Don’t quit your day job: Daily fantasy football is probably more chance than skill

What’s in a word? For daily fantasy leagues, one word is worth about $1 billion dollars. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 carefully excluded fantasy sports from their legislation. The 31 U.S. Code 5362 1.E.IX.IIstates the following:

All winning outcomes reflect the relative knowledge and skill of the participants and are determined predominantly by accumulated statistical results of the performance of individuals (athletes in the case of sports events) in multiple real-world sporting or other events.”

For the purposes of legislation, this caveat of “skill” is enough to justify the existence of daily fantasy leagues, which attest to being a skill-based online venture. For the purposes of science, one word is not enough. So, we wanted to measure the “skill” of a daily fantasy player by studying the relationship between a player’s strategy as well as time spent choosing a fantasy lineup and the performance of the players selected. In other words — is daily fantasy a game of chance or skill?

Show me your skills
Before weeks 15 and 16 of the football season, we surveyed 251 daily fantasy football players and asked for their projected fantasy lineup for the upcoming week’s games on either Draft Kings or Fan Duel. We then asked their strategies for choosing their daily teams both “in general” and specifically, for “this upcoming week.” Strategies for choosing their fantasy teams were on a scale from 1 (“Never”) to 7 (“All the time”), and included strategies like: information from “expert websites,” “predictive algorithms,” “other data-driven strategies,” or “my best guess.” We then asked how much time each daily fantasy player spent picking their fantasy lineups2.

“Other data driven strategies” proved to be the only strategy that came close (r = .10, n = 251, p = .05) to predicting the quality of a chosen fantasy player (figure 1). Even though “other data driven strategies” are vague, we know that it includes something other than predictive algorithms. Still, these results don’t say much at all. 

Figure 1. Strategies used to select daily fantasy lineups

 Additionally, there was no indication that time spent picking a fantasy team correlated with the average quality of the fantasy player chosen (figure 2) — and it’s not even close.  True, there are some rainmen-like people who can make a living playing fantasy sports and can say that daily fantasy football is a game of skill. But, overall, these data suggest that for most people, success in daily fantasy sports is due to chance — and not skill. That, or these people are incredibly lucky, and incredibly short-sighted.

Figure 2. Time spent selecting fantasy lineups 

Regardless, semantics seem to be a poor strategy for justifying the existence of daily fantasy leagues. If skill is going to be the distinction from the random chances in gambling, it needs to be measured, rather than just stated. However, these results draw no distinction between playing daily fantasy football and rolling the dice in craps. Neither the strategy chosen nor the amount of time spent selecting one’s daily fantasy lineup seemed to make a difference.

Don’t quit your day job. 


2 The average daily fantasy football player is a single 32-year-old white male, with a 4-year college degree, and an average household income of $55,000 per year. They’ve played daily fantasy football in about 61% of the weeks this season, and have about 2 daily teams each week. Their average fantasy player chosen scores 13.4 fantasy football points in DraftKings (120.6 team points), and about 12 points in FanDuel (108 team points).


  1. So for random people with no skill, DFS is a game of no skill. Got it. Same thing with poker, btw. Anyone can play it, but only a few can win consistently.

    Put another way, why would your system of bucketing a small sample of people into followers of different (vaguely) self-described "strategies" be able to identify this small subset of skilled players?

  2. The intention was not to find this small subset of skilled players. We came to this conclusion after we randomly sampled 251 DFS players and noticed that none of their strategies seemed to work. We then found out that there was a consistent group of people who could win money playing DFS, but that this group was very very small compared to all the people who play DFS.

  3. The game itself is based on both skill and luck, like most other things in life. The fact that there exist participants which have no discernible skill means nothing about the game and what it takes to win it. The fact is that most people shouldn't quit their day jobs to pursue *anything* that requires exceptional skill and work, so I really have no idea what the point of this article was. Is there some straw man argument out there that every DFS player uses intelligent strategies?

  4. You're bringing up an excellent point about DFS – where can we draw the line with "calling", "naming", or "titling" DFS as a game of skill or chance, based on the number of people that can play DFS with skill? Do we call it a game of chance because a seemingly overwhelming majority of people play it without skill? Or, is it a game of skill even if there was only 1 person in the world who could play it with any skill? That's a great question.

    What we found from a random sample of DFS players is that there is not a significant amount of DFS players that utilize any skill, aside from those that use "other data driven strategies" which is a bit ambiguous. Maybe we've missed another measure for skill that might be buried in "other data driven strategies" – we'd love some suggestions to test further. And, if there is a hidden skill to the game, it's an exciting/enticing potential for those who play DFS, and might someday master this hidden skill. Regardless, using expert advice, predictive algorithms, and best guesses don't seem to be working for the majority of DFS players.

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