How to Play Fantasy Football

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How to play fantasy football from start to finish. Tips for creating a league, inviting owners, choosing rules and a scoring system, operating the league efficiently and crowning a league champion.

What is Fantasy Football?

It’s difficult to grasp the idea that there are still people out there who don’t know what fantasy football is given the tremendous popularity of the game, but I still get asked questions from people I meet who want to know what the game is all about.

Fantasy Football allows you to become a “fantasy” owner, general manager and head coach.

As owner of your fantasy football team, you are responsible for finding a league to participate in, coming up with a clever team name, taking part in league votes and keeping abreast of the league’s rules and structure.

As general manager, your duties to your fantasy football team are to study draft guides, keep up with the latest NFL news, come prepared to your league’s draft to select the best possible players for your team, sign free agents off the waiver wire during the season, and -- if needed -- propose trades to other teams in your league to try to acquire better players.

As head coach of your fantasy team, you are responsible for analyzing NFL matchups each week to determine which players on your team you will be putting into the starting lineup and which players you’ll be leaving on the bench.

Fantasy Football is a game played by football fans from all over the spectrum. Whether they’re newbies who are casual observers and can’t even name all 32 team mascots or they’re lifelong diehards who make it part of their daily rituals to absorb as much breaking football news as time permits and as their brains can handle, all sorts of fans can and do play fantasy football.

In its most rudimentary and simplistic definition, fantasy football allows you to put together on paper a team of NFL players and compete against friends, coworkers and even random strangers to determine who assembled the best team.

How do you determine who has the best fantasy football team?

It’s simple. When the players on your team score points or make great plays during an NFL game on any given Sunday, you get points for your fantasy team, too. And if your assembled fantasy team scores more points than your opponent’s fantasy team, you win!

Fantasy Football League Types

There are many different types of fantasy football leagues, and here is a brief explanation of some of them.

Head-to-Head: This is the most popular and most realistic way to play fantasy football. Much like an actual NFL season, your fantasy team will compete against one other owner’s team each week of the football season. If your team scores more points than your opponent, you get a win for that week. If not, you get a loss.

Total Points: Unlike the head-to-head league format, total points leagues do not have a set schedule pitting you against a weekly opponent. Instead, each week your goal is to score the most points possible, which will be added to your running total for the season. And at year’s end, the team that accumulated the most points throughout the season will be declared the champion.

Keeper League: A fantasy football keeper league is one in which the league maintains continuity of its owners and teams from year to year. Owners are allowed to keep a set number of players from last year’s team. Standard keeper leagues typically allow anywhere from one to three players to be kept on a given roster, although many league variations can allow more than that.

Dynasty League: For the truly ambitious, a dynasty league is a step up from a keeper league. In fantasy football dynasty leagues, owners are allowed to keep all, or as many players as they want from year to year. The risk in this type of league is that an owner who had a poor season might not want to keep any of his players and will start the following season at a significant disadvantage without any good talent available to draft.

Salary Cap League: A salary cap league is one in which players are assigned “salaries” based on how good they are, their yearly projections and/or results from previous seasons. Fantasy Football owners must then assemble a team of players while staying under a “salary cap” -- a number that is set by the league that every team must abide by. In other words, if you add up all the players’ salaries on a given team, that total team salary must stay below the league’s salary cap.

Daily Fantasy Sports: A relatively new phenomenon in recent years has been the advent of daily fantasy sports leagues. The idea behind this type of league is that if you wound up assembling a team of bad players, you don’t have to waste the full season with those same bad players. Instead, each week, you can select new players based on NFL matchups and have a fresh new chance at winning.

Playoff Fantasy Sports: When the lights go out at the end of the night, it’s difficult to acknowledge that the party is over. That’s where playoff fantasy football leagues come in. Once the NFL regular season ends, your league’s owners can get together and select players from the 12 NFL playoff teams and play for an additional four bonus weeks!

Fantasy Football League Size

The total number of owners in a given fantasy league can vary based on league type and personal preference.

For instance, due to the low number of NFL playoff teams, if you are participating in a playoff fantasy football league, it’s probably a good idea to keep the number of owners to 8-10 based on the fact that the pool of players available to select is considerably smaller than it is in the regular season.

For keeper and dynasty leagues, you might like the idea of having 16 owners so that each team can have two NFL starters at each position (32 NFL teams divided by 16 fantasy teams is 2). On the flip side, the more teams that you have in a keeper or dynasty league, the harder it’ll be to rebuild your team from year to year because more players will be locked up by other owners. So, you might want to keep the number of owners down in these leagues.

In daily/weekly fantasy football leagues or in total points leagues, you might not care about certain players being on multiple teams at the same time and you could have an unlimited amount of owners in those leagues.

But in standard, head-to-head fantasy football leagues, the ideal number of owners would be anywhere from 10-14, with 12 teams being my personal preference. Twelve teams ensures the right balance of team competitiveness and player talent availability.

Fantasy Football Scoring

One of the defining characteristics of a fantasy football league is its scoring rules. There are thousands of leagues out there and many of them could have a subtle variations of rules, so be aware of the score settings of the league you choose to join before selecting players.

In essence, the way you earn points in fantasy football is when one of your players scores points or makes big plays during an NFL game, your team will get points.

Here are a few scoring leagues to be mindful of.

Standard: Standard scoring leagues are ones that award points for touchdowns, field goals, and safeties, plus they may award points for passing yards, rushing yards, and receiving yards. These leagues tend to require you to select an entire team’s defense (rather than individual defensive players). When that defense sacks the quarterback, intercepts the ball, recovers a fumble -- or achieves any number of big plays during an NFL game -- your “team defense” will give you points.

PPR: One of the most common scoring systems in fantasy football -- and the one that I personally advocate -- is known as the “points per reception” league, or PPR for short. In addition to all the points that your fantasy team can earn in a standard scoring league, your players will also earn points (or fractions of points) when your players catch passes (known as receptions). The reason why I value this type of scoring system is because receivers who catch a lot of passes are of great value to their NFL teams, but if they don’t score touchdowns or get a lot of receiving yards, they could be of little value to you in a standard scoring league. But with a PPR system, they get their rightful credit.

IDP: A third type of scoring system could actually be combined with either a standard scoring league or a PPR one, but with one important addition: it includes scoring for individual defensive players -- or IDP for short. Rather than draft an entire team defense, you’re responsible for drafting individual players from around the NFL. This type of league and scoring system is for the more advanced players out there because it requires knowledge of even more players from around the league and is not restricted to just offensive skill players.

Fantasy Football Rosters

Rosters are another aspect of fantasy football that can vary from league to league. Both size -- or quantity of players on your team -- and positional breakdown are the factors to consider.

In most standard fantasy football leagues, these are the positions you will need to fill on your roster: quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, kicker. In IDP leagues (individual defensive players), you will also select defensive players from these categories: defensive line, linebacker, defensive back. In the majority of leagues, however, you will select an entire defense from a particular NFL team rather than individual defensive players.

The quantity of players that your league chooses to employ per roster largely depends on its philosophical approach to free agency and waiver wire acquisitions.

What does that mean?

Simply put: does your league intend to have larger rosters with deeper benches or smaller rosters with more free agents? Or to put it another way, do you want to be able to choose from more players on your team when setting your lineup each week? Or if someone on your team gets hurt, do you want to have a bigger pool of free agents to choose from in order to replace that player?

My personal preference is to keep roster sizes at around 16 players. This would give you an average depth chart featuring 2 quarterbacks, 4 running backs, 4 wide receivers, 2 tight ends, 2 kickers and 2 team defenses.

Fantasy Football Player Acquisition

By now, you should be familiar with what fantasy football is, how scoring works, and how a league is structured. But what about the players? How do you actually acquire them?

Players can be assembled onto fantasy football rosters in the following ways:

Draft: The most common method by which a team of fantasy football players can be assembled is through a draft. Before the season begins, all owners in your league will get together -- whether it be in person or online -- and hold a player selection draft. A draft order will be randomly determined and teams will take turns selecting NFL players according to that order. The most common type of draft is a “serpentine” or “snake” draft, which simply means that the draft order is reversed every other round. So the team that drafts first in Round 1 will draft last in Round 2.

Auction: Another way of selecting players to teams before a fantasy football season begins is through an auction. Unlike a draft, there is no set order for teams to select players. Instead, a player will randomly be put up for auction and owners will bid on that player until there is a winning bid that no one elects to surpass. The league will determine how much cash each team has at their disposal to be used throughout the auction until it runs out.

Free Agency: Players who were not selected to a team via the draft or auction will begin the season as free agents. This means that any owner can select a free agent to his team, but must release a separate player from his team in order to make room for the new player on his roster.

Waiver Wire: During the season, players can be acquired via the waiver wire, which is a running list of players that have been cut -- or “waived” -- by another team. The waiver wire and free agency are often confused and used interchangeably. But the main difference between the two is that the waiver wire requires owners to place a “claim” on players who are on that list while free agency is simply first come, first serve.

But how do you determine which owner gets a player on the waiver wire?

There are multiple ways to handle this. In some leagues, if a player receives a claim from multiple teams, the team with the worst record at that point in the season will be awarded the player. This allows for poor teams to remain competitive. However, in other leagues, there is a continuously rotating waiver wire order.  If multiple teams place a claim on a player in this type of league, the team with the highest waiver wire rank will be awarded that player. And after a team acquires a player from the waiver wire, they are immediately placed at the end of the waiver wire order, and all other teams move up in the ranks. This allows for fair competition in claiming players.

Trade: Another method of acquiring players to one’s fantasy team is via a player trade. Two or more owners can get together and discuss swapping players. Owners who have a flair for negotiating will enjoy improving their teams this way. There is an art to dealmaking and obviously you have to give up something to get something. But let’s say your team has a lot of depth at one position but is weaker at another. You can trade some of your depth from your position of strength in order to improve the weaker position.

Declaring a Fantasy Football League Champion

When the NFL’s regular season -- and thus your fantasy football season -- draws to a close, how exactly is a champion decided? There a few ways to declare a winner.

Playoffs: The most common way to determine a champion in a fantasy football league is similar to how professional sports do it: you hold a playoff system where the best handful of teams compete for the title in the last few weeks of the season.

I’d recommend 8 teams make your fantasy league playoffs, and I would start your league’s playoffs in Week 14 of the NFL season -- meaning you’d have a 13-week regular season. Based on record/win percentage, you would take the Top 8 teams from your league and seed them from 1-8 (with the best team earning Seed 1 and the worst team earning Seed 8). Then, in the first round of the playoffs, you’d schedule Seed 1 vs. Seed 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, and 4 vs. 5. In the second round, the winner of 1 vs. 8 would play the winner of 4 vs. 5, and the winner of 2 vs. 7 would play the winner of 3 vs. 6. And finally in the third round, the last two remaining teams would play for your league’s championship.

There are multiple subtle variations to playoff seeding, but this is a good basic concept to follow.

Best Record: If you’re playing in a head-to-head league (where you play against a different opponent each week of the season) and you do not wish to have a playoff system, you can determine your league’s champion by whichever team accumulated the best record throughout the season.

Total Points: If you’re playing in a total points league (where you do not set a schedule for the season, but instead try to score the most points in the league each week), the champion of your league is simply the team that has accumulated the most points throughout the season.