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In Defense of Using Playoffs in Draft EPL

Being a Draft EPL Community member, TDS writer, and avid Twitter user, I find myself occupying innumerable group chats and threads where the wheels of debate are continually turning. On the back-end of what has been a hectic and chaotic season, there are definitely days when I am checked out of those debates whether due to life and work obligations or a simple lack of energy to fight the daily Mason Mount haters. On one such day, a well-known Willian Jennings Bryan (@JenningsWillian on Twitter) created a rather viral tweet (viral for Draft EPL Twitter standards mind you):

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In Defense of Using Playoffs in Draft EPL

Having the pleasure of being tagged along with my fellow TDS cohorts, I laid in bed after a long day and found myself reading several responses. Unsurprisingly, here were some of the comments to WJB’s tweet:

  • “F the playoff system”

  • “Playoffs are whack What is this, the championship?”

  • “Just say no to Playoffs”

This thread needed a Dark Knight. Someone to show them to path, even if they may not want to take it. Playoffs are the truth. And here’s why.

First, let me start with an acknowledgement. I completely sympathize with you. Yes, you, Willian Jennings, the manager who dominated every week except the week where the stakes were highest. Yes, you, anonymous burner account who has won every Head-to-Head league this season but lost the one playoffs format league he experimented in. Yes, you, fantasy shark who had 7 first round picks but lost to a bottom seed nobody who had an undrafted Kelechi Iheanacho and Jesse Lingard. To do so well for so many weeks and have it all ripped away from you in a flash leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

My defense of playoffs requires context. I am from Massachusetts. You know the place: New England, land of the free, Boston Tea Party, Tom Brady, lobster rolls, Paul Revere, Red Sox, and “chowda.” As such, much of my sports memory is steeped in championships and legendary playoff runs. Much like the draft mechanism we obsess over in our fantasy game, playoffs are inherent in every major sports league here in the States. Even Major League Soccer employs playoffs! So naturally, I feel quite comfortable operating in a fantasy realm where a portion of the season is spent improving, jockeying for table position, and ensuring qualification into the real part of the season’s competition: playoffs.

The Benefits of a Playoff Structure

So how can playoffs better serve your league? In my opinion, there are several benefits that a playoff structure gives a league, which you should consider when setting up your new league this year. We converted my home league to playoffs last year. I also want to prescribe some improvements to employ that soften the drawbacks for a playoff system.

1) League Engagement

This is the first and most important pro for the playoff argument. By using a playoff structure, a subgroup of teams is battling for qualification right up until the final week before playoffs start. Therefore, 4,6, or 8 teams (typically) all have somewhat equal odds to come in first place for the league. This is distinctly different from the common motif of Head-to-Head (H2H) where a handful of teams make a sharp jump in wins through the early stages of the season. Only an injury or groundbreaking trades and waiver claims can significantly shift the winds of probability. In many cases, as H2H leagues play on through the winter and early spring months, it becomes very clear where teams will settle out, and only a few horses have a real shot at money and the championship.

Simply put, you will prolong a league’s engagement top to bottom in a playoff structure from a strictly competitive point of view. It’s a rare manager that battles to his fullest in a H2H league when his most likely outcome is somewhere between 6th and 9th by season’s end.

2) The Bubble Race

This may sound redundant to the first point on engagement, but there is some nuance I want to convey. For many of us supporting the top teams in the Premier League, we live for the race. The race doesn’t just include winning the title but also qualification for European tournaments in the next year. Through Spring, we are engrossed in the “points discussion” about how many points team X needs to pass team Y for Champions League qualification, and which fixtures the points will come from. In a fantasy playoff format, a similar race is created for most of the fantasy league. Come April, there are several teams needing to maintain playoff position, and several teams “on the bubble” that are desperately close to qualification. In this case, the head-to-head nature of fantasy is even heightened as certain fixtures become “six-point” games across the league.

3) Any Given Sunday

A term borrowed from the National Football League in the US, “any given Sunday” refers the parity routinely seen in the NFL where objectively poor teams beat objectively better teams because, at the end of day, sports are played by humans, not robots, and the margins between victories and losses can be paper thin. With playoffs, there is a strategic component that never really pops up in H2H format. During the playoffs, the next week (usually) doesn’t matter. You win, you move on. You lose, you die. So, managers are confronted with extreme decisions that benefit the most ruthless. For example, I lost a critical playoff game starting Saka, Mount, Havertz, and Jesus to a team that had 5 Brighton players with below 30% ownership. However, the Super League had just been announced. There were riots in the streets of London and Manchester. Fixtures for my key stars were poor. My opponent seized the opportunity and dropped season-long assets for one really promising Brighton game, and it paid off. Such situations are rarely played out in H2H league from my experience, but are commonplace for the entire playoff period.

4) Widening the Scope of Your League & Improving Trade Flow

If you are in a dedicated league with long-established managers who are likely to continue playing for several seasons, playoff structure is an interesting way to tie seasons together and convert your league to a dynasty-lite league. In real life, teams bound for playoffs often spend future capital to acquire assets from teams that won’t qualify for playoffs. In fantasy, there is really not incentive for a bottom table team to make any trades with anyone at a certain point, unless the trade is disgustingly slanted in their favor. In the playoffs, however, the bottom table team could acquire future FAAB, draft picks, or waiver claims for the next season as part of the discussion. Of course, this type of future trading could also happen in H2H format leagues, but it makes much more sense for playoff structures where there isn’t already a 1st place team at the deadline.

5) Best Laid Plans

Another aspect that I quite enjoy about playoffs is the scheduling and planning that a manager can engross themselves in leading up the playoff season. Last year, Wolves, Arsenal, and Chelsea appeared on average to have softer schedules for weeks 30-38. This knowledge is clear before the season even starts, and certainly worked into people’s draft strategies. However, Arteta and company floundered mightily to start the 2020-2021 season, which resulted in Aubameyang being traded 4 or 5 times before Christmas in many leagues. Having the schedule readily available for all to see creates an interesting leverage in trades and waivers the entire season, as teams try to acquire players to maximize that playoff period.

In a similar vein, Ricardo Pereira was drafted quite high in my playoff league, where he may have fallen in typical H2H leagues given the injury assessment at the time. The manager, when asked about the pick, confirmed that his ceiling is too tempting and in a playoff format, he has the luxury to hold an injured play. As we all know, it didn’t really kick off for Pereira at any point, but these types of manager decisions are a part of a playoff structure that competitive H2H leagues will not have, simply because you have to win all your games from the first GW.

Key Decisions to Make

Having been part of a playoff league myself, we learned quite a bit about what does and doesn’t work for that format. I won’t say as many words here, but these are some high-level league decisions to consider amongst your group if you choose playoffs:

  • Rewarding the Top Teams for Strong Regular Seasons - Even though it is playoffs, the best teams should receive compensation through a playoff advantage after dominating their regular season. Consider using bye weeks, seeding, waiver order/FAAB to reward those managers and to incentivize playoff table placement beyond simple qualification.

  • Reducing Variance … and Ultimately Heartbreak - You can have a playoff structure that reduces week to week variation, so that the better teams have a higher chance to continue. Last year, we did this by using a double elimination playoff bracket. Your team had to lose twice before you were officially knocked out of the playoffs. This was somewhat successful, but due to our league size, resulted in some funky bye weeks for teams in the winners’ and losers’ brackets. This year, we will do two gameweek aggregate for one matchup. In this way, two teams play each other twice with the gameweeks summed together. This will attempt to reduce variance and crazy 3x standard deviation performances (Firmino at Crystal Palace, anyone?).

After reading this article, you may still say, "Playoffs really aren't for me and my league." And that's okay! That's the beauty of draft fantasy football. The most important thing is finding ways to engage your league and have fun doing it. For me and my college friends, playoffs were a godsend that revitalized a dying 7-year league. As always, feel free to DM me on Twitter or the Inner Circle Discord if you want to discuss more about setting up playoff structure leagues to be successful!

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