I’ve been playing fantasy football since 2003,1 and like the actual NFL2 our rules have constantly evolved.
In my first season there were no fractional points (19 rushing yards was 0 points and 20 yards was 1), no points-per-reception, no waiver delay, yards were worth half as much as they are now, etc. But one thing that’s changed very little is the playoff format.
The structure of fantasy football mirrors the structure of the real NFL. Regular season schedules are set a priori (although fantasy leagues tend to have 10–14 teams, vice 32 teams in the NFL, so every team can play every other team at least once), while the end of the real-world regular season (typically Weeks 14–16) is the fantasy playoffs, which determine the final standings.
In the real word, the elevated importance of the playoffs is a feature. One big game for all the marbles is what makes the Super Bowl so fun to watch. Real football also rewards clutch performances, more intense preparation, and grit — in short, the NFL playoffs pair elevated importance with greater agency.
In fantasy, every week (playoffs or not) is still just a handful of sit-or-start calls and free agency moves, yet the fantasy playoffs disproportionately weight the final weeks; in particular, a bad showing in the first week of the playoffs can drop someone from 1st to 6th, even if they crush it every other week. I don’t like the idea that one bad week (but only if it’s Week 14) can sink a 16-game season.
The fun of fantasy football is the journey, the integrated impact of 4+ months of tiny decisions, so the structure of the game should mirror this consistency. In recent years, we’ve created consolation brackets and prizes for the league’s top total-point getter (regardless of playoff performance), but this hasn’t solved the fantasy playoff problem, only muted it.
My idea comes from — of all places — the world of Premier League Soccer.3
Imagine a 12-team fantasy league, divided into two divisions. The “premier” division contains the top six teams from the prior year and the “championship” division the bottom six teams. A 16-week season4 means every team plays each of the six teams in the other division once and each of the five teams in their division twice. Instead of a playoff, final season rankings are based on cumulative head-to-head record, with total points as a tie-breaker. That is, very similar to the competition format in the English Premier League.
This structure also solves a second-order problem with regular season scheduling: there are more regular season weeks than there are other teams, so each team plays a random subset of the teams twice; this is inherently unfair to whoever play the best teams twice.
Lastly, to borrow another great idea from across the pond, the worst premier team (or two) is relegated to the championship, while the best championship team is promoted to premier.5
Taken together these changes eliminate the heaviness of the playoffs while still giving most teams something to play for: premiership, avoiding relegation, or earning promotion.
Now if I can just convince 11 other people to give it a go.
Top running back, Priest Holmes; top wideout, Terrell Owens; starting quarterback, Brett Favre. ↩
Added the two-point conversion, moved back kickoffs, eliminated running starts on kickoffs, moved back extra points, modified overtime, added a wild card team to the playoffs, etc. ↩
Which I only know about thanks to Ted Lasso. It’s an absolute masterpiece of a show. It justifies an AppleTV+ subscription on its own and is worth watching multiple times. ↩
Fantasy games are almost never played in Week 17 because teams whose NFL playoff seeding is already set often sit their best players to give them rest and avoid injuries. ↩
With all due respect to English “football”, we probably need to workshop the division names. ↩