I’ve won a few leagues and I was wondering how does one earn the title of fantasy sports expert?
You definitely have to write about it. There are a lot of “experts” out there (laughs). You gotta write about it, you gotta put yourself out there. You really gotta be able to take the lumps, when you’re out there and your name is out there, and people are putting their hard earned money on the line based on what you’re doing and you’re getting emails saying how great you did or if you miss you get nasty emails. I think that’s what makes you a fantasy expert, people living and dying based on what you write.
Growing up what did you want to be?
I wanted to be a professional baseball pitcher. I worked endlessly at doing that. I was actually a teammate of Jonny Gomes in Petaluma, California where we have a baseball program that is renowned in California for how good it is. I was really a hardcore baseball guy, that was like my job, and basketball was like my love where I played it everyday. I played in high school, some of my best sports moments have occurred on the basketball court. When I say I played it everyday I mean I’d play like eight hours a day. It’s something that I got away from a little bit in my college years but once I got the bug again I just couldn’t quit.
What did you go to college for?
I had no clue what I wanted to do for a profession. I thought I was going to be a computer scientist (laughs) which was picked so randomly with no thought put into it. Well there was thought put into it but if I were to sit down today and think about what I wanted to do with my life I would probably look at it a lot differently. I thought at the time computer science sounded like it was on the cutting edge. I got into computer science and from day one I totally hated it.
When did you get into fantasy sports?
The very first time I saw fantasy sports I was looking over a friend of mines shoulder. He was sitting at a computer and I asked “what are you doing?” he said “checking my fantasy team” and I was watching the realtime scoring kick in and I just sat their mesmerized like oh my god there’s a game that I can use my sports knowledge to win? I got insanely excited from the very first minute I saw this game, I’ve been completely addicted since then.
How did you go from there to landing your job at Rotoworld?
I have always been a very entrepreneurial person. I followed the game for a couple years, played the game for a couple years, then I read a story about how much money was in the fantasy sports industry and instantaneously my gears started turning and I thought I had to get in on this. I started a now defunct website that had no clue what it was doing, we went out and talked to some venture capitalists in silicon valley. I think I was 22 or 23 at the time and didn’t really have a good grasp on how to do things. That site failed but I ended up meeting people and getting exposed to the business side of fantasy. Finally one day I sent Rotoworld an email and I didn’t hear back for maybe a year or even a year and a half later and I got an email from my current boss Steve Alexander saying hey, you wanna write?. He saw a blog of mine I was doing, totally for fun, I was writing these 4000 word behemoth articles that were being read by nobody but it was enough to where they thought I knew what I was talking about. Truthfully it’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, people think it’s a great job and you get to work with sports and it is all of those things but it’s easily the hardest job I’ve ever done.
It’s one thing to be good and win leagues but you also need to be able to write about it an effective and entertaining way.
I had a really good high school english teacher, no joke, she beat me up on just about everything I wrote. There’s people in fantasy writing and basketball writing and they can just flat out write. There’s people that can’t write but they’re good at what they do anyways because they’re good reporters or they know what they’re talking about. Sometimes we get people who want to work with us but can’t write and I feel now looking back that I was in that category with people who couldn’t write. I could write but writing correctly and writing effectively from day one just wasn’t happening. The first couple months for me were kind of a wake up call on this is how you write, for clarity, for brevity, just plain out getting the point across without screwing it up. Also doing it fast is another thing that really impresses me, I was in the media room for the Sacramento Kings home opener last night with the brick and mortar newspaper guys who are writing on a deadline and that’s the stuff I think separates the men from the boys so to speak. I was basically thrown in the fire. I’ve had a couple emails where people say “hey, you might not be cut out for this” but I think that’s a right of passage. Luckily my bosses were patient with me and I survived and it’s all been uphill so to speak in terms of being able to write and write a lot. Writing is very hard and they worked on it with me at Rotoworld and I’m so thankful they did.
What’s a typical day like for you during the season? What are your hours?
We review these players as closely as an NBA team does. We look at film, we look at advanced stats, we have a keen eye for basketball so we put in the same type of work as these teams do. It takes a very long time and it gets to a point where there is so much information about these players that it’s no longer a question of can you get it done but what are you going to spend your time focusing on? For the last two months I would do it kind of like that movie The Social Network where the guy would have a 48 hour push and I would work for 40 hours and then sleep for 8 hours. That’s the pre-season push.
The middle of the season starting about 4pm my time is when games start to kick in. On a Wednesday or a Friday night there’s as many as 15 games and right now in my office I have 7 screens so I can flip through games and if something is happening right away I can get on top of it. From 4 until about 10 it’s a total blur. You’ll learn more about a typical NBA game on Twitter than you possibly could learn trying to flip around with a remote control. It’s a combination of watching the games and watching Twitter, figuring out who do you trust, say in Detroit I’ll trust a guy like Dave Hogg for his opinion. That’s part of the learning process, you’re trying to figure out which guy do you trust because you’re going to make a recommendation on a player that somebody in a high stakes league might spend $2,500 on so the pressure is there and you want to get it right. From 4-10pm it’s a big blur and what I like to do is sit down from about 10 till midnight to clear my head and think about what are the big stories, what just happened here? From about midnight till about 6 in the morning I’ll write. A typical column from me is usually hitting on the prior nights games and then any sort of news items that weren’t attached to those games and that’s typically what you’ll see in The Daily Dose which has has usually about 4000-5000 words of information and 100 player takes on any given night. I’ll try to get it done by 4am if I can.
What’s it been like watching fantasy basketball go from being a game to something that has a lot more credibility now that analytics have become more prevalent in NBA front offices?
It’s very interesting in talking with team officials and league officials, there’s definitely a recognition of fantasy sports that there hasn’t been in the past. When is that first fantasy sports hire going to happen? I think you do need some sort of basketball background to make it in the reality basketball world. For fantasy it has always been an exercises in how well you know the game and how well you know the games comes down to how much you study it. Fantasy provides a really fun and interactive way to study the game. People like to prove their knowledge and have fun in that way. My fiancé just joined a fantasy football league, she doesn’t like sports, she doesn’t watch sports, but she goes nuts over this league because there is something about this competition that people are drawn to. You talked about league offices and I bet they’re all playing fantasy at some point. There are probably some guys like the guy from the movie Moneyball who are old school and hate advance stats people but at the same time you probably have a lot of guys who do play. We like to think that when we’re writing what we’re writing that league officials are reading it, we’ve actually got some feedback that they are. I think fantasy will slowly get integrated to the point where people don’t consider us weird geeky sports nerds anymore (laughs).
What’s the balance of quantitative and qualitative when you make your rankings?
That’s a great question. There’s obviously balance. The lists are built quantitatively but they’re modified qualitatively. I personally have an algorithm that I’ve used for about 5 years, that’s how long I’ve been developing this particular one, it just simply measures relationships between player performance between one year to the next. Once you figure out what numbers or coefficients or standards so to speak, you can start to play around within that context. These measurements are really about is this guy going to be doing more or less, is he going to improve his rebounding rate in his 13th year in the NBA? Probably not. You can really zero in on statistics in a different way than you could in the past with all the tools that are out there. At the end of the day you have these situations, I like to call them money situations, where you have a player and you just don’t know how they’re going to react. You might not have data, they might be a rookie or a second year player or a guy that just didn’t play a lot and then all of a sudden he’s getting minutes, a guy like say Patrick Beverley who is just coming onto the scene and you don’t know what to make of them. You do have to make qualitative judgments about his numbers, which are totally quantitative and that’s where you get differences of opinion and people win or lose their fantasy leagues. It’s a mixture of both but you definitely want it to be as quantitative as possible because at the end of the day numbers win leagues.
I always have a problem deciding between my gut or my heart in terms of choosing an exciting player versus the math where you know the player is a safe bet but he might be less exciting.
I think that’s the essence of the game right there. I’m a baseball guy, I’m as superstitious as they come, I won’t let my boss talk to me about my players while they’re playing (laughs). I try to stay away from that, I one hundred percent stay away from that when I make my assessments in my writing. With my lineups I try to stay away from that stuff as far as the excitement of a player or if they’re from a home team or something like that. I’m just trying to win. I do have an adage that I do tell players, which is go with your gut. Peoples guts are generally going to lead them the right way most of the time but when you go against your gut and you lose, that’s the worst feeling on earth (laughs). I tell them go with your gut and almost exclusively I’d say that when you go with your gut at minimum it represents what you think you should be doing, if that makes any sense. That very first thing that you think of is almost always the correct calculation of a players value and you’ll complicate it by thinking maybe I’ll pick this guy instead or that guy and you sort of outthink yourself at that juncture.
It’s kind of like what they teach you about multiple choice?
Yes, it’s exactly that.
With unforeseen injuries or trades how much are you really able to predict?
Let’s take some guys like Goran Dragic, Kenneth Faried and Jameer Nelson, we’ll look at those three guys. For Kenneth Faried a trade rumour just hit, it’s hard to measure how much of this stuff will turn into actions, but I think he only played fifteen minutes in the season opener, it’s something you need to take on a case by case basis. In Faried’s case you have to look at A. he’s not in a good situation right now because his value is suppressed and B. what kind of situation can he get into that will be better than what people thought he’d be in three weeks ago? Then you look at how many different situations would be worse than what people thought three weeks ago. I think in the first Bruski 150 he was about 80 and after his outing last night I think he would go significantly lower than that. You really have to think about how things would go in 29 other scenarios and figure what’s the chance of him having an upgrade or a downgrade. If you look at Jameer, it’s not even a trade rumour at this point, it’s just a longstanding expectation that he could be moved at some point. Hopefully for his sake he would get moved to a club that could use him in the playoffs but this point his fantasy value is probably only going down. It does effect a guy like Victor Oladipo because it’s a guy who is handling the ball and taking up 25 minutes a game so how long is this guy going to be around? The minute he does get traded it will bump Oladipo’s value up considerably. That’s one of those money guys that I was talking about, I had guys like Oladipo, Reggie Jackson, Patrick Beverley, Enes Kanter, Derrick Favors, all these guys have very little data to work with in terms of their history in a big role, a 30 minute role. You have to look at it and say at some point Nelson will be traded so how much do I bump up Oladipo’s numbers to reflect that one day he’ll be running this team without anyone taking his touches. You have to slide his numbers up but the question is where do you slide them to?
Unforeseen circumstances like that, you’re really hitting at the heart of fantasy sports when you ask that question. In general you can’t plan for that stuff. I think I wake up everyday and I have this thought at least once “god I hope no one got injured” because it’s a game killer. I remember when Tom Brady got the knee injury in week one of the NFL season, that ended peoples teams. If you have one fantasy league and that’s all you’re banking on that’s a crushing moment. That’s stuff you can’t prepare for you kind of have to shake your head and say better luck next time. But we do put a lot of time and thought into if this trade rumour has legs, what are we going to do?
What was something you didn’t see coming at all? Or a prediction you got really wrong?
The prediction I got really wrong was Kobe Bryant last year. I said Kobe would basically fall off and he didn’t (laughs). He didn’t fall off and it was an important pick so that one stuck with me. You don’t want to get any of them wrong but you don’t want to get any of the ones in the first couple rounds wrong because unlike other fantasy sports in a standard league those first round leagues are more important than other sports first round guys because they’re so consistent and so much better. Missing Kobe hurt.
There’s stuff that I don’t see coming everyday because there is no way you can be in the mind of every GM or coach. There’s little things, I was really convinced that OJ Mayo was going to be able to maintain his number one scorer status and not really be impacted by Dirk Nowitzki last year and the opposite turned out to be true. You go with what you believe at the time and any expert out there who says they don’t get them wrong is lying. With Twitter I don’t get surprised that much anymore.
With fantasy and even sports in general Twitter has changed the game so much from reporting to what the game feels like. Only four years ago you weren’t even considering daily reports. You’d expect your morning report, maybe something before the game, and whatever happened after the game. There were blogs around but I think the most up to date stuff you’d get would be a writer in a big market blogging this is what happened in the first quarter, this is what happened in the second quarter, and that would give you a better idea of the game if you were writing about it on the other side of the country. Then Twitter came around and all of a sudden you know what the guys are saying on the court, you know all this background and detail, it’s not a perfect picture, sometimes it’s a really incomplete picture, but it’s way more than what we had in the past. I don’t get surprised as much anymore because I feel like I’m there in a sense. It might be really big news or something that hasn’t had any reporting done on it in the past but it generally doesn’t surprise you as much.
You don’t need to watch the draft anymore because the picks are announced on Twitter before they’re called in the green room.
That’s Woj for you, he gets everything. Even with the draft there was this guy Giannis. . . I don’t even know how to say his last name (Giannis Antetokounmpo) the Milwaukee Bucks forward, he was playing in the French league or something and there’s this grainy video of him dominating. You can watch a guy playing basketball halfway around the world now. Before the draft you get these scouting videos and you know their strengths and their weakness, you can see it with your own eyes, if you’ve played the game before you know what you’re looking for. It’s crazy. I think probably in five years from now it will be even crazier. The analytics revolution, the Synergy Sports revolution, having this stuff available to you 24/7 is phenomenal.
You cover the Sacramento Kings and you broke some big stories over the summer about the potential sale to Seattle. How did that job come about?
I was uniquely positioned, my fiancé is from Sacramento, so I’m occasionally in the area. When the story first hit I didn’t know that there was this lack of coverage around it. Nobody outside of Sacramento was talking about it. I have like 20 bosses but I asked one of them over at Pro Basketball Talk if I should cover this, I’m able to be there every once and awhile and it seems like a really important story. They said yah and that’s the thing I love about NBC is they’ve been supportive of anything I’ve wanted to do, they encourage it, they said “if you can go around and be the next Sam Amick then by all means go out there and do it”. I keep coming back to fantasy because I love it so much. I was tasked to cover the Kings story and then it just grew and grew and grew and got massive and consumed my life for two years. It was the biggest business story in sports that year. To me it was important because you had peoples jobs on the line. There were about 800 jobs on the line in Sacramento, these people rely on that income, so I felt that on that level it was important to cover that story accurately because there were peoples jobs on the line like that. It wasn’t being covered accurately in the media, there were people who were affiliated with Seattle and some who were from Seattle who were just outright lying. That’s why you saw a swing in the coverage from the team is leaving and everyone saying their gone to oh my god they stayed. There wasn’t really a change in terms of what was going on, there were just a lot of voices in the beginning who took journalistic liberties that they shouldn’t have.
The same question I asked Lang Whitaker based off Chuck Klosterman’s claim that sports writers hate sports because it’s all anyone wants to talk to them about. Do you ever get tired of hearing about everyones rosters?
(laughs) I definitely get a lot of questions, I get a lot of Tweets, and emails. I never get annoyed by it but I certainly don’t respond to all of them anymore because it’s too much. I get over a hundred a day sometimes. It’s really crazy. I don’t get annoyed, I don’t get upset, but I don’t like it when people talk about their fantasy team in a group of people because nobody cares about your fantasy team. No one cares if so and so did this. Even in our office we don’t talk about this stuff. If you want to talk about player value, I’ll talk about that all day long, but not individual results from your fantasy league. There is a lot of fantasy fatigue out there. Twitter is always interesting because a lot of stuff gets tested out on it. I think people started talking about their fantasy teams on Twitter and then people shot them down and said don’t ever do that again so now you’re not seeing people do that as much. Rule of thumb, don’t talk about your fantasy team at a party. But if you do want to talk about whether someone will be doing better or worse in a few months, to me that’s all interesting stuff.
What’s your offseason like?
I try to do everything I can’t do during the regular season. A year ago me and my fiancé travelled around the country and went to all the major cities and ended up in Seattle where I proposed to her. I try to do something big and get away from the game and get away from Twitter. Twitter is really hard on people. There is burnout issues that will be hard to reconcile for people in professions like these, basically reporting professions. Reading Twitter constantly 24/7 is bad for your brain. Being connected that way is a grind and it takes a special kind of person to handle that. You have to have a high motor to constantly read those Tweets and keep up with it. The people who are out there, the power Tweeters, I’m in awe of them and how they can constantly bring that game every day. I try to get away from it all and decompress. I try to pick one or two big projects to work on for the next year, stuff to advance my knowledge of the game. I compete in big money contests so I want to win those things. I’ll carve out time to work on those projects, I’ll pick a topic and just blow it out, something like rebounding (laughs). I try to get away and bring some balance to my life because when the season kicks in it’s just 6 months of constant attention. Like an athlete you want to make sure you go into each season with as much rest as possible.
What feels better the bragging rights or the money?
I’m going to go with the bragging rights (laughs). I’ve won a lot of money playing fantasy sports, I won $30, 000 on the play where Larry Fitzgerald ran 80 yards for a touchdown in the Superbowl. It’s great cashing that cheque and being able to do something fun with it but the money comes and goes, that money is gone. Being able to say I was a national champion or in the case of two years ago I won in a league with some real fantasy basketball ringers and they were putting up big money so winning that league was big. I have some competitors out there that don’t say very nice things so when I beat them it feels really good. I would say it’s definitely the bragging rights. That’s a great question. It’s the bragging rights because the bragging rights stay with you.
Can you name some other career options in the field for people who want to combine math and sports?
Starting in the video room of an NBA team is very similar to fantasy basketball. Every coach is going to work a different way but you’re going to get asked to process on your own who in this game did what and what can I package up in a little one page word document for coach or for a player that will say “hey, this is what I saw”. There’s all sorts of titles for it. I think General Managing, the managing of the salary cap for an NBA team is very math driven. I have a spreadsheet that I use to do it and I think all the GMs have a spreadsheet to do it and all of them have different rationals for why they do it. If you get yourself into an auction league or any league where you have to manage a certain amount of money it’s the same. It’s why they call it fantasy basketball because you’re acting as a fake general manager. Those two positions strike me as being very similar to fantasy basketball writing.
Do you have final advice for people looking to become a fantasy expert and write about fantasy sports?
Start your own website, write everyday, get better at what you do, focus in on brief, quick hitting analysis. Get on Twitter. Don’t bug people but try to get yourself out there. It’s a war of attrition, I think anyone who has ever wanted to be a fantasy writer who just kept working at it eventually cracked the ranks. It’s a very competitive field but for all the people who want to be fantasy writers there’s not a lot of guys that actually go out there and prove that they can do it before they start approaching whoever it is, whether it’s us or the next guys down the road. If you put together your own site and it’s good, eventually you can send that in with your resume and you’ll find that a lot of people respect that.
Main Image: Aaron Bruski gives a thumbs up at the Kings home opener (Photo Niko Rust)