Signing into a daily fantasy sports site for the first time
can be very confusing. There are a large number of different
contest and league types at most sites, all with names that
might not make a lot of sense. It’s very easy to be overwhelmed
by this, but things aren’t as complicated as they might seem.
All the different DFS contests and leagues are just
variations of two main types. They can be divided into the
following broad categories.
Once you grasp the concepts behind these two main types, the
rest is just detail that’s fairly easy to learn. The first thing
you should know is that cash games are contests where you have a
relatively high chance of winning a relatively small amount of
prize money, while tournaments are contests where you have a
relatively low chance of winning a relatively high amount of
Everything else you need to know about the various leagues
and contests in daily fantasy sports is covered below. We
explain more about cash games and tournaments, and also look at
the various subcategories of each type. We also offer some
advice for choosing which contests to take part in.
Daily Fantasy Cash Games
The main cash game contests you’ll encounter are 50/50s and
head-to-heads. These are very popular, thanks largely to their
simplicity and the fact that they represent a good chance of
winning some money. We’ll now explain how they work, and also
look at some other types of cash games too.
A 50/50 fantasy sports contest features multiple entrants,
and the top 50% of the entrants win money. Each entrant whose
score is in the top 50% of the field wins an equal share of the
prize pool. Those entrants whose scores fall in the bottom 50%
of the field get nothing.
Here’s an example of how a 50/50 contest can work.
50/50 Contest: $10 Entry Fee
100 entrants buy in to the contest.
50% of the field stand to win prize money (50 entrants).
Total entry fees collected equal $1,000 (100 x $10).
Site takes 10% commission ($100)
Prize pool is $900 ($1,000 in entry fees less $100 commission).
The top 50 entrants each win $18 ($900 / 50).
The correct approach in contests of this kind is basically to
give yourself the best possible chance of placing in the top
50%. There’s no reward for being in first place as opposed to
49th place, so the goal is not necessarily to get the highest
score possible. There’s no point in taking any risks to try and
place in the top few positions, because there’s no reward for
doing so. Instead you simply want to select a solid lineup that
should earn an above average score.
A head to head contest, or a heads up league, is very similar
to a 50/50. It’s exactly the same principle in fact, but there
are only two entrants. The entrant with the highest score wins,
the other one loses. The correct strategy for head-to-heads is
basically the same as for 50/50s. You’re not really shooting for
the highest score possible, but rather going for a low risk
approach that should be enough to beat your opponent.
Head-to-heads and 50/50s are also sometimes called double up
contests, because there’s roughly a 50% chance of almost
doubling your entry fee. Notice that we said almost. It’s not
quite double, because of the commissions charged by the site.
Other Cash Games
There are a few variations of the double up concept,
including contests called triple ups, or 4X or 5X contests.
These are still considered cash games, although you have to
place higher in order to receive a payout. The upside is that
the payouts are higher relative to the entry.
Here’s an example of one of these.
Triple Up Contest: $10 Entry Fee
30 entrants buy in to the contest.
33% of the field stand to win prize money (10 entrants).
Total entry fees collected equal $300 (30 x $10).
Site takes 10% commission ($30)
Prize pool is $270 ($300 in entry fees less $30 commission).
The top 10 entrants each win $27 ($270 / 10).
As you can see, a triple up works in pretty much the same way
as a 50/50. They’re slightly harder to win, but the rewards for
winning are greater. A 4X contest would be harder still, with
only the top 25% winning, and a 5X even harder with just the top
Daily Fantasy Tournaments
Tournaments are contests which typically attract large pools
of entrants. They come with staggered payout structures for the
winners. These types of leagues reward high variance play with a
higher payout, but your chances of winning are lower.
About The Payout Structures
Tournaments usually feature a tiered payout structure where only the
top 10% or top 20% of the contestants get paid. The higher your score,
the more you get. For example, first place in a tournament might win $10,000,
second place might win $5000, and third place might only win $2000.
There are essentially two major differences between cash
games and tournaments. The first is that tournaments reward a
smaller percentage of the entrants, and the second is that the
amount of prize money won in tournaments varies depending on the
finishing position. The strategies for tournaments also vary
significantly from cash games.
Guaranteed Prize Pools and Overlays
In order to generate excitement, daily fantasy sports sites
often hold tournaments with guaranteed prize pools (GPP). This
means that they’re guaranteeing the prize pool regardless of how
few players enter the tournament. Usually the buy-ins cover the
prize pool, but in a GPP tournament it’s possible that the site
might have to make up the difference.
Here’s an example:
GPP Contest: $20 Entry Fee & $20,000 Guaranteed
800 entrants buy in to the contest.
Total entry fees are $16,000 (800 x $20).
Prize pool is still $20,000 due to the guarantee.
The DFS site makes up the $4,000 difference.
The difference between the entry fees collected and the
guarantee is called an overlay. Contestants should love overlay
situations, because they create positive expectation wagers.
Let’s assume that everyone in the example tournament
described above has an equal chance of winning (i.e. all the
contestants have the same level of skill). Just to keep
the math simple, let’s also assume that the only place that pays
out is first place, and the winner takes all $20,000.
If you’d paid $20 to enter this tournament you’d have a 1 in
800 chance to get a payout. That payout would return 1,000 to 1
on your money. If you were to enter 800 contests exactly like
this, the odds say that you’ll win once and lose 799 times.
When you win, you get a $20,000 payout. The other 799 times
you lose $20, for a total loss of $15,980. The profit for those
800 tournaments is $4020, or a little over $5 per tournament.
Another way of looking at is that your entry fee to each
tournament is worth a little over $25, but only actually costs
You don’t really need to understand all the math here. You
just need to know that overlay situations are good. If you never
become better than average at selecting a roster, you can still
almost guarantee yourself a profit if you only play in
tournaments with an overlay.
Please bear in mind that, the more popular the site, the less
likely it is that you’ll find an overlay situation. There can,
therefore, be an advantage to trying out new sites that are just
getting started, as they may have more overlay situations where
you can gain some extra value. You should keep your eyes open
for overlay opportunities at the established sites too though.
Other Tournament Variations
There are also some other variations of tournament types. The
most common are step tournaments and qualifiers.
The idea with steps is that you have multiple buy-in levels
for tournaments. At the lower levels, you can buy in cheap and
then win your way up to the higher buy-in steps.
Here’s an example of a typical step tournament set up:
Step 1 is a 10 person contest with a $2 entry fee.
1st place and 2nd place get free entry to Step 2.
3rd place and 4th place get a free entry back to Step 1.
The bottom 6 get nothing.
Step 2 is a 10 person contest with a $7 entry fee.
1st place and 2nd place get free entry to Step 3.
3rd place and 4th place get a free entry back to Step 2.
The bottom 6 get nothing.
Step 3 is a 10 person contest with a $25 entry fee.
1st place and 2nd place get free entry to Step 4.
3rd place and 4th place get a free entry back to Step 3.
The bottom 6 get nothing.
Step 3 is a 10 person contest with a $25 entry fee.
1st place and 2nd place get $200 each.
The bottom 4 get nothing.
Step contests are fun because they offer the chance to parlay
$2 into $200. You don’t necessarily have to play through the
first three steps to get into the final tournament though, as
you can buy straight into steps 2, 3, or 4 if you prefer. The
exact details for step contests vary from one site to the next,
but they all follow the same general format.
Qualifiers are closely related to step tournaments. These are
contests with a relatively low entry fee, but you don’t get any
money for winning them. Instead, you get an entry into a higher
priced tournament. For example, there might be a qualifier with
a $2 entry fee to a tournament where the prize is a ticket to
another tournament which normally charges an entry fee of $100.
Qualifiers are also sometimes called satellites. As with
steps, you can go through multiple qualifiers or satellites
before getting to the final tournament with the cash prizes.
Which Contests are Best?
There’s no correct answer to this question. It really comes
down to what your goals are, or simply what you prefer playing.
Recreational DFS players might play a wide variety of leagues
and contests just for their entertainment value. Serious players
might be more interested in grinding out small profits over
large numbers of cash games. Some players might just prefer the
challenge of trying to win a big payday.
No matter what your goals or preferences are, you’re sure to
find a contest or league type to suit. The best approach is
probably to experiment with various options and then decide
which ones you enjoy the most, or which ones give you the best
chance of making money. Just remember that strategy varies
according to which kind of contest you’re playing in though.
For example, in cash games, you’d rather have a roster that
gives you a 70% chance of landing in the top 50% than a roster
that gives you a 20% chance of landing in the top 10%. You don’t
get any kind of bonus for a super-high score. On the other hand,
in tournaments, you want to aim for the top 10%. This means
taking risks, such as embracing players who aren’t performing
great but might have a breakout week. You’ll also stack players
differently in tournaments versus cash games.
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