that, despite their final numbers over the course of the season, Marshall’s coefficient of variation was 44.5%, significantly lower than Jeffery’s CV value of 74.1% (for more on the importance of CV values in variance, revisit Part II of this series).  This is type of statistic you want to be monitoring over the course of the season to logically select players for your cash games.

For RB’s, we want to select players who are getting ~20 carries every game and supplementing those carries with receptions (FanDuel provides 0.5 PPR and DraftKings is a full PPR site).  In 2013, those guys were limited:  LeSean McCoy, Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte, Ryan Mathews, and Eddie Lacy top that particular group.

The 2nd requirement of a player for a cash game is related to the 1st requirement:  determining a player’s floor.  A player’s floor is the absolute minimum number of points you can envision him scoring in a game barring unforeseen events, namely injuries.  Since points are generally related to touches, you should target guys who are going to consistently touch the ball (hence, the relationship to the 1st requirement: consistency).  Generally speaking, it is a good practice to assume that a player will not score a touchdown when determining his floor; doing so will give you an absolute basement number for his floor.  Once you’ve determined the floor for each player at a position, it becomes clear to see where the value lies for that given week.

Speaking of value, let’s revisit it and use the information provided in the last installment to talk about how we can exploit it in cash games.  When constructing lineups for FanDuel, historical evidence tells us that scoring 120 points will yield a win the majority of the time (**DraftKings has changed their lineup composition for 2014 by removing kickers and adding an extra WR; thus, it is difficult to accurately predict a winning score in cash games on that site until we gather data in 2014).  Furthermore, the starting salary for all teams on FanDuel is $60,000; thus, we need 0.005 points per dollar to achieve the magic number of 120 points.  ...but let’s first make the math easier and divide the $60,000 starting salary by $1000, which results in $60; now, we need 2 points per dollar to reach value for each player on our roster (2 points/dollar x $60 salary = 120 point goal).  If Jamaal Charles’ salary for Week 1 is $9.8 (did you remember to divide by $1000?), he needs to garner at least 19.6 points to achieve value ($9.8 x 2 points per dollar) for our winning lineup.  Let’s try another: Jimmy Graham’s salary for Week 1 is $8100, so he must get 16.2 points to reach value for a winning lineup.  Got it?  Here is a illustrative chart outlining the top 30 quarterbacks and the number of fantasy points needed to achieve value for H2H lineups on opening weekend in 2014:

50/50 and Double-up Contests

50/50 and double-up games are a form of cash game that are similar to H2H games except that there are multiple people playing in the same contest.  In 50/50 contests, the top 50% of entries will win; the payouts are slightly less (~ 10%) than double the entry fee due to the site subtracting out their take.  The double-up games actually will double your entry fee, but they payout slightly less than half of the field.  These types of games are very similar, in terms of roster construction strategy and long-term winning percentage, which means that the strategy employed for H2H roster construction can be used for these games, as well.  Likewise, there is no appreciable difference between a 50/50 and a double-up game with regards to bankroll management (covered in Part IV of this series) and game selection--treat them as the same type of game.

However…despite the fact that daily gamers group 50/50, double-up, and H2H contests into the ‘cash game’ bucket, there is a distinct difference that you must appreciate before selecting your games every Sunday!  If your cash lineup, with a score of 124.2, finishes 43rd out of 100 entries in a 50/50 contest, you will collect the prize; if that same cash lineup (with a score of 124.2) is entered in 100 different H2H contests, it will win only ~57% of the time (meaning it would lose the other 43% of those H2H contests).  This is because, on any given Sunday, the scores that are put up on a site fall within a bell-shaped curve.  If you fall in the top 50% of that curve in 50/50 contests, you will win every 50/50 contest you play…but finishing in the 51st percentile would likely make you an overall loser if you play nothing but H2H contests.

To illustrate this simple premise, imagine entering a $25 10-player 50/50 contest and finishing 5th…you take home the prize of $45, as shown below:

If you enter that same 124.2-point lineup in 9 unique $25 H2H contests against the same players that were against you in the 50/50 contest, you would see a drastically different outcome:

As you can see, if you play in a 50/50 contest and score in the top 50%, you would win the same amount as if you finished with the best overall score in that contest ($45, in this example); on the other hand, if you have the same lineup against the same opponents in 9 unique H2H matchups, you will literally break even because you will lose 4 matchups and win 5 matchups ($100 won minus $100 lost).  This example illustrates why you cannot possibly be a long-term winning player if you exclusively enter 50/50 contests—eventually, you will field a poor lineup that finishes in the bottom 50% and lose all of your bankroll!  This premise is particularly evident when playing dozens of 50/50 contests at a time with the same lineup.  Bankrupting yourself is near-impossible when playing H2H matchups, however, because you would have to finish in the last percentile to lose all of your matchups; thus, it is essential to enter a mixture of games that maximize your profit potential while minimizing risk.  Simply put, playing H2H contests decreases volatility and maximizes bankroll stability.  For more on how to make these important decisions and how to build and protect your bankroll, see Part IV of this series where those topics will be described in more detail.

Guaranteed Prize Pool (GPP) Contests

Guaranteed Prize Pool (GPP) games are large-field tournaments with big money prizes.  The rake is generally ~ 10% and the winner of a GPP generally takes home anywhere from 10-20% of the entire prize pool.  The entry fee on GPP’s range from $0.25 on DraftKings up to $5300 on multiple sites; thus, there is a price point for all players.  The crown jewel of all GPP’s is the fantasy football championship offered by both FanDuel and DraftKings; last year, those two GPP’s paid out over $6 million (combined) to players, including $1 million/each to their respective winners.  It goes without saying that winning a GPP requires a bit of luck, but it also requires some strategic thinking, which we will now cover…

There are three components of a winning GPP entry (four, if you count luck):  1) incorporating upside into your selections, 2) pairing your QB with a WR from the same team, and 3) making your lineup as unique as possible.  To emphasize the train of thought you must employ when constructing GPP lineups, let’s quote Ricky Bobby of Talladega Nights’ fame:  “If you ain’t first, you’re last!”  In all seriousness, constructing a GPP lineup should be aimed towards winning the GPP, not just cashing; the big money is at the top of the leaderboard and that is why you’re entering the GPP--to win it all!  The quickest way to the top of a GPP is strategic roster composition.

When describing strategic decisions during cash game roster construction, we outlined a value-based system whereby a major consideration was the minimum number of points a player would possibly score in a given week (the ‘floor’); with GPP’s, we want the complete opposite type of player--we want to roster guys with significant ‘upside’ who can score 2-3 touchdowns.  For a WR/TE to score 2-3 touchdowns, their team likely has to be either playing from behind or involved in a shootout; thus, it is often inadvisable to roster a WR/TE from a team who is a big Vegas favorite (> 10 points) because it is quite likely that the passing game will be shut down in the 2nd half of the game to run out time and secure the victory.  That said, it is entirely reasonable to roster a RB from a team who is heavily-favored in Vegas because that team will likely lean on the running game to protect their lead.  Likewise, rostering a QB-WR/TE tandem who is projected to lose by 10+ points is the shark move in a GPP because losing teams tend to abandon the running game, particularly later in the game; picking up ‘garbage time’ points later in the game is a strategy that can lead to GPP success.  Another way of finding upside is to roster explosive players; players with dangerous, game-breaking speed (DeSean Jackson, Mike Wallace, C.J. Spiller, 2009 Chris Johnson, etc.) who can break an 80-yard touchdown just by running away from a defender.

The 2nd component of successful GPP roster construction is to pair your high-upside WR/TE with his respective QB.  This is a sink-or-swim strategy that pays dividends when your WR/TE target hits pay dirt because a touchdown for your receiver mandates that it was his QB who threw that same touchdown--double points!  When Marvin Jones caught 4 touchdown passes against the Jets in 2013, he scored 40.2 points; pairing him with Andy Dalton would have netted you an additional 32 points for a combined total of 72.2 points through just two players!  Of course, when one end of this tandem fails, your entry is essentially eliminated, but this is why you’re employing the “Ricky Bobby mentality” when constructing your GPP lineups--finishing 1st (or close to it) is all that counts because the difference between finishing in the 21st and 99th percentile is nothing, in terms of payout.

The 3rd component of successful GPP roster construction is attempting to differentiate your roster from the masses.  In the industry, this is often referred to as being ‘contrarian.’  The advantage of having a contrarian lineup is that when your players score, you move up the ranks while the masses stay put.  To exemplify this point, DFS professional Headchopper cleaned up across the industry in Week 10 of 2013 by rostering Nick Foles against the Oakland Raiders at a $6800 salary; Foles was 1.3% owned on FanDuel and he put up 45.64 points by himself that week!  Headchopper qualified for both the FanDuel and DraftStreet championships that week and won another $20K+ by being contrarian at the right time.  Furthermore, if 60% of the entire GPP pool rosters the same player and that player performs poorly or gets injured early in the game, the remaining 40% of the GPP pool has a major advantage.  An important note:  Do not be contrarian for the sake of being contrarian--if you like a player, for whatever reason, roster him and don’t worry about percentage-owned; however, if you like two players equally for the same position, always select the player who you predict to be lesser-owned guy.  Lastly, there are times where a player will be 70+% owned because the site either mispriced him or because of a late-breaking injury; this is not the time to be contrarian--extreme value is extreme value and should never be ignored in the name of keeping your lineup unique. 

When describing ‘value’ for cash games, we introduced the notion that our target score on FanDuel would be 120 points for that type of game.  Given the number of entrants into a GPP, our target score is inflated 50% to 180 points.  Thus, using the math described for cash games to achieve value (i.e., divide a player’s salary by 1000 then multiply by 2), we now must multiply by 3 to get a target value.  See the chart below to see how a GPP target score compares to cash game target scores using the same example as above:

To become a consistent winner in the daily space, you must make strategic, value-based decisions when putting together your rosters.  Knowing the difference between a cash game lineup and a lineup designed to win a GPP is a technique that far too few daily gamers understand.  After reading this segment of the ongoing series, you now have the necessary information to help you craft a winning lineup in either of these types of daily contests.


  • Remember the rules for cash games.  Always roster low-variance, high-floor players.  Avoid risky plays at all costs.
  • 50/50 games are not H2H games.  Do not exclusively enter 100% of either type of these cash games because it can limit upside or expose you to excessive volatility.
  • GPP rosters have their own set of rules.  Find players with high ceilings, try to pair your QB with your favorite upside WR, and be as contrarian as possible without sacrificing value.
  • Use the ‘value’ system for optimal roster construction.  Remember to shoot for 120 points in your cash lineups and 180 points in your GPP’s on FanDuel (DraftKings’ 2014 value numbers are not yet known).

In the last segment of “DFS for Dummies,” we will incorporate the nuances discussed in game types and game selection into bankroll management to make you a more profitable player.

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