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How to Win at DFS Tournaments

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The most popular tournaments on fantasy sites such as DraftKings and FanDuel allow you to throw down $5-10 with the prospect of winning $100k. We all enter with the goal of outsmarting the competition and winning a life changing sum of money. All DFS ads emphasize the amount you can win and the thrill of coming up with those plays that no one has that go off. In my experience, success in these tournaments is a feasible goal for anyone who is willing to put in the work because the tournaments are filled with players who are unwilling or unable to put in the work to be competitive. Playing the biggest low stakes tournaments daily, you can make a nice income over the course of a year if you apply the right strategy.

Starting off in DFS is challenging for most players now because using your knowledge from watching a sport alone isn’t going to get you very far. You have to learn the strategy of salary cap games: identifying the top plays and understanding who the popular plays are to prevent your lineup from being the same as everyone else’s, both of which require diligence on a daily basis. Most people who start off playing DFS have full-time jobs and don’t have the necessary time to devote to accomplishing these goals on their own. Fortunately, it becomes a lot easier if you utilize the right tools and resources.

Given that only about 85% of entry fees are paid out as prizes in each contest, not everyone can win on DraftKings and FanDuel. In fact based on my historical research, only about 25% of lineups entered have a positive expected value. The catch is that once you go beyond the easiest tournaments, a lot more than a quarter of lineups are made by relatively sharp players.

It’s easier to break lineups down into two categories to determine their chances of success: their chance of achieving a high enough score to cash, and their chance of a top finish. The first one can be measured in terms of overall projection and correlation, but the score to cash and win fluctuate with how the most popular picks end up performing. Hence, a lineup that is more differentiated with respect to the field might have a better chance of winning if their score is moderately high on nights where the popular plays disappoint. It’s rare that my highest scoring lineups are my biggest winners in DFS because lineup scores are so correlated across the field; I have had more success on days where the winning score is low. Managing the trade-off between projection and differentiation is the single-most critical factor to success in GPPs and one that if often overlooked by novice players.

Projections

For several years, accurate projections were all you needed to succeed at GPPs as the field wasn’t great at identifying the best players each night. While just plugging in highly projected lineups won’t get you far in tournaments today, it’s still a great starting point for determining how strong of a lineup you have. If you have the highest projected lineup, your lineup is going to be a favorite in one-on-one matchups vs. every lineup in the tournament. That bodes well for your chances of cashing in a tournament but isn’t a great metric for determining your chances of coming in first.

If you don’t have your own projections, you can still make great tournament lineups using the resources that I provide on my site. Using my rankings you can narrow down the player pool to only include players who are average or better plays on a given day. Spending most of your salary while preferentially choosing players with high value rankings will ensure that your lineup has a good median projection.

The Awesemo Lineup Builder shows the rankings and projected ownership for each player on the slate

The Awesemo.com Lineup Builder

Correlation: Selecting the best scoring players across numerous games is extraordinarily difficult from an odds standpoint unless you factor in correlations between players. Usually players are good to pair together in a GPP if one is more likely to score points when the other performs above expectations. On the other hand you want to avoid situations where one player’s excellent performance comes at the expense of another one on your same roster: these lineups are more likely to produce a consistent score for your team than the outlier you need. The levels of correlation vary greatly with each sport and greatly affect DFS strategy for those games. Refer to my NBA, NHL, NFL, and MLB primers for sport-specific stacking strategies.

“Upside”: DFS players often seek out players who have higher upside. Most athletes worth considering because of their price and projection have enough upside to win you a GPP. What you usually need from a player to win is a performance that’s at least one standard deviation above their projection, which happens about 1/6 of the time. But if you target players who have more variance (i.e. a higher standard deviation) they may give you the tournament winning upside you need 1/5 or even ¼ of the time. These could be athletes who get more run if they’re the hot hand in NBA and NFL, or ones that have great power but low average in MLB. Players with high variance are more valuable in GPP’s than their median projection may indicate.

Accuracy: Projections aren’t going to get you far unless they are at least as accurate as your competition. Checking your projections for errors is essential to avoid costly mistakes. What I like doing is compare my projections against other sources to challenge my assumptions. To narrow down the scope of my error checking I will only look at players who I have projected significantly differently than the sources. If I can figure out reasons why my projection is erroneous, I will adjust the factors that lead to my projection. My favorite sources to check are sportsbooks – while they have their own biases, they have to be fairly accurate because they are throwing their own money down on them. You can also use my rankings to identify athletes whose projections are worth a closer look.  For more information, refer to my Projections Primer.

Differentiation from the field

Each lineup in a tournament wins under certain circumstances. You’ll have the most success if your lineup is the winning lineup under the broadest set of outcomes. The way you can achieve this goal is having a lineup that overlaps less with other lineups, but one that is still relatively likely to be a high scorer that night. In a perfect strategy, you would overlap less in winner take all contests than contests where 20% of the field cashes, because picking the most popular players helps you get a cashing score but not that much to winning one.

Ownership: The simplest way to make your lineup different than others is to choose lower-owned players. It goes without saying that the fewer players that have someone rostered the more it helps each lineup to win a tournament. Usually the best strategy is to make a roster with a combination of best values and sleeper picks. That gives you a pretty good chance to cash while still having reasonably likely conditions to win the tournament.

To predict player ownership, you must first understand that most lineups are strongly influenced by outside factors, whether it be recommendations by fantasy influencers, box scores in the DFS site’s app, or what games are televised. Then you compare the options at each position to determine the relative popularity of each. Finally, you build lineups because all of these factors have to fit in the constraints of the salary cap. If you don’t have hours a day to devote to studying the slate, the best place to stop is my ownership projections which uses a proprietary algorithm that I have developed over years of playing.

Roster Construction: Another way to achieve a lineup that is highly differentiated from others is to pair players together that may not usually be present in the same lineup. For example, two tight ends may both be popular in isolation but if you create a roster with a tight end in the flex, that combination of players may be present in much fewer lineups than you would expect given the high ownership of each. You can also spend different amounts of salary than the cap to achieve this goal, which is especially popular in large field tournaments with small slates. One of my biggest wins was in a 104,575 person showdown NFL tournament on DraftKings where I only spent 47.6k of the 50k salary cap; only one other person had the same lineup which split the prize many fewer ways than normal.  The catch is that each of my players had to outscore each player within $2,400 of salary.  In sports where the perfect lineup frequently spends less than the salary cap, this is a more viable strategy.

Diversification: If you’re entering more than one lineup then you should have your lineups work together to maximize your chance of winning on a given night. On one extreme you could have two lineups with only one different player in them: that means that on a night where the one lineup finishes 1st, your other one is likely to finish 2nd which hurts the expected value of each lineup. The other extreme is picking a lineup that relies on the opposite result of the first, most likely the other team winning the game. The problem with that strategy is the second lineup isn’t likely to be a very good one because assuming the first lineup was the best one you could build, the first team’s success is the more likely outcome. The best way to diversify is to pick lineups that have at least 3 or more players different from each of your other lineups. For a more in depth look into this topic refer to my Diversification Primer.

Trade-offs: Daily fantasy is no easy game: it’s unusual to find a player who is both optimal in value and projection while being low owned. Being a successful DFS player is all about finding the inefficiencies; in particular, identifying players who are owned higher or lower than they should be. And the context of your lineup matters a lot too. You want to evaluate your projection and ownership for your whole lineup so that you can guarantee whether you’re making trade-offs in the right spots. It’s a losing strategy to play all sub-1% owned players even if all of those players are lower owned than they should be. The ideal lineup will have some players with a high-probability of success (which inevitably will come with higher ownership) sprinkled with a few players with lower probabilities of success (and lower ownership).

My Process

Have a set strategy and stick to it. You can reevaluate your approach every few weeks but don’t try to change it up every day. You want to conserve your energy for the most important decisions of the day by having a process for most decisions you make. Here’s what a typical main slate looks like for me (EST).

11 AM: Review the previous games that each team has played and adjust variables in my model accordingly (e.g. study snap counts, target share, minutes played).

4 PM: Compare projections for each player to other data sources and identify areas where my model differs and determine whether my projection is right or wrong.

5-7 PM: Watch YouTube content to stay up to date with the latest news and be exposed to differing viewpoints that challenge my own conclusions.

6 PM: Start building lineups on FantasyCruncher. Identify players that are showing up much more or less than projected ownership and determine my position.

6:30-6:50 PM: Sort through my lineups to determine which ones I want to enter into contests.

6:50-7 PM: Check lineups on site to make sure that there were no errors in my process.

10-11 PM: Review tournaments to see if assumptions were accurate. Identify issues with model.

While DFS can be a full time job, there are a number of areas where you can simplify the process. I started Awesemo.com so that you can be successful in the games today without making it a full-time job. Using our fantasy-point and ownership projections greatly expedites the process. You can also reduce the complexity of the day by only making a handful of lineups or limiting the number of sites you play on. Finally, automating things as much as possible will save you valuable time. For more information refer to our Fantasy Cruncher and Excel tutorials.

Putting it All Together

DFS is in its essence a competition. Success in the long run requires an edge over your opponents. The less-experienced the competition is, the easier it is to achieve that edge. So start off with the easiest tournaments – the huge low-stakes tournaments and contests where experienced players are restricted from entering. You don’t have to be an expert to be a winner at low stakes because there are so many people who aren’t putting in enough work to craft good lineups. Applying the basic strategy for the sport you’re entering and applying the concept of balancing projection and ownership will get you far in the long run. As your competitors get more sophisticated, you’ve got to step up your game. In the tougher tournaments, it’s even more important to understand the tendencies of the field and adapting to them is critical to success.

You can’t optimize every element of your DFS strategy because there are so many areas to work on: it’s death by a thousand cuts. What is more effective is identifying the most important areas and focusing on them one at a time. Looking at content from other players will help you identify differences between your strategy and your competitors. Then you have to do a little research and figure out whether your initial assumptions were right or if there is something they picked up that you missed. Once you iterate your strategy a lot of times by doing this, you’ll be prepared for anything.

We all enter DFS tournaments for our love of sports and competition, but with life changing prizes available every day, spending time on your game can really pay off. Fantasy tournaments are survival of the fittest in action. You have to continuously evolve to compete in this ever-changing climate.

Know the sport you’re playing but also familiarize yourself with general DFS strategy concepts. The intuition you get following a sport isn’t essential, but is immensely useful to identify errors in your reasoning. But DFS tournaments are also similarly structured across all sports, so many elements of the strategy like projecting performance and ownership remain the same. Daily fantasy is a demanding game because you have to keep up with both the sport and DFS strategy, but that’s exactly what makes it so fun. When you put in the work, fantasy can be a tremendously rewarding experience.

Alex is better known to fantasy players by his handle "Awesemo" from seeing him in every big tournament in the industry. Playing poker professionally from 2009-2015, he heard that daily fantasy was the next big game picking up steam, and he quickly saw the potential of the relatively new game. Growing his bankroll from 2015-2016, he made a big step in 2017 by claiming the #1 overall ranking on RotoGrinders for the year. After completing his primary objective, he was looking for what's next. Attending dozens of fantasy events, Alex realized that everyone was repeating the same story: wanting to be a great DFS player while holding down a full-time job. He realized that the resources available to fantasy players while great weren't enough to help hobbyists get to the level of competing with the top pros. Having met Tom Kennedy during the FanDuel Scottish Open, the two decided to take on the realm of fantasy content along with co-founder Eddie Lai. Alex creates his own projections for each sport he plays, publishing rankings derived directly from them updated for each major slate. He also writes strategy content for how to become a better DFS player in his Game Plan series. You can contact Alex by emailing support@awesemo.com.

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