How to Play Fantasy Football
By Kevin Day, January 19th, 2017
What is fantasy football?
I love football, and I've enjoyed adding fantasy football to my social, entertainment, and competitive experience of the game.
Essentially, fantasy football is a game you play in a pool of players, pitting your analytical and predictive skills and knowledge of the NFL against your opponent's. Each week, your decisions play out in contests for the duration of the 16-week season.
This article will explain fantasy football to beginners, but will also give beginners a leg up on the competition (especially if your competition is comprised of other beginners). If you're up against intermediate and advanced opponents, you need to be ready.
The basics of fantasy football are quite simple:
- Draft your team
- Set your lineup every week
- Manage the waiver wire
- Remember bye weeks
- Make a few trades
Why do people play fantasy football?
I play because it's fun. Fantasy football adds excitement and metagame to an already great sporting contest. I've also heard people ask 'what's the point?' or claim it's a waste of time, which could be true. I guess it depends on your personality. To each their own.
For most, however, it's a way to add some friendly competition to your weekly enjoyment of NFL games. Even if you aren't an avid football fan (maybe you watch a game now and then), you can still crush your league.
From my point of view, fantasy football also:
- makes games matter to me that otherwise wouldn't;
- adds friendly competition, camaraderie, and banter;
- gives me the chance to win a few bucks at the end of the season (if I'm in a money league).
When is fantasy football played?
The fantasy football season lasts for the duration of the real-life NFL regular season. You will be drafting a set of players (your team), which will compete against other people's teams in your league.
Is fantasy football free?
A lot of people wonder "Does fantasy football cost money?" The answer is: Only if you want it to. In 2010, over 74% of the 30 million fantasy sports players who entered a contest (or used league software) competed in leagues with no monetary prize, according to an IPSOS research report. In these cases, fantasy football was completely free.
But for others, just as watching NFL games is enhanced by the experience of fantasy football, fantasy football is enhanced by the money involved. In these leagues, money is pooled, and a reward structure is determined before starting the league. It's paid out at the close of the season.
Why is fantasy football not gambling?
Fantasy football isn't considered gambling because it is a contest of analytical and predictive skill. You won't be betting on specific games, but rather on a collection of players across an entire 16-week season.
As of 2019, it is legal to bet on fantasy sports. The Unlawful Internet Gambling and Enforcement Act of 2006 (UIGEA), which establishes the legal guidelines for online gambling, created a haven for any fantasy or simulation sports game that:
"has an outcome that reflects the relative knowledge of the participants, or their skill at physical reaction or physical manipulation (but not chance), and, in the case of a fantasy or simulation sports game, has an outcome that is determined predominantly by accumulated statistical results of sporting events..."
In short, gambling games emphasize luck, whereas fantasy football emphasizes skill. (More on the skill required is upcoming in how to draft your team, set a team, and manage the waiver wire.)
You DO need to list your fantasy football winnings under "other income" in your taxes, but you can deduct the entrace fee as an expense.
Where can I play fantasy football?
You can play fantasy football on some major sites like ESPN, Yahoo, NFL, and CBS. Each of these sites includes league searches, signups, and fantasy statistics and analysis.
Your league manager will likely provide you with credentials to sign into your league, but you can also join other people's leagues or public leagues on the major sites.
How does fantasy football scoring work?
Scoring might seem daunting at first, but once you understand the principles you'll be well on your way to holding your own (even against intermediate and advanced opponents). There are several scoring formats to consider.
In standard leagues, league managers have preferences for scoring options, but each fantasy website provides recommended scoring settings.
These settings are simple:
- 6 points for touchdowns (quarterbacks usually only receive four points for passing scores)
- 1 point for every ten rushing or receiving yards
- 1 point for every 25 passing yards
- -2 points for interceptions or fumbles
Kickers get points based on field goal length. A 50-yard kick will give five points, 40-49 yards gives four points, 0-39 yards gives three points. Defenses receive points based on touchdowns, turnovers, and points and yardage allowed. Weak defenses can score negative points, so pay attention and watch for matchups.
League managers can also allocate bonus settings for 50+ yard touchdowns or 200-yard rushing games.
Here are two common league types:
- PPR (Point-per-reception): There isn't too much variation from standard leagues. However, strategy changes because receivers, tight ends and running backs receive one point for each reception. Any player who makes receptions increases in value.
- Touchdown only: The old school format. Touchdown vulture running backs excel in these leagues.
What is the nitty gritty of scoring?
Fantasy football scoring is really important to understand. After your draft, you will have a starting team of around 15 NFL players. What's next?
Fundamentally, fantasy football scores are math-based on rely on the real-life statistical production of NFL players. Each week you fill your roster by starting players at their respective positions (based on league settings). These usually include:
- one quarterback (QB)
- two running backs (RB)
- two wide receivers (WR)
- one tight end (TE)
- one kicker (K)
- one defense (D/ST)
- one FLEX (usually RB or WR, but some leagues allow for a TE or a QB, too)
The statistics your starting players accumulate build toward your overall team's point total for each week. If your point totals are higher than your opponent's, you win the matchup for that week. Your bench players will also score points, but these points are NOT tallied toward your final score for the week in the matchup.
How does a fantasy football draft work?
Understanding the ins and outs of a fantasy football draft begins with knowing what draft format is being used. Ask your league manager what you'll be using.
An example fantasy football draft board.
You will also either be doing a live or an online draft. If you're doing a live draft, be sure to have printouts or your computer available to check player rankings as you fill in your team.
In a standard draft, your draft position will determine when you can pick players and will proceed in a snake fashion. Each person will have a time limit to select their next player to their roster from the field of available players. The point scheme for your league and your current (already-drafted) roster will be key in your decision-making.
Pro tip: You can practice your draft for free by doing a fast mock draft against other people.
Auction drafts give you points (draft money) to spend on players. In these drafts, NFL players are presented one by one from top-ranked to bottom-ranked until all the team's rosters are filled. Be careful not to spend too many of your points on any one player. You need to fill your entire roster across every position with quality players if possible.
Pro tip: Pay attention to draft sleepers. These are players under-rated by traditional pre-draft ranking systems found on major draft ranking sites.
How do I set my lineup?
Before the kickoff of any game (for example, 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC), you'll need to set your lineup. Your 'starters' will count for any fantasy points earned, whereas your 'bench' will score no points toward your weekly totals.
If you don't set your starting lineup in time, any players on your roster from those teams will be locked from movement between your bench and your active roster.
Warning: Beware of missing Thursday Night Football, as this also counts toward your fantasy league points.
That said, you'll likely set your lineup for the week in one sitting at a ritual time on say, Tuesday, and then tinker as needed throughout the week as you check analyst rankings, read about matchups, and stay on point about player injuries.
Pro tip: Set up reminders and alerts, so you don't miss starting a key player.
How does the waiver wire work?
The waiver wire is the process by which players who aren't currently on a roster can join a team roster. When you want a free agent, you will put a 'claim' on him.
In a typical league, you submit waiver claims on Tuesdays, and players join rosters on Wednesdays.
Why do you need to understand the waiver wire?
It's a bit complicated, but an integral part of fantasy football.
Imagine the following scenario: at some point early in the season, a rookie will be performing at a high level, and many people in your league will want him. As will you. So what do you do? You put a waiver claim on him. But the league player who gets the rookie player is determined by 'waiver priority'.
At the start of the season, the waiver priority is the inverse of the draft order. In a 10-person league, the #1 pick has #10 priority, the #10 pick has #1 priority, and so on.
When you use your waiver, you immediately drop to the bottom of the priority list.
Pro tip: If you want a player that you think nobody will claim, consider waiting until he clears waivers so you can add him without losing your priority in the waiver wire.
How do I propose/accept a trade?
You can propose and accept trades in your league manager dashboard. Look to offer trades to teams that could use what you're offering (from a positional or timing perspective).
Some leagues give players veto power to deny trades to prevent collusion or throwing the league once it's clear some contestants are out of the running for the playoffs.
Fantasy football playoffs
The road to the fantasy football championship must go through the fantasy football playoffs. These playoffs occur during the regular season of the NFL (so that all players are still active). Depending on your league, you stand to win 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place money, or more.
How you manage your team week-to-week will definitely give you an edge on your competition. If you are very new and considering joining a competitive league, consider teaming up with a friend who is more experienced, or even making a deal with a team manager to help you manage your team and make great decisions week over week between roster setup, trades, and the waiver wire.
Get in the game and have fun!
The best way to learn is to get into a for-fun league with friends and family and learn the ropes. In future seasons, you will have learned from your inevitable mistakes. By then you just might be hooked.
Either way, have fun, and I hope you go deep into the playoffs!