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MLB Daily Games Strategy: Taking the Fan Out of Fantasy

Renee Miller

Neuroscientist at the University of Rochester and author of Cognitive Bias in Fantasy Sports: Is your brain sabotaging your team?. I cover daily fantasy basketball for RotoWire and write for RotoViz about fantasy football.

Taking the Fan Out of Fantasy

This past weekend my son played in his little league championship game. He's 12, an age where the game finally resembles the real thing. Balls are hit to and caught in the outfield. A line drive to the fence is a single, not an inside the park homerun. A killer off-speed pitch is a sure strike out. There's still a ridiculous amount of stealing, but there is some caught stealing too. My son's team was pretty stacked, and though they had their share of off nights, they all improved this season and deserved to be in this final. Same with their top seeded opponent, against whom we had a 1-2-1 record on the season.

I've been fairly patient for a long time, through eight years of developmental 'house' leagues and even travel leagues where winning just hasn't mattered that much. However, this year, more than ever before, I was watching my kid play real baseball. In real baseball, it matters when you win. If you've read me at all, or followed me on twitter, you know that I'm a super-competitive sports fan.

Let me define sports fan: I'm a fan of all the major sports, but a fan of no particular teams. I typically have some rooting interest in any game I happen to be watching, but I'm as likely to root for a team this week and against them next week. I like good action, I like up and coming franchises, I like who I like, when I like them. I've never felt bound by fan loyalty. (I've thought about why that may be since I get asked who is my favorite team all the time--but will spare you the details here).

For several reasons, I really wanted our team to win this game. First, they simply earned the right to it with their strong play all spring. Second, they wanted it. Third, many of us absolutely can't stand the other other team's coach. He's always yelling at the umps, accusing opponents and umps of cheating, generally setting a bad example and being a jerk. He once screamed and threw his hat at the feet of a 14 year old volunteer umpire in a regular season game of 10 year old kids over whether a check swing was a swing. True story.

We ended up losing the big game. It was close through the 4th inning, when we had a comedy of errors in the field (it was far from funny, tbh). We went down 8-5 and never recovered. So, we lost. I was sad, angry (only on the inside--I'm a good mom), disappointed... all the typical feelings one might have when a favored team disappoints. And gradually I've gotten over it, of course. It's only little league. But the idea of caring so much about an outcome got me thinking about being a fan of a real team.

Most people who love sports love a certain team or city or country, whatever. They (you) have favorites, in whom they invest in apparel, season tickets, and emotion. Lots of emotion, right? I mean it's basically the definition of "fan" to have an emotional investment in your team.

Lots of research says that having such feelings alters your ability to think logically about that things you're invested in. Something called the Endowment Effect takes over and you start valuing that which is yours or important to you much higher than:

1) things/players that aren't yours and/or
2) someone else would value that thing/player.

The name of this cognitive bias comes from the fact that you endow your things/players with an undeserved level of value.

What does any of this have to do with daily fantasy baseball you wonder? Well, investing in my DFS lineups is as close as I normally get to fandom. I care how my players do that day and that's it. The investment is shallow, yet strong enough to generate at least some emotion. But not nearly as much as I felt during the little league game. That was so intense it made me wonder how people who are fans of real teams balance their fandom with their fantasy teams. The issue applies to season long fantasy as well, and I've had many discussions about the Endowment Effect especially as it applies to making trades in seasonal fantasy. In DFS, though, I think a couple of things may be happening.

1) People use players from their favorite teams. If the team does well, you get a double shot of positive emotion since your DFS lineup will be likely to cash too. When the stars align, this is a fine strategy. My whole family and much of the world is Yankees fans. With Chris Tillman taking the mound against Masahiro Tanaka Sunday afternoon, stacking NYY was just smart DFS play. Even though it ended up sucking, it was a sound plan. In using your guys, you do run the risk of double disappointment too. Just to give a recent positive example, talk to Brewers fans about the Coors road trip DFS gold mine. The point is, it's very easy to talk yourself into using your team's players for DFS.

2) Sites keep popular player salaries high. This is a little speculative, I don't have any inside information about it specifically. I know that some sites use an algorithm to set player salaries based on performance. The time frame in which salaries adjust is daily for some sites, seemingly never for others. There is human oversight over the process though, allowing salaries for popular, but underperforming players to potentially remain high. The logic for the site would be to keep the price high, because that player/team's fans suffer from the Endowment Effect and will pay more for him than market value. Does your DFS site ask your favorite team in your profile? Like I said, no evidence here but it would be a smart move by the sites.

3) You avoid picking players from games that your favorite team is playing in. This would be our way of avoiding the bias. There are usually 10-14 other games to choose from, so why even look at your team's game? Just neatly sidestep having to use players for or against them. Maybe this is OK. Maybe you recognize the potential bias and elect to not care. Maybe if enough other DFSers do the same thing, it evens out. I don't have the answer to any of these maybes, but excluding potential fantasy points for this reason seems to be starting you at a disadvantage.

A lot of the time in this space, I think and write about pretty basic, nuts and bolts kind of strategy, but every so often I like to touch on some of the more psychological aspects of the game of DFS. The goal is to put yourself in the best position to win every day, knowing that you won't win every day. To the extent that your emotions as a fan affect your decision making-and they certainly do-it's one more thing to factor in as you build your lineups.

I'm not saying don't be a fan, merely that sometimes the optimal fantasy sports decisions will force you to go against your heart. Someone recently told me, and it's a sentiment I hear echoed on twitter a lot, that playing a lot of fantasy has dulled their fandom somewhat. I guess it's a logical outcome--when you become invested in multiple possible outcomes, each one matters a little less. As with so many cognitive roadblocks to success, just being aware that something as ordinary as being a fan can negatively impact your play can help you overcome it. Good luck in whatever you're cheering for this week.