Fantasy Football: A Guide For Beginners

Late summer has clenched us in its sweaty, wheezing grip. Everybody's all beached out. Everyone's hair is a fluffy/frizzy mess. Electricity bills ache like letters from the Civil War. Defeated, we cast our withered glance toward Autumn. This way marches a savior, flanked by trees of gold and crimson: the foot-ball season is almost here. And it's about damned time. Not only are we perspiring to death, but television has grown somnolent for lack of shouting. Both of these problems will soon vanish, ten yards at a time. The foot-ball, or "football," draws tens of millions of fans to stadia and plasma screens every week. But for many, the sport itself is not enough. They want more. These über fans delve headlong into the metasport known as the fantasy foot-ball, or "fantasy football." Their ranks grow each year, as the websites that operate fantasy leagues grow progressively more sophisticated. With the 2010 NFL season looming, fantasy leagues have begun their mock "drafts" to add "players" to their "rosters." Perhaps you yourself have received an invitation to join a league, and are considering giving it a try. To be blunt, such invitations are a trap. Your friends hope to take advantage of your inexperience. For the uninitiated, we here at Analog Nation offer a guide to fantasy football. Write this down.

What is fantasy football?

The game is played in groups of ten or twelve players, who are called "owners." They don't own anything and likely never will, but the term prevents confusion when referring to actual football players. This is the core of fantasy football — compile a roster of NFL players who will accrue the best statistics. Each league holds a draft to select players, and each owner must fill certain positions on his or her (but most likely his) team. Running-back, quarters-back, wide-receiver, kickings-back, all the positions of a real football team are there. The final results mirror genuine NFL franchises. Hence the term "fantasy," because running an NFL franchise is something that no person can do in reality. (The thirty-two teams of the NFL are currently run by supercomputers, though genetic engineering may soon yield humans capable of the task.)

Draft the best players, and put up the best numbers. It's as simple as that! All that remain are the endless, mind-numbing complexities.

Selecting a team name

Before you roll up your sleeves and start digging into stats, your team needs a name. This may sound like an inconsequential step, but it's among the most important decisions you'll make, along with which overhyped running-back to target in the first round, and what color your helmet logo should be. A good name lets everyone know that you're a cool, funny person who understands the game and won't dork up the league with your dorky loser-ness. Possible approaches include references to your hometown team (Broncomania, Gillette Flaydium), recent sports news (Favre's Retirement Party, South Beach Talents), pop culture (Double Rainbows, Jersey Score), or shameful promotion of blog material (Spidergoats, Steaky's Baconarium). Avoid references to recent tragedies. The vuvuzelas thing is definitely over, so steer clear of that as well. Have a look at the other teams in your league for inspiration. If three or more team names contain profanities or toilet humor, quit the league. Feign an illness if you have to. Mono is a good one, because you can simply stop talking to them for a month without having to mimic symptoms later. If there are coworkers in the league, you'll have to work remotely until you "recuperate." Occasional Facebook updates along the lines of "Man, I'm so tired" and "Mono sucks" are a good idea as well.

Preparing for the draft

Now comes the hard work. In order to make the wisest choices on draft day, you must familiarize yourself with every single player in the NFL. Study their tendencies, injury histories, statistical trends, how they're performing in trainings-camp — if it exists and can be known, know it. The Internet, of course, is a bottomless repository of fantasy analysis. Spend as much time as you possibly can browsing sports sites. The basic rule of thumb is that you're not done until it starts to affect your personal life. Newsstands feature dozens of fantasy season previews, and though it may seem horse-and-buggy-level primitive to rely on print media, physical references often prove very useful in the heat of draft day. Be sure to look at any legal trouble or off-field behavior that may sour you on a player, especially Super Bowl MVP quarters-backs who play in the AFC North. Ultimately, your goal is to build rankings for each position, annotated with notes about which players are undervalued, which are overvalued, and which are dreamy.

When draft day arrives, get up early and have a sensible breakfast. Get outside for some fresh air. Meditate. Cut yourself to achieve clarity. Most leagues draft through their websites, but some are able to get together in person. Alcohol will be present, so set limits to pace yourself — opponents are counting on your judgment to falter. Once the clock begins, it is imperative to maintain focus. Be ready when your turn arrives. Have two players in mind at all times. Nobody likes the owner who scrambles through their notes, trying to figure out whether Ryan Matthews is undervalued/dreamy. Should the stress get to you, cut yourself under the table. The only acceptable conversation during a draft is that which mercilessly mocks whatever pick was just made. Don't hold back on the personal stuff, the more painful the better.

Note that certain leagues use an auction format, where owners bid for players rather than selecting them in a random order. If your first draft is an auction, fake the mono thing.

Running your team

Fantasy football is simpler than its cousins in bases-ball or baskets-ball, which require daily attention. Football's schedule frees up most of the week for you to hunt bargains on the waiver wires. Waivers are like an eBay that sells people. (There probably is an eBay that sells people, but we here at Analog Nation are not about to start Googling that willy-nilly.) There are players waiting to contribute to victory, all you need do is find them before anyone else does. Watch as many NFL games as you can. Given the DirecTV package, a broadband connection, and a chrono-disruption matrix, today's average fan can see every down. A well-stocked larder means the difference between a W and an L when faced with injuries, bye weeks, and natural disasters.

Sometimes the waivers are not sufficient to solve a particular problem. Time to make a trade! Examine the other rosters for a player that will be a perfect fit, then email the owner and harangue him or her (seriously though, probably him) relentlessly until the trade is accepted. Be wary of any trades offered your way. Approach negotiations as if dealing with a tribe of gypsies. Remember: if you cannot spot the sucker at the table, then the sucker is you. Unless the sucker got up to go to the bathroom or make a phone call or something. Just make sure everyone's at the table when you do the sucker test, is all.

It is considered extremely poor form to let your team lie fallow. Zombie teams throw off the competitive balance, and while this may be tolerated in real teams like the Raiders or Lions, it is a mortal sin in fantasy sports. Spare the world your argument about not having enough time because you are an adult with a family and a career. The other eleven owners could not give less of a fuck about your life.

The game's origins

Modern fantasy sports trace their beginnings to the late 1970s, when writer Daniel Okrent and several of his friends formed the first rotisserie baseball league. (Apparently the labels "journalist" and "stat hound" weren't bookish enough for them.) However, the concept of fantasy sports reaches back much farther into history. The phenomenon can be traced to Elizabethan England, when peasants and nobles alike formed leagues to bet on bear-baiting. Team owners would select dogs in a draft, then keep stats by hand throughout the season. Dogs earned points for bites, open wounds, etc, but were penalized for failing to draw blood or for being eaten by the bear. Actors at the Globe Theatre, which competed for audiences with a bear-baiting ring directly across the street, ran a 4x4 roto league for years. A stunning late season comeback is rumored to have been what poisoned the friendship between Richard Burbage and Christopher Marlowe.

(Full disclosure: Analog Nation's own fantasy foot-ball squad, the Monkeybots, placed tenth out of twelve in 2009. 2010 marks a full decade that Analog Nation has played the fantasy foot-ball, an endeavor in which we have never placed higher than third.)