Fantasy Football and the Wisdom of Crowds

On most fantasy football sites, including the one my league uses—Yahoo, team owners can see which players are the most popular. When you’re drafting you can see in which round other leagues have taken each player. And during the season you can see how many other teams feature each player as a starter or on a roster.

Personally, I never paid much attention to the preferences of the drooling slob masses of football fandom. I figured I was a little sharper than the average fan, so why pay attention to shirtless people wearing wear purple camouflage pants and team-logo emblazoned construction helmets with integrated beer dispensers?

But I was wrong. And here’s why.

I have biases. Being from Baltimore, I like the Ravens, and I have a burning hatred for the Colts. For years I would never pick a Colt for my fantasy team, even passing over Peyton Manning for Daunte Culpepper in the 1st round in 2005. (6 TDs. Ouch.) I'm sure many Cleveland fans feel the same way about Baltimore.

I also make plain old errors and misjudgments. I very often miscalculate how well a player will do or his likelihood of injury. I’m wrong far more often than right. Every one of my opinions has biases and errors. We all have biased and incorrect opinions. You do, and so does that guy, and that other guy over there. We all have them, some more than others.

So if you combine everyone’s opinions, you’d think we’d end up with nothing but a jumbled sea of moronic idiocy. But we don’t. We usually get a very accurate estimate of the truth. Averaging a large crowd’s opinion can be so accurate because our biases and errors usually don’t add up. They cancel out.

Let’s take some target practice. A thousand people who have never shot a gun before go to the range and each fire once at a target downrange. There would be very few bullseyes that day. But if we averaged out everyone’s error, we’d likely come very, very close to a bullseye for the group.

Now, instead of target practice, let's try to estimate Marion Barber's fantasy production this year. I think the best guess is that he'll have about 167 total points this season. You're a little smarter than me, and you know he's carrying the whole load in Dallas this year, so he might wear down or get injured. You guess 142 points. Some other guy doesn't know anything and he hates the Cowboys so he's got Barber pegged with 133 points. None of us are right, but all of us together are going to be pretty close.

I'm not claiming that collectively we can predict exactly how Marion Barber will do this year. I'm suggesting that together, our collective judgment will be a lot closer to the best unbiased estimate possible than any individual guess, even by 'experts.' After all, Barber could be out for the season on his first carry this year, but that doesn't make our best estimate wrong.

The weakness of the wisdom of crowds concept is when there is a systematic bias in everyone's opinion. In our target practice analogy, the barrel of our gun is warped. This can most often occur from media hype, or when one or a few very influential experts shape our opinions--think Mel Kiper.

But when opinions are formed independently, or when there isn't a small group of dominant experts, biases and errors tend to be random. And when there are random errors, the larger the sample, the better the result. That's why I trust the fantasy football crowd.

Fantasy football is largely an internet phenomenon, and there doesn't seem to be a Mel Kiper of fantasy, but lots of expert-wannabees instead. It seems most fans know these experts are mostly turkeys, and make their own opinions in relative isolation. So I tend to believe the crowd, morons and all, more than my own judgment.

There's actually a book out now on this phenomenon. I haven't read it yet, but it's nearing the top of my list. Check out The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowieki if you're interested.

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7 Responses to “Fantasy Football and the Wisdom of Crowds”

  1. JTapp says:

    You might want to check out some of the work of Kahneman and Tversky on the unwisdom of crowds.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I would echo what JTapp said above - crowds also exhibit biases (see: housing bubble, internet bubble).

  3. Brian Burke says:

    I don't disagree one bit, but individual biases tend to be much larger. What's a better estimate of what your house is worth, what you think it's worth or what the market thinks it's worth?

  4. Anonymous says:

    True, I would assume that the market can value things I am uninformed about much better than I can. In fact, I tried using a pseudo market-based projection system ( to aid me in my fantasy draft.

  5. Anonymous says:

    The best prediction markets are based on people actually putting their money where their mouth is. I'd be much more interested in only looking at drafts that are playing for money, and possibly weighted for how much money they're playing for (granted, such a wish cannot be granted). The problem with Protrade, say, is that there is no real incentive to make accurate decisions. I have a spreadsheet with the average draft number (from ESPN) for each player. I'll be interested to see how well the masses do.

    One other thought: ESPN shows what the "national consensus" NCAA tournament bracket is every year (based on all users who make a bracket on ESPN). Not surprisingly, the national bracket is nearly identical to the seeds, which has done pretty well the last couple of years, but not too well in general.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I agree you should stick to the values recommended by ESPN for all your auctions.

  7. kris says:

    The problem with the crowd is that ... you end up just getting the "average" result and you wont really win that way. Its too conservative.

    One must do one's own research and take chances and its within those chances that we find all of the fun of fantasy football anyway. its when we're right and have proven the "crowd" wrong - at least in your league - that we're able to excel.

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