What makes Daily Fantasy Sports fun to play?

My debut post about the DFS industry and how the challenges it faces are similar to poker’s ongoing struggles covered a lot of ground. In this next installment I’ll dig a bit deeper and share some thoughts about the mechanics that actually make DFS fun to play – minus the obvious allure of being able to win money – and how to innovate it.

But first a disclaimer.

Game design is an art form. An established art form that has been extensively studied. I am schooled in very little of it and am by no means an academic authority on the subject. I advice anyone interested in this topic to read up. Books like Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun in Game Design, Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us and pretty much anything published online by Tadhg Kelly (@tiedtiger) over the years is a good start.

End of disclaimer.

In a great comment to my initial piece twitter nick @DFTalkForum wrote the following on dailyfantasytalk.com:

”I think a lot of outsiders underestimate the entertainment value of putting together a lineup.”

”It was the need to dive into the numbers for fun that pulled me into DFS — much more so than the hokey ads or the chance to win a million bucks.”

I am an outsider. And I don’t know the DFS experience that well yet. So yes, I’m largely ignorant. But I don’t struggle to grasp what makes it it inherently fun.

This is what I wrote in my first article:

”Fun is made up of a complex matrix of sensations. Mastery. Exploration. Progression. Sense of accomplishment. Audiovisual stimulation. Expression. Relaxation. Escapism. Drama. Engagement. There’s a lot to consider. Many buttons to push. Making something fun beyond carrot-dangling six figure prize money (which is a ton of fun!) requires a conscious effort to make it so. It doesn’t just happen.”

In order to analyze DFS’s intrinsic ”fun” qualities I’m going to break the experience into two. Drafting and Viewer Engagement.


@DFTalkForum description above of the true allure of DFS is quite easy to understand from a game design perspective. The drafting process checks a lot of boxes.
Picking players offers a sense of Control. And the skill aspect of picking the ”right” players provides the vital aspect of Mastery. Players have to deal with constantly Changing Game Conditions (prizes and match-ups) which keeps the experience fresh. The task of Assembling something (in this case a lineup) triggers some of our most primitive drives and in essence the game Simulates the world of sports team management and offers players a chance to briefly Escape into a different world. Sure, the season long version is probably a better simulation game, but DFS does bring some of the same flavor.
Lastly, players have to apply Strategic Thinking. In some modes, like big Guaranteed Prize Pool tournaments, it is probably just as important to figure out what everyone else will be doing as it is to focus on one’s own lineup.

That Drafting is fun is by no means a mystery. And how to innovate it is also not a mystery. The game design process  for DFS doesn’t differ from other games. You decide what type of experience you want to deliver and for whom and then you adopt and adapt ideas, concepts, mechanics and features that have proven to be popular with the targeted segment.
Drafting is a vital game mechanic in many other popular games like card battlers Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering. Both these games offers excellent inspiration for how the drafting stage of DFS can be tinkered with to possible increase entertainment for certain player demographics even more.


DFS has the power to radically enhance the sports viewership experience. By effectively breaking every game into multiple game-in-game situations for players to be emotionally invested in (Drama), DFS sets the stage for immense fan engagement. Every quarter, every inning is potentially popcorn worthy (Audio Visual Stimulation).

But this power needs to be harnessed.
I need to be able to track progress in real time. I need to understand which of my players need to do well given the makeup of all other line-ups, and which players not in my lineup that I’d benefit from bombing. All existing data about games need to be re-forged to serve my significantly more complex spectator point of view.  Then and only then is the sweat significantly more entertaining because I’ve invested money into a couple of DFS lineups.

Based on my initial forays into DFS, I feel confident concluding that the current market leaders have a long way to go in terms of optimizing the ”Sweat Value” of their software. Which, of course, means there is plenty of room for startups to thrive.


Like any game (questionable label given DFS lack of interaction) DFS has flaws and weaknesses. It also likely suffers from people and companies misunderstanding the actual source of fun. This is just me speculating since I have no data, but it’s not without fearing the answer that I ask myself how much of the  ”fun” experienced by current DFS players is derived from the positive act of exploring data and being able to test my own faith in certain players and how much is due to the negative (but also fun) act of exploiting an imperfect system.
It’s a subtle, borderline semantic, difference, but seen through the sensory lens that I use to analyze games, it makes a significant difference.
The explorer drafts lineups based on opinions of and emotional connections to certain players and certain match-ups. The exploiter  looks for weaknesses in the pricing algorithm and the content rules and drafts accordingly.
The explorer establishes natural bonds to the broadcasted action by for example tending to pick players he or she really likes or roots for – and thus want to watch play – while all such emotions are irrelevant to the exploiter. For him or her everyone and everything just exists to serve his lineup. One is a casual player in the term’s truest form drawn to DFS through a passion for sports. The other is an angle shooter drawn to the opportunity to cash.

A failure to recognize the difference and to product develop without the distinction in mind is a grave mistake imho.

While the UIGEA carve-out looms over the industry and creates natural innovation friction, the DFS industry shouldn’t ignore established game design wisdom and fear the risks related evolving the game in a direction that makes playing it even more entertaining and fun than it already is.
No massive liquidity or enormous prize pool in the world can beat that in the long-run.