Research finds that there is more skill than luck involved in fantasy success

When fantasy football arrived in the UK in the early 90s, it was as symbolic of Cool Britannia as Tony Blair, The Spice Girls and Frank Skinner. Over the subsequent quarter of a century, fantasy sport has grown up and evolved in step with the internet, and is now a monstrous industry worth billions in annual revenue.

Fantasy sport became popular at around the same time as doing the football pools was on the wane. The latter’s demise was actually as much to do with the National Lottery as anything else, but nevertheless, for many, the association stuck and fantasy football fans were seen as doing little more than their parents who had “selected their weekly numbers” in the 1970s and 80s. Recent research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, however, says that for the best fantasy players, luck has nothing to do with it.

Where skill is rewarded

The MIT study did not examine specific qualities that make one player more successful than another, so if you are looking for tips to hone your skills, you will be disappointed. What it did find, however, was that fantasy football is a game that, in the long term, rewards skill among players.

The researchers assessed the win/lose records for thousands of fantasy players across a period of several seasons. Some used skill in their picks, for example assessing form, injuries, weather conditions and so on, while others took a “football pools” approach. Anette Hosoi, who led the study, said: “In our analysis, the signal for skill in the data is very clear.”

As far as football is concerned, that might not come as a major surprise. However, Hosoi’s study went further, and established the same pattern with other fantasy sports, such as baseball, basketball, cricket and even horse racing. The latter is particularly surprising, as even in the real world, this is one sport where the outcomes are often linked to chance, possibly due to the immense amounts that are wagered on the outcomes.

What are the implications?   

It might be a stretch to suggest that the study by MIT will help players to assemble better teams, but it will certainly give those who top the fantasy leagues bragging rights that they really do understand their game. It will also inspire those who want to succeed at fantasy football to put in the hours of research and keeping track of form, whether it is on the football field, the racetrack or the cricket pitch.

Over in America where the research took place, there are potentially bigger implications, though. Different states have been arguing for years about whether fantasy sports are a form of online gambling. Given that this is largely prohibited under the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), the distinction is an important one. According to the US definition, gambling is “a money-exchanging activity that depends mostly on chance.” Credible research that confirms fantasy sports to be a contest of skill could, therefore, open the pastime up to whole new audiences.