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Another Voice: Daily fantasy sports draws on four layers of skill

By Renee M. Miller

One of the key misunderstood facets of the ongoing debate about daily fantasy sports is whether it constitutes a skill game. I will start with the premise that every single game – except the lottery – that I’ve played, from Scrabble to fantasy sports to Monopoly, blends a combination of skill and luck. The extent to which the public and the government recognize the skill elements of DFS is critical to its continuing to be offered legally in New York. 

Unlike many games, there are at least four layers of skill to playing DFS. Minimally, a player needs some basic sports knowledge. I must understand the relative skill levels of the teams competing in the contest. Next, I have to know about the individual players. Knowing something about the talent of the athletes who will make up my roster relative to others at their position is essential, but fairly straightforward. In fact, these two skill components are the cornerstone of season-long fantasy sports. 

The greatest skill in DFS comes in managing the salary cap the games impose on your roster. You can’t afford the top players at every position. This is primarily what separates the people who win regularly and over the long term from those who don’t. It takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to know when it’s worth paying top dollar for Tom Brady and when your money is better spent on Julio Jones.

A final consideration is the ability to use game theory. Most of us are biased toward optimality theory, the goal being to maximize benefits and minimize losses. In game theory, we take into consideration what our opponents are doing and adjust our decisions accordingly. We are competing against other individuals: in many contests, I don’t have to have the highest possible score to win, I just need to have a higher score than my opponent(s). The most skilled DFS players are certainly employing game theory.

I’ve played DFS regularly since 2011. I didn’t know nearly as much about sports, players, economic decision-making or game theory when I started as I do now. I’m a much more skilled player now than I was then. As a scientist, I play with an evidence-based approach to building a lineup. Armed with data, I can get into the part of the DFS process that initially drew me in and keeps me engaged: solving the puzzle. Each day or each week of games presents a new puzzle that must be solved in a slightly different way. This is what makes DFS different and this is why I play.

I’m not a high-stakes player, nor a high-volume player. I like to win, to be sure, but to me a significant part of winning is knowing that I solved the puzzle correctly. It’s a validation of my knowledge, my skill, my time and effort in understanding how to best fit the pieces together any given Sunday. 

Renee M. Miller, Ph.D., is in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Science at the University of Rochester.