Fantasy Sport: There is a real skill of the players
Researchers suggest that most fantasy sports are based on skill, not luck.
If you’ve ever competed in Fantasy Sport and found yourself at the top of your league’s leaderboard at the end of the season, a new study from MIT suggests your performance, even away from any real playing field, was likely based on skill rather than luck.
Those looking for ways to improve their fantasy sport will have to look elsewhere: the study does not identify any specific quality that makes one fantasy player more skilled than another. Instead, researchers have found, based on the win/loss records of thousands of Fantasy Sport players over multiple seasons, that Fantasy Football is inherently a competition that rewards skill.
“Some Fantasy Sport players may know more about stats, rules of the game, injured players, effects of weather and a bunch of other factors that make them better at choosing players, that is skill in fantasy sports, ”says Anette “Peko” Hosoi, associate dean of engineering at MIT. “We asked ourselves, does this skill have an impact on the outcome of Fantasy Sport? In our analysis, the signal of competence in the data is very clear.”
Other fantasy sports such as baseball, basketball and hockey also appear to be games of skill, much more than pure chance activities such as the draw. What do these results ultimately mean for the average Fantasy Sport player?
“They probably can’t use our study to build better sports teams,” Hosoi says. “But they can use it to brag when they’re at the top of their rankings.” The team’s results have been published in Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics Review.
Gambling on Fantasy Sport
Hosoi and his colleagues began to delve into the roles of skill and chance in fantasy sports several years ago, when they were approached by FanDuel, the second largest company in the fantasy sports industry. FanDuel provides online platforms to over 6 million registered users, who use the site to create and manage Fantasy Teams, virtual teams made up of real professional sports players, which Fantasy players can select and recruit for their Fantasy team.
Players can pit their team against other virtual teams, and whether a team wins or loses depends on how real players behave in real games during a given day or week. In recent years, the question has arisen as to whether fantasy sports are a potential form of online gambling.
Under a federal law known as the Internet Illicit Gambling Enforcement Act, or UIGEA, online players of games such as poker cannot transfer money online, earned through in gambling, across the states. The law exempts fantasy sports, declaring that gambling is not a form of betting.
However, the UIGEA was not written to change the legality of internet betting, which is, for the most part, determined by individual states. As fantasy sports, and fantasy football in particular, have grown in popularity, with prominent commercials and ads on cable television, a handful of states have questioned the legality of fantasy sports and the companies that allow it.
Gambling, of course, is defined as any activity of exchanging money that depends primarily on chance. Fantasy Sports would not be considered a form of gambling if it was proven to be more of a competition of skills.
“This is the question FanDuel wanted us to address: Did they design the competition in such a way that skills were rewarded? If so, these competitions should be classified as games of skill and are not games of chance, ”Hosoi said. “They gave us all of their data and asked if we could determine the relative role of skill and luck in the outcome.”
Skill and luck tests
The team analyzed the daily Fantasy Sport competitions played on FanDuel during the 2013 and 2014 seasons, in baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer. In their analysis, the researchers followed guidelines originally set by economist and “Freakonomics” author Steven Levitt, along with Thomas Miles and Andrew Rosenfield. In a research article they wrote in 2012, economists set out to determine whether a game, in this case poker, relies more on skill than chance.
They felt that if a game was more skill-based, a player’s performance should be persistent. It could be good or bad, but it would remain relatively constant over several laps. To test this in the context of Fantasy Sports, Hosoi’s team looked at the win/loss record for each fantasy player in the FanDuel dataset, over a season.
For each (anonymous) player, the researchers calculated the fraction of wins the player has achieved in the first half of the season compared to the second half. They then plotted each player’s performance over an entire season as a single point on a graph whose vertical and horizontal axes represented the winning fraction for the first and second half of the season, respectively.
If a given Fantasy Sport were more skill-based, then an individual player’s win fraction should be approximately the same, whether 90% or 10%, for the first and second half of the season. When each player’s performance is plotted on the same graph, it should look roughly like a line, indicating a prevalence of skill. On the other hand, if the game were a game of chance, each player would have to have a winning fraction of about 50%, which on the graph would look more like a circular cloud.
Fantasy Sport, mainly from skill
For each fantasy sport, the researchers found the graph to be more linear than circular, indicating games of skill rather than chance.
The researchers tested a second hypothesis proposed by Levitt: if a game is based on chance, then each player should have the same expected outcome, just as flipping a coin has the same probability of landing heads or tails. To test this idea, the team divided the fantasy player population into two groups: those who played a large number of games, versus those who only played a few.
“Even when you correct for the prejudices, like people who give up after losing a lot of games in a row, you find that there is a statistically higher win fraction for people who play a lot versus a little, regardless either the type of Fantasy Sport, which is indicative of the skill, ”Hosoi says.
The final test, again offered by Levitt, was to see if a player’s actions affected the outcome of the game. If the answer is yes, then the game must be a game of skill. “So we looked at how the actual player population performed on FanDuel, versus a random algorithm,” Hosoi explains.
Researchers devised an algorithm that created randomly generated Fantasy Sport teams from the same pool of players available to FanDuel users. The algorithm was designed to follow the rules of the game and to be relatively smart in the way it generated each team.
“We have curated hundreds of thousands of games and looked at the scores of real fantasy players, versus the scores of computer generated fantasy players,” Hosoi explains. “And you see again that the Fantasy Sport players beat the computer generated ones, indicating that there must be some skill involved.”
Sports on an analysis spectrum
To put their results into perspective, the researchers plotted the results of each fantasy sport on a spectrum of luck versus skill. Within that spectrum, they also included the true counterpart of each Fantasy Sport, as well as other activities, such as coin-drawing, which is entirely based on chance, and cyclo-cross racing, which relies almost entirely on skill. .
In most cases, success in playing both fantasy and real sports was more skill-based, with real and virtual baseball and basketball being more skill-based than hockey and basketball or soccer. Hosoi explains that skills can play a relatively large role in basketball, as the sport consists of over 80 games per season.
“It’s a lot of games and there are a lot of chances to score in every game,” said Hosoi. “If you put in a basket by luck, that doesn’t matter too much. Whereas in hockey there are so few scoring opportunities that if you get a lucky goal it makes a difference, and luck can play a much bigger role. ”
Hosoi believes that the team’s results will ultimately be useful in characterizing fantasy sports, both in and out of the legal system.
“This is proof that the courts must weigh,” Hosoi said. “What I can give them is a quantitative analysis of where Fantasy Sports fit into the skill/chance spectrum. It’s mostly skills, but there’s always a bit of luck. ”