Fantasy 101: What is Fantasy Football?

Learn exactly what it means to play fantasy football, in our Fantasy 101 new owner primer.

What is Fantasy Football & How is it Played


Fantasy football is a game in which you, as the owner, create your own team of players from real players in the National Football League (NFL). You compete against other owners in your league to score points based on the performance of your players in real NFL football games. 

If you are new to fantasy football allow me to welcome you to a hobby that is simple in concept but endlessly complex in application. That is one of the things that makes playing fantasy football so fun and engaging. Our team at QB List is excited to introduce you to the game in our Fantasy 101 series. You will learn the basics of how it is played, from scoring and league settings to in-season management. We will also dive deep into more advanced stuff like draft strategies or different fantasy formats. We want to help you master fantasy football. In this article, we will talk about the ins and out of fantasy football: what it is, how it is played, and some of the different types of leagues and options.   


What types of Fantasy Football are played?


There are two main types of game types: season-long and daily fantasy. Further, there are sub-categories within these. In season-long, you commonly have re-draft and dynasty leagues. In Daily Fantasy, referred to as DFS, you have Cash and Tournament. Best Ball is a newer type of league and gaining popularity. It is a season-long league but you are only competing to score the most fantasy points in your league during the NFL regular season. QB List will have articles breaking down each of these types of fantasy games. 


How do I play Fantasy Football?


For this article, we will focus on the traditional format of play, Head To Head (H2H). To begin, owners will select players from a pool of available NFL players. Your team will generally be broken down into positions such as Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Wide Receivers, and Tight Ends. We call these the “skill” positions and the vast majority of league owners will only select from these positions. Some leagues add placekickers, team defenses, or even individual defensive players. 

These groups of players then compete against each other to determine a winner. At the end of the week, if your team has the most points, you win the matchup. Standings are calculated just like a traditional sports league where you are competing for a playoff entry based on standings. When the playoffs begin, the teams left in the dance compete head to head, this time in a tournament format, to determine the league winner. 

All of this activity takes place within the 16-game NFL season. The fantasy regular season is typically the first 13 or 14 weeks of the NFL season. The fantasy playoffs usually take place between Weeks 13 and 17, with most leagues opting to forgo a matchup in Week 17 because the players that matter usually sit the week out.


How does scoring work?


In head to head, you compete against a single opponent and the team with the most points wins the matchup. Your skill position will earn points for stats they accumulated during the game. Quarterbacks will get points for throwing a touchdown, yardage totals, or possibly earn negative points for interceptions. Some leagues add everything from completions to sacks taken.  Running backs will earn points for each yard gained via a rush, as well as touchdowns scored. Likewise, a receiver, be it backs, wideout or tight end, will earn similar amounts for catching passes. Points per reception have become the industry standard, which is just a point earned for catching a pass. This change helped to bring receiving scoring more in line with rushing, which historically dominated fantasy football. At the end of the week, the team with the most points gets a victory.  The variety of fantasy scoring settings has exploded over the years and you can find leagues to play that give you points for nearly anything in a stat sheet but for the new owner, it’s best to start with accepted standards and build from there. 


League Size and Roster Settings


A typical league is 10 or 12 team managers, with a 16-man roster with anywhere from 160 to 192 players being rostered at any given time. You will generally be starting nine players: a single QB, two RBs and WRs, a single TE and a kicker and a team defense, and you may have a flex position where you can play anyone except a QB. In recent years, and as the availability of good quarterbacks has exploded, leagues have begun to allow a quarterback in the flex spot or require that two QBs start each week. Leagues can add more starters to present more of a challenge to owners, or remove some of the requirements to make the league flexible. 

From here leagues can vary in size and scope, with leagues that roster 20, 30, or even 40 players or leagues that add team owners. Both expand the number of players that are rostered, which increases the amount of fantasy-relevant players you can keep track of. If you are confident in your football knowledge, a deeper league may be the challenge you are looking for.   


How do I acquire players?


There are two types of drafts to acquire your initial roster: snake style and auction. 

Snake drafts organize teams into a specific spot in the order, from first to last. The league takes turns drafting players one after the other for a single round. Then the round reverses and the owner that picked last in the previous round goes first in the next, and so on until the draft concludes. This is called a snake style draft and is a straightforward way to draft teams but there are endless strategies to success. This is where new players should begin. 

An auction draft is just what you would expect from the name. Managers are each given the same amount of virtual cash to bid on players to fill their roster. Managers take turns nominating players to put on the auction board, and the highest bid wins. Bids continue to rise as long as an owner ups the ante. The strategy comes in managing your bankroll, how and when you nominate players, and knowing where your fellow drafters stand. This is an advanced type of league but something every fantasy player should experience. 


What Do I Need to Know During the Season?


Setting your weekly lineup

You will have a matchup each week of the NFL season in H2H leagues. The week will run from Thursday to Monday, then reset for the following week. Each week will follow a similar schedule until you get into the playoffs weeks later in the year. 

Prior to the kickoff of the first game of the week, owners will set a lineup of players to activate for the week. As discussed previously, owners will generally start a specified number of players at each position. All remaining players will be on your bench. Only the players in your starting lineup will earn you points, and players left on the bench will not earn points in your matchup. You are allowed to swap players in and out prior to kickoff of a particular game, but once the official kickoff happens that roster spot is locked in. Football is a game of attrition and player injuries play a big role in a week to week decision making. Injury reports come out one and a half hours prior to the game’s kickoff time. Savvy owners will want to pay attention to television reporters or Twitter feeds to see which players are healthy and active and which players may be sitting the game out. 

The most important factor in setting your weekly lineup is player matchups. Football is a chess match, with coaches and players doing all they can to exploit a matchup weakness they studied in the opponent. Some teams will have a hard time defending receivers, in which case you will want to start any receivers you have playing against that team. Many times it is a gut feeling you get. Drew Brees playing in a dome or Tyreek Hill on turf are situations where you can see your player blowing up for the week.


Acquiring Free Agents

There are two primary types of systems used for acquiring players: priority waivers and blind bidding. 

In a waivers system, all available free agents are in a pool of available players. The team with the worst record in the league gets first priority in acquiring any player in the pool. If they are successful in acquiring the player they go to the back of the queue and the second-worst team gets the priority selection. This can happen multiple times in the same waiver run and gives the worst-performing teams priority in acquiring the best available players. 

In a blind bid system, all teams will use their blind bid cash allocation budget to bid on players. Similar to an auction, each player will enter a bid for a player but the bid amount is secret until waivers run. At that time, whoever bids the most cash is awarded the player. This is typically called Free Agent Acquisition Budget or FAAB.    

Each system could then allow players to freely pick up any player in the free-agent pool, and this is called Free-for-All waivers. It is almost always on a first come first served basis but often you can build rules such as priority waivers in. It is important to understand the way your league acquires free agents because much of your success in the league will depend on acquiring free agents. 


Trading Players

One of the best parts of fantasy football is swinging the big trade. You can be sure the other owners in your league will be cursing or praising you when they see the deal come across their feeds. Just like in real life, you can negotiate trades with your fellow owners, you are the GM after all. Once both parties have agreed, the players will swap teams and they will be eligible to play in the next eligible game. 


Wrapping Up


So now that you know the basics of the game, now is the time to join a league. There are countless websites that run free-to-play leagues, but some of the more popular sites are ESPN, Yahoo, or CBS Sportsline. If you are searching for more in-depth information check out the rest of our Fantasy Football 101 content. Be sure to check out QB List for the best player analysis, guidance, and advice.


(Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire)

2 responses to “Fantasy 101: What is Fantasy Football?”

  1. My cousin has invited me to join his fantasy football league he will be starting this fall. I appreciate you helping me to understand that fantasy team owners have to set up a lineup of players to activate for the week. I would imagine that it would be a good idea to keep track of NFL news and transactions so that creating a better lineup can be easier.

  2. Erik Smith says:

    You’re welcome! Glad we could help. Yes, staying on top of news is very important. We post a Sit/Start article every week to help with decisions, so check those out in-season. They come out every Thursday.

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