Monday, September 13, 2010

Speaking of fantasy MLS...

First of all, I didn't do Pick'em through the entire tournament. I don't think I quite finished the group stage.

Secondly, and what I really want to write about: fantasy soccer is pretty lame. There are two primary reasons for this.

Number one: every fantasy soccer site I've ever found goes by the salary cap system. That is, there's no such thing as a draft. It's a system, for those of you who don't know, where you get a certain amount of money to spend on X players, and players' values change over the course of the season depending on how well they do. Given this structure, there's nothing stopping everyone in a league from having the same players. In other words, joining a league only serves to display how you stack up against everybody else in the league, and there's no structural relationship between you and the other managers in the league except for the fact that you all registered your teams to be listed on the same exchange.

This is the way fantasy baseball used to be, about ten years ago. However, baseball has evolved almost entirely into draft-based systems, where you have the MLB universe as a common player pool, from which each team drafts X players. This creates a structural relationship between the managers of the league, because they are all competing with eachother for the same asset pool. It creates the possibility of trades, as well as reasons for managers in the league to interact and generally follow each other's teams. This interaction means competition. There is no such competition in salary cap-based leagues, because the structure makes it meaningless. Fantasy NFL is primarily draft-based too.

For some reason, fantasy soccer hasn't changed over. Maybe it's because fantasy sports are an American product and there's a lag between each evolution's spawning and its exporting. To me, draft-based leagues are leagues superior to salary cap leagues (get it?).

To make matters worse, most fantasy soccer sites have this rule where you can't sell players at their market price. Yahoo UK's rule is that managers "can only ever sell them at their purchase price." Ridiculous. The EPL's official site, on the other hand, says if a player's price goes up while you own him, you have to pay a 50% capital gains tax when you sell him (to whom? No one; it's just value lost into thin air). Similarly ridiculous. There are no taxes in fantasy NFL or MLB. It could be a cultural thing that keeps US-American sports in the draft sphere of fantasy sports, and the biggest UK sport in the salary-cap sphere. Maybe this rule, as well as the general prominence of the salary-cap system, is rampant in fantasy soccer due to popular soccer countries' socialistic leanings, namely England's.

(It could also be because players are usually bought and sold in soccer, whereas they tend to be traded in American sports. Then again, you don't have twelve Wayne Rooneys in the 20-team Premier League either.)

There's point one. Point two is that it's difficult to use quantifiable and categorical parameters to judge soccer performance of individual players. The most glaring example is goals. Some sites give goals the same value for every position, and some taper the value downward for more advanced positions. There are different ways to value a goal even from this skeletal lens. Take it further-- don't different goals have different value in real game settings? For instance, a stoppage time winner is more valuable than Didier Drogba's seventh goal of a 7-0 game, isn't it?

Take another example: a yellow card. Most sites give negative points for yellow cards. But that's such an elementary way to look at it. Isn't part of Javier Mascherano's real-life value his ability to choose his professional fouls cleverly? What about his sheer physicality? Would Maradona have made him captain of Argentina if he was a fair play champion?

I could pick through the rest of the common statistical categories in most fantasy leagues, but you get the picture. It's impossible to create a point system that effectively judges a player's value to a game.

The best scoring system I can envision is a system that puts a high statistical weight on a reliable man-of-the-match and/or player-ratings index. If you could have three or four statistics houses that put together player ratings and man-of-the-match aggregates from all the top soccer journalists in each league's country, then you would have a huge list of opinions of the most reliable journalists the country has to offer on each player's influence on a game. These statistics houses would serve as the Moody's and Standard & Poor's of the fantasy soccer world; as rating agencies put droves of financial professionals to work coming up with ratings of the market's debt securities, so would these statistics houses put droves of professional journalists to work rating every soccer player in the country. The result would be a subjective measure of each player's performance, but it would be an averaged result of a couple hundred of the top authorities' judgments.

This sounds like an impossibility, but these statistics houses wouldn't have to sprout out of the ground. They wouldn't even have to specialize in rating players. Sky Sports could have a statistics house with Sky Sports journalists; BBC could have a statistics house with their journalists. These two, and one or two others if they're created, could recruit top journalists from smaller companies just for their ratings. Or they could overlap a little. As long as you get a small handful of highly reliable ratings that fantasy leagues could insert into their value equation at 10-30% weight each (the weights could even be varied per each house's influence).

If I were feeling innovative, this is the sort of fantasy league I would create. Feel free to take this idea if you're a talented webmaster with a lot of server space and a reasonable share of patience. Information wants to be free.

Doubt it will happen.

Anyway, that's my ode to fantasy soccer. I'm a long-time, pretty competitive fantasy baseball and footballer. I wish there was a better way to play fantasy soccer.


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