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Head-to-Head Best Ball: The Greatest Seasonal Format of All Time

These days I focus primarily on daily fantasy sports — that comes with the gig at FantasyLabs — but like most fantasy-obsessed people I got my start years ago in a regular seasonal league with some friends, and that league is amazingly still active. I will always have a soft spot for redraft leagues.

At the same time, I wish that redraft leagues were better than they are. In general, seasonal leagues fall into one of two categories:

  • Head-to-head (H2H) with playoffs
  • Best ball (BB) without playoffs

Both formats have their strengths and weaknesses. My belief is that the best seasonal leagues of the future will combine the two formats to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.

In this article I outline the ideal seasonal format of the coming years. The specifics of this format are rooted in fantasy football, but I’m convinced that this format could be easily applied to basketball, baseball, hockey, NASCAR, golf, etc. This isn’t a league type just for fantasy football. This is the ideal seasonal league for all of fantasy sports. 

Head-to-Head Format

The H2H format is classic. It has the virtue of being tried and true. It’s old-school fantasy sports at its best. Each week, you play against an opponent. One person wins. The other person loses. That process is repeated each week throughout the regular season. Maybe four teams make the playoffs. There are more H2H matchups in the playoffs, and eventually a champion is crowned. This format is very intuitive. It makes sense. It’s based on the format used by the various professional sports leagues in the United States. It’s adversarial and elegant in its simplicity. The H2H format easily facilitates the creation of rivalries — and rivalries in fantasy sports are fun.

At the same time, the H2H format is rife with randomness, and although chaos is an integral part of fantasy sports I think that we can all agree that none of us wants to get screwed by randomness more than is absolutely necessary. Rivalries are fun — but very little in seasonal fantasy sports hurts more than losing a H2H matchup even though your team scored the second-most points in the league that week.

Best-Ball Format

The BB format is basically like a mullet without the back: It’s all business. The Fantasy Football Players Championship (FFPC) and other season-long platforms offer BB leagues, which have become increasingly popular over the last few years. Different sites give them different names (the FFPC calls them Draft Experts Leagues), but they all have the same general format: Total field play (no H2H matchups), 16-week season (no playoffs), automated optimal scoring (no setting of lineups), and no in-season management (no free agent acquisitions). These draft-only leagues offer fantasy sports stripped to the core.

The benefit of these leagues is apparent: With a greatly reduced investment of time, energy, and emotion, BB leagues offer most of the superficial features of the H2H format: You draft, your team competes for 16 weeks, and someone is crowned a champion. Additionally, the BB format entirely eliminates the randomness of schedules and H2H matchups. In the BB format, the team that wins the championship truly is the best team all season. That’s a desirable outcome.

And yet in BB the fun — the intimacy — of H2H is missing. Playing in these leagues is a little like having sex with a stranger. It can be fun, but rarely is it fulfilling. In BB rivalries don’t exist. No close wins occur. There’s no need to sweat the outcome of a Monday night game. BB is a great fantasy format, but it doesn’t engender the emotions of classic H2H fantasy sports. It’s not as if the show The League could’ve existed if the premise had been this:

Eight friends play best ball. And then absolutely nothing interesting f*cking happens because they all forget about the league till they get an email notification after the season telling them that Taco won.

The BB format is great — but it’s for people who care more about the game than the people with (and against) whom they’re playing.

Guys vs. Gals League Revisited

In 2014, RotoViz and Her Fantasy Football teamed up to create the Guys vs. Gals League (GVGL). The settings for GVGL were based in part on those for the RotoViz Dynasty League (RDL), which had been formed the year prior. The redraft format I outline in this piece is based heavily on the GVGL.

Essentially, I believe the GVGL’s format — what I’m calling Head-to-Head Best Ball — combined the benefits of the BB and total point formats with the fun of H2H competition and a playoff tournament.

Regular Season

With 14 teams broken into two divisions, we had a standard H2H regular season schedule in Weeks 1-13. Each team played all the other teams once. Here’s the wrinkle: Optimal lineups determined the winner of each contest. During the regular season, there was no roster management. This format enabled us to have (almost) all of the in-season benefits of H2H and BB.

The regular season was basically all upside and no downside. We still formed rivalries. We still talked trash to each other. We still had some Monday night sweats. But we didn’t need to worry about remembering to set lineups. We didn’t have to feel the impact of people with poor records ignoring the league.

Basically, this format was (almost) perfect.

Postseason

In Weeks 14-16, we had a three-week playoff tournament that culminated in a cumulative championship matchup. Postseason details are in the next three sections.

Playoff Seeding

The playoff teams and seeds were determined as follows:

  • Seeds 1 and 2 were the top teams from each division.
  • Seeds 3 and 4 were traditional ‘record wildcards’: Of the 12 remaining teams, they had the best records.
  • Seeds 5 and 6 were points wildcards: Of the 10 remaining teams, they scored the most points on the season.

Very few leagues use a points wildcard, but almost all of them should. In GVGL, the points wildcard served to minimize the negative impacts of H2H scheduling, ensuring that the best teams in fact made the playoffs. It also allowed more teams to stay in the playoff race further into the season.

Playoff Tournament

During Weeks 14-16, playoff teams had to set their lineups. At this point, the ability to analyze matchups became incredibly important. With the stakes raised, most people enjoyed needing (or getting) to be involved with their team in the postseason. One feature of optimal scoring that’s unfortunate is the disinterest it can sometimes arouse in fantasy players: They don’t care about their BB teams because they haven’t needed to think about them since the draft. Also, most BB leagues don’t have a playoff tournament, and many fantasy players like the heightened intensity of the playoffs.

In the GVGL, people could have their regular season cake and it the postseason cake too. They were enabled to care more about their teams because they could determine which players to start in the games of the season that mattered the most.

Three-Week Cumulative Championship Matchup

The playoffs featured two free-for-all rounds and a cumulative championship matchup. The playoffs were structured as follows:

  • Week 14: Round 1
    • Seeds 1-2 were on bye, but their scores from Week 14 carried over to Week 15.
    • Seeds 3-6 competed in a free-for-all Round 1, with the two highest-scoring teams advancing.
  • Week 15: Round 2
    • Seed 1-2 competed against the two advancing teams from Round 1 in another free-for-all round.
    • Week 14 and Week 15 scores were added to produce Round 2 point totals.
    • The two highest-scoring teams in Round 2 advanced to Round 3.
  • Week 16: Round 3
    • The two championship contestants competed H2H in Week 16.
    • Their summed scores from Weeks 14-16 determined the league champion, the remaining team with the most points scored throughout the entirety of the playoffs.

This playoff format, though unorthodox, was a success. The free-for-all approach for Rounds 1-2 minimized the randomness of H2H matchups, and the cumulative scoring of Rounds 2-3 gave Seeds 1-2 significant investment in their Round 1 lineups.

The cumulative scoring of Rounds 2-3 also enabled us to mitigate the randomness that can accompany one-week contests and ensured that our champion had consistently scored points throughout the playoffs.

And, best of all, we were still able to get in a three-week championship matchup without exposing it to the vicissitudes of Week 17.

Basically, this playoff format created six weeks of overlapping action out of only three weeks of NFL games. It was like magic for muggles.

One Adjustment: Waivers

To the GVGL format, I would make one significant adjustment for the future: I would add waivers via a free agent acquisition budget (FAAB). In the GVGL, there were no waivers or trades. For the regular season, it was a true draft-only format. Even in the playoffs when people still set their lineups they weren’t allowed to add players off of waivers. As a result, some significant NFL players remained teamless for the entire season — and where’s the fun in that?

Part of the fun of fantasy football is adding guys who become major contributors off of waivers: Guys like Miles Austin in 2009, Peyton Hillis in 2010, Jordy Nelson in 2011, Alfred Morris in 2012, Julius Thomas in 2013, Justin Forsett in 2014, Gary Barnidge in 2015, and Davante Adams in 2016. With a $1,000 FAAB, fantasy players will be able to add players off of waivers to maximize enjoyment.

Of course, this addition also creates the need for more time investment, which some leagues might dislike. If they don’t wait waivers, they don’t need to have them. This feature is optional.

Head-to-Head Best Ball: The Best Seasonal Format of All Time

I don’t want to sound too much like Ron Burgundy — because I never think milk is a bad choice — but it’s a fact: H2HBB is the greatest seasonal format in the history of mankind.

Ultimately, H2HBB accomplishes two feats:

  • It preserves the fun and simplicity of H2H.
  • It embraces the low maintenance and non-randomness of BB.

Variations of H2HBB could easily be created, as people would seek to use formats that align with their desires. That’s fine.

The important takeaway is this: Simple H2H (though fun) is in decline, but BB (as it exists now) lacks the personality to replace it adequately. A combination of the two formats would likely advance the industry, making it easier for platforms to recruit and retain fantasy players.

H2HBB isn’t just a format created at RotoViz three seasons ago. It’s the format of the future.

——

Matthew Freedman is the Editor-in-Chief of FantasyLabs and the producer of the RotoViz Radio podcast channel.

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