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EPL Fantasy: Maybe It's Up to America to Bring It Out of the Dark Ages

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Many moons ago, (1995, or was it 1996?) I discovered, in earnest, the cruel mistress that is fantasy sports. Specifically, a couple friends and I from seventh period chemistry class used a lot of our time pouring over an advertisement inside The Sporting News, rather than working on our neutrons, isotopes and whatever else you do in high school science class aside from goofing off and playing paper football on the lab table.

The ad was for a — get this — mail-in fantasy baseball league with all sorts of wild prizes. There was a list of a 100+ players and you had to assemble a team under the salary cap. If memory serves, Juan Gonzalez was worth like 10,000 points whereas someone like Craig Paquette was worth around 500 — the lowest on the spectrum. At the time it was fun. People still relied on USA Today on Mondays and Tuesdays for full-team stats. Baseball-Reference, let alone America Online, might as well have been exhibits at Epcot Center for all it mattered in those simpler, pre-Internet times.

All of this was new-and-exciting enough for my friends and I to stage a four-person fantasy baseball league, based off that ad in the Sporting News. Four people proved enough, for football too, where I still managed to take Mark Chmura in the fourth round — a pick that looks A LOT worse all these years later. (For what it’s worth, isn’t the league on The League only eight teams?)  We expanded to around eight people for the NBA season, but someone quit mid-way through creating hell on the league commissioner — me — as I had to assign Rik Smits, et al. to other teams, providing an early example of how crazed fantasy sports/rules can make people. Our group didn’t really do hockey; we collectively decided we had no clue what we were doing when somebody took Gino Odjick in the second round.

Why am I taking space on a national sports blog to reminiscence about fantasy sports? And isn’t it true what Tony Soprano said about “remember when” being the lowest form of communication? Valid point, but it’s worth illustrating how far fantasy sports — especially the NFL — has grown over the last two decades from the days of hand-scoring and quaint, four-person leagues. We’re also far past the days when anyone who did fantasy — more specifically “roto” back in the day — was mocked or called a nerd. Hell, the NFL itself advertises its Sunday Ticket specifically to fantasy owners and created the Red Zone Channel, in part, because of it.

In 2014 the line between “real life” football and fantasy football on Sundays is fully and completely blurred, as we’ve grown light years away from the dark ages of that Sporting News advertisement serving as a high school kid’s fantasy sports gateway drug.

While the NFL’s rise to the top of the American sports mountain has certainly been fueled by fantasy, the world’s most-popular sports league — the Barclay’s Premier League (EPL) — hasn’t. (Slick marketing and worldwide gambling probably are the reasons behind it, along with satellite television.) Quite frankly, as an American well-versed in all things fantasy sports, the typical EPL fantasy games floating around the web today are at best adequate and at worst exceedingly primitive, hardly better than where my friends and I were in that science class in the mid-90s.

[RELATED: EPL 2014: Six Vital Questions Before Kickoff Next Weekend]

Let’s take a quick look at the official EPL fantasy offered by the league itself. The Cliff’s Note version of the key scoring rules:

  • 15 players, start 11: two keepers, five defenders, five midfielders and three forwards.
  • 100-point salary cap — player salaries range from 12.5 (Robin van Persie) to 4.0 (lots of guys on Burnley).
  • Only one “free” transaction per gameweek, more than one equals a points deduction.
  • Points for outfield players are generated mainly through: goals, assists, cards, cleansheets, minutes played over 60 and “bonus points” for a top performance.
  • You assign a captain, who earns double points.
  • Leagues are either Head-to-Head or standard points-based, with the winner decided by the highest overall points haul in May.

The European Yahoo! version is very similar to the official game, as are most other variants, including points for successful crossing, tackles won and blocked shots. Soccer’s lack of extended “counting stats,” aside from the standard goals and assists, makes devising an ideal, uniform scoring system difficult. There isn’t exactly a “yards gained from scrimmage” or batting average equivalent in soccer, as there is in the NFL or baseball. As a six+ year veteran of the official EPL game, I still have no idea about the bonus points and how its awarded most of the time. Usually, I captain my nominal best player, hope he doesn’t get a red card and hope for the best.

For what it’s worth, I got our own Jason Lisk to sign up for a TBL league and he admitted he didn’t understand the scoring. I really didn’t have a good answer for him. Fortunately the game is free to play, because in its current system it doesn’t bring much to the table. (If you want to join, follow this Twitter link after you sign up for a team, because even joining a league is a pain in the ass on the official site, relying on a code.)

[RELATED: The English Premier League: A Primer For New Soccer Fans Picking a Club]

Ultimately the biggest issue with fantasy EPL, after the first month or so most people tend to lose interest, particularly in non-head-to-head leagues, where the top teams inevitably end up with quite similar teams and establish a gap over the field. Limited to only one free transaction per week, it’s hard to remodel your team without taking a hit, or striking it lucky with a huge week from your captain. Beyond that, a points-based league where everyone could conceivably have the same roster feels like a relic from another era — something worth approximately 87 second of your time each week.

One example worth illustrating some of official game’s flaws is goalkeeper. Last year, American Tim Howard was the top scorer with 160 points. His “salary” for 2014-15 is 5.5. Fellow American Brad Guzan is tenth on the list with 127 points and a 4.5 “salary.” This is less than a one-point per week difference over the 38-game season. A similar contrast can be seen with the top-scoring defender from last season Seamus Coleman (180 points) worth a 7.0 salary and Martin Skrtel (143) worth 6.0.

Splitting hairs like this doesn’t seem all that fun, right? That is, unless you enjoy crunching numbers and trying to squeeze the most potential out of that 100-point salary threshold as possible, meaning you probably work in the Tampa Bay Rays front office. There’s also the whole “eye test” aspect where De Gea along with Petr Cech were probably the best keepers in the league last season, yet hardly rated that way by the fantasy game scoring system.

You could raise an argument that there aren’t enough “star” players to go around to do a standard league of eight or 10 teams, where each roster is unique. Of the returning players from last season, only seven registered more than 180 points: Yaya Toure (241); Steven Gerrard (205); Eden Hazard (202); Daniel Sturridge (197); Wayne Rooney (190); Olivier Giroud (187) and Coleman (180) — if healthy I’d argue  van Persie and Kun Agüero would be on this list. Obviously in a draft, under this scoring system whomever lands Toure (or Luis Suarez from last year) would be at a big advantage, as one taking Coleman or someone else first.

[RELATED: Ted Lasso Returns to Promote NBC’s Premier League Coverage]

Fortunately, the impetus to change Fantasy EPL (or fantasy soccer in general) is coming from America. Last year, an Internet friend of mine, Jeff, asked me to join a fantasy league he was setting up on FanTrax. It would be like any normal “fantasy sports” game we’re used to: a draft, head-to-head scoring, a waiver wire, trades, keepers, etc. Last year we did it with 10 teams, this year we’re up to 12 including an expansion draft.

The scoring system Jeff devised on a trial-basis last year put an emphasis on ball-winning midfielders and passers, compared to forwards and goalkeepers. This year it’s been amended as we work total a balanced, ideal system. (Humblebrag alert: I somehow won the league last year despite auto-drafting due to a conflict and never fully understanding the scoring system. Credit blind luck, Aaron Ramsey, and Mile Jedinak.)

Here’s our scoring system in Year 2 for outfielders. Yes, it’s arbitrary and a lot to grasp, but much more advanced than the basic EPL official game or other variants. We start 11 players, one keeper, four defenders, four midfielders and two forwards — no variance.

eplfantasyscoring

If nothing else this “test” league showed that real EPL fantasy leagues, ones that break away from the 100-point salary system, are indeed viable. For an accurate comparison it’s almost like a mash-up of NFL and baseball fantasy. The games are only played once (sometimes twice — another issue for another day), meaning there’s a bit of a gamble in which 11 players you start each week, but the season is long like baseball and you have to be active with your roster.

With more Americans interested in soccer post-2014 World Cup, fantasy is another way to retain engagement and build familiarity with the players/teams/league. As it stands the official EPL game and most other free ones like it aren’t nearly up to the task.

Maybe the growth will have to come like it did back in my old chemistry class, with friends forming their own four-person, or six-person or whatever-person leagues. If enough of those sprout up, within a few years we’ll be able to trade notes and come up with a universal, standardized scoring system that works best and brings EPL fantasy into the 21st century.

 

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