Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Fantasy Football: Head-to-Head Competition is Moronic.

This is an extended argument against head-to-head standings for fantasy football, and in favor of Cross Country standings. The concise explanation of Cross Country standings is below in bold.

In many games, head-to-head matchups are fantastic: one side competes to defeat the other, with the chance to directly confront and influence the opponent. You try to get a ball into a basket; I try to stop you. I'm trying to get a ball past a line; I have to get it past you first. You're trying to hit a ping pong ball past me, and I'm trying to hit that same ping pong ball past you.

But in some games, head-to-head matchups don't make sense, because the competitors can't directly influence each others' performance. Think about a golf tournament. Golf is best thought of as an individual sport in the purest sense: the individual competitor is competing against himself/herself to get the best score he/she possibly can. If you and I are in a golf tournament, you can have no direct impact on my score, and I can have no direct impact on your score. We can't block each other's putts: we can only each try to have the lowest score possible.

And how do golf tournaments work? Many competitors play their rounds, and at the end of the competition, the golfer with the lowest score wins the tournament, the golfer with the second-lowest score finishes second, the golfer with the third-lowest score finishes third, yada yada yada. That's the most logical and fair way to organize such a competition.

What if you structured golf tournaments differently? What if you just paired up everybody in the tournament with head-to-head matchups? In a given tournament, half the competitors would get a win, and half the competitors would get a loss (maybe there would be some ties in there). But would a bunch of single Ws and Ls really convey what happened during that golf tournament? Would we really look at that and come away with an understanding of who had the best week? And would it be fair? What happens if the second-best golfer gets paired against the best golfer? That golfer might defeat every other competitor in the tournament, but still get a loss. Think in more detail. Golfer A might shoot a -3, but be paired against a golfer shooting a -5; Golfer B might shoot a +1, but be paired against a golfer shooting a +4. At the end of the tournament, Golfer A shot a -3, Golfer B shot a +1, but Golfer A gets an L, and Golfer B gets a W.

How does that make any sense? The golfers in each matchup had no opportunity to directly influence their opponents' scores. Sure, they could have a psychological impact, and how close the matchup is might influence the golfers to play more aggressively or more safely. But that's not a direct impact. It wouldn't be fair, and in my view, it wouldn't be nearly as fun to follow.

And that's what the majority of you suckers do in your fantasy football leagues. You have no chance to impact your opponent's score, yet you get paired up in a matchup as if you can. You might score better than the majority of your league, but still get an L because of the matchup. It's moronic.

So what can be done? Total Points is probably the fairest way to determine a league champion: the goal of fantasy football is to score as many points as possible, and the total points for the season recognizes that. However, Total Points is not very fun to follow on a week-to-week basis: you don't get to follow football every week for a direct, immediate, substantial impact on your fantasy fortunes. You don't get to monitor your own team and others', fretting every extra yard, watching the fourth quarter of a Monday Night game with passion and anxiety for a late touchdown. It all adds up, but there's no immediacy and few big joyous moments. And fantasy football is supposed to be fun.

Head-to-head competition is moronic. Total points is not exciting. But there is a better way.

We call it Cross-Country Scoring.

Each week, every team competes against every other team. If there are ten teams in the league, the team with the most points that week defeated everybody else, thus going 9-0. The team with the second-most points defeated eight other teams, but lost to one team, thus going 8-1. Yada Yada Yada, the team with the least points was defeated by everybody, thus going 0-9.

Weekly Scores:
Most points: 9-0
2nd: 8-1
3rd: 7-2
4th: 6-3
5th: 5-4
6th: 4-5
7th: 3-6
8th: 2-7
9th: 1-8
10th: 0-9

These are the wins and losses for the single week. For the season standings, wins and losses from every week continue to be added up. Each week, your wins and losses for that week are added to your wins and losses for the season total. Teams scoring the same number of points in a single week have a tie, and a tie will be included in the standings for the week and the season.

The fantasy season goes all 17 weeks (no playoffs). At the end of the season, the team with the most wins is the league champion.

This is a much fairer system for standings; you get ranked where you deserve to be ranked for the week, with no matchup flukes to worry about.

It's also wildly exciting. Think about watching a Monday Night game, and how it might influence your fantasy week. If you're in head-to-head matchup, the game might be interesting to you. But if neither you nor your opponent has any players going Monday, you probably don't care. If your head-to-head matchup is a blowout that week, you probably don't care. But imagine the game differently. Imagine going into Monday night, every team in your league is competing against every other. A lot of the teams in the league will have no players going Monday, and their scores will be fixed. But a lot of teams will have players going, with opportunities to move up the weekly standings. Whether you have players going Monday Night or not, you probably have a fantasy interest in the game. You could move past somebody, or somebody could move past you. Monday Night's performances might be the difference between going 7-3 or 3-7. You could pass multiple people in the weekly standings...or multiple people could pass you in the standings. There will be several fantasy starters in the game, and what they do will matter directly to you.

Think about how wild and fun that is. And really, that isn't just happening Monday Night: you have a direct fantasy interest in virtually every NFL game you watch. And with no playoff and a league season going 17 weeks, this system keeps more league members interested in fantasy football later into the season than a head-to-head league with a playoff (where teams are eliminated from the fantasy season before the real NFL season is over).

This may sound complicated, difficult to keep track of. Admittedly, it is more complex to follow than to just look at the lineups in your head-to-head matchup (but that's exactly what makes it great). But it's not difficult to monitor. Just set your online league system to total points scoring, and then have one commissioner that tallies the scores at the end of the week to turn the scores into wins and losses, and post it on a message board, email, or blog. It usually takes me five minutes at the end of the Monday Night game (I also post the scores through Sunday night, so people know what matters Monday). That's it. If you want more details or examples about how this part works, just ask.

Look, I apologize for the abrasive attention getters. One of the great things about fantasy football is how decentralized it really is: all sorts of leagues with different traditions and different rules based on the preferences (sometimes eccentric or esoteric) of the members. I'm not interested in creating a homogenized, universal fantasy football rulebook. I'm telling you about the flaws of head-to-head and the benefits of Cross Country standings because I think you'll have more fun with Cross Country standings. Head-to-head is a major flaw at the core of most fantasy football leagues, and I think most people just haven't thought of an alternative. Well, here it is. This is your alternative.

Join the revolution. Just try it. You'll have more fun.

Questions? Objections?


It's worth emphasizing that in Cross-Country standings, you still have head-to-head competitions--you just have a head-to-head competition with every other team every week. Let's say your players are done on Sunday afternoon and you have 70 points, and going into Sunday night I have 60 points but Frank Gore playing. I'm still watching that game hoping for Frank Gore to get 10+ points so I can pass you, and whether I pass you or not is still the difference between a W or an L. It's just this W might mean not 0-1 or 1-0, but 4-5 or 5-4, and that there are yet other teams that I'm hoping to get past, and other teams behind me I'm hoping don't pass me--there are more Ws and Ls in play. So the tension of watching to see if your players can score enough to put you past a particular opponent: it's still there. It's just there multiple times a week.


  1. Bismuth8:23 AM

    I agree that head to head has its problems, but I'm just not sure I believe you when you try to convince me how much more FUN I could be having with cross-country scoring. Basically, it turns you against every fantasy-worthy player in the league that you don't own. In head to head, I've got around 8 players per week that I can root passionately against. If that number bloats up to 80 players, I feel like I just wouldn't have the same interest in their individual performances. And let's suppose Monday night rolls around and you don't have any players in the matchup. The best possible outcome for you is a low-to-no scoring snoozer of a game; you're disappointed in every score.

    Also, the inherent unfairness of head to head that you mentioned does have one advantage: it leads to memorable fantasy stories!

  2. I see your point. For one thing, it's difficult to argue "You'll have more fun doing A than B," because different people find different things fun or not fun. I think there's more fun to be had in cross country standings, and encourage others to try it, but I recognize fun is entirely subjective. I stand by every argument, however, about the illogic and unfairness of head-to-head.

    Here's what happens for me: I end up NOT rooting hard against 80+ other players. With so many players, you have to take for granted that lots of them are going to score points. I end up rooting hard against players on a handful of teams that I'm in close competition with (for the week or for the season), accepting that there are going to be tons of fantasy points scored throughout the season. I mostly enjoy the games.

    But I see the point. If, say, Randy Moss is on a particular team I'm closely competing with, I'll be rooting against him all season long; in head-to-head I'd only have to root against him once or twice a year.

    For the hell of it, here's another problem with head-to-head: clinching the matchup. If at any point in a Sunday Night or Monday Night game (or even earlier) you clinch your matchup, you might have your own fantasy starters that you're not really rooting for: once you've scored enough points to defeat a single opponent, that's it (except to score more points to add to your total, which can matter for tie-breakers, though it doesn't have the immediacy).

  3. By the way, in my view, here's another problem with head-to-head: the (near) necessity of a playoff. To me, a fantasy football playoff basically takes certain weeks and makes them more important than other weeks, just because it's late in the year. I get the reason for a playoff in real football (make the good teams earn it in head-to-head matchups against each other, the do-or-die nature is wildly exciting), but it doesn't make as much sense to me in fantasy football. I can see some arguments for it, however: you keep people interested during the season just to try make the playoffs (where they have a shot), and those playoff matchups are very exciting). I just don't think it's fair. In an NFL playoff game, the matchup matters, choking matters, and teams have to go out and earn a championship by defeating another team. In fantasy, you don't really control your players week to week, and you certainly can't do anything to influence your opponent.

    I haven't included a more detailed criticism of fantasy football playoffs here, because I think the argument against head-to-head can be a separate argument (in the 2009 Fanball fantasy mag, Danny Goldin describes what is essentially cross country standings--he calls it "power scheduling"--but it does include a playoff).

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Bismuth10:57 AM

    Yeah, clinched matchups have always bothered me. There's really something screwy when the best move is to actually pull a player in case they have a terrible game (negative points).

    The more I think about it, pretty much every comparison between head to head and cross country can be boiled down to peaks of intensity and valleys of disinterest (head to head) vs. sustained moderate excitement, and whether you tend to prefer one over the other dictates which mode would be more fun for you. I wouldn't mind giving cross country a try (it's by far more fair to everyone), but the league I have been in for the past few years is pretty casual, and I think head to head fits the overall group dynamic better.

  6. There are actually big peaks of excitement in cross country standings (and in my opinion, fewer lulls). But I can see how for a casual league, head-to-head is simpler and easier.

  7. Anonymous10:33 PM

    I like head to head and in the keeper league I am in its always a nail biter.But we can only keep 2 players,and you have to do your homework.Any head to head could be converted to cross country with little effort.As with any FF any given Sunday can be your downfall,or your uprising its all in the matter of your draft spot and how you draft.I have for the past 3 years drafted either 10th or ninth,I enjoy thoses spots.I watch my leagues all the way down to the wire,wether its a blowout or very close,but then again I like football in all its aspects.I dont think there is any wrong or right way play FF,not everyone has the time,nor maybe cant comprehend diff aspects,or the drive to see it thru.

  8. I would like to watch those games. It sounds pretty awesome. Specially that it is one sided game.

  9. Anonymous10:28 AM

    For most up-to-date news you have to pay a quick visit web and on
    world-wide-web I found this website as a best site for latest updates.

    Review my homepage;