How To Play Fantasy Football

This article is part of our fantasy football advice & strategy series.

When fantasy football began to surface back in the early 1970s before the personal computer, leagues kept their scoring systems very simple.

With the arrival of the Internet and real-time information and large databases, fantasy football has thousands of different formats, rules and styles.

If you've never played fantasy football before, it's time to review a few basics. If you are a fantasy football veteran, take a look at the many different ways to play you may never have thought of before.

First the basic principle: in fantasy football you build a team and earn points based on your players' real-life performances. Your ability to spot the players who will have strong statistical seasons will earn you praise – and possibly even a few dollars.

There are two basic formats to playing fantasy football. You either get a group of friends and form your own league (a buddy league) or join a contest where you complete against others over the web.

The easiest way to get started in fantasy football is to join a free online contest.

There are several types of fantasy contests offered online. Most, such as those offered on, and, feature a free contest where users pick players based on a salary cap and try to accumulate the most points based on a mathematical formula (6 points for a rushing TD, 3 points for a passing TD, etc.).

In these contests you compete against thousands of other users and only the top few scores win a prize. You must also play by a standard set of rules. A good site to learn more about these free contests is

For more advanced users, some contests offer the lure of bigger prize money but charge an entry fee. Contests sponsored by such publications as USA Today and The Sporting News are of this type. The entry fee is typically between $15 to $60. These contests offer opportunities to win money and prizes for weekly standings, finishing first in a randomly assigned division and for the overall season.

If proving to your friends that you know the most about football is your goal, you can also form your own league with a group of friends. You can choose your own rules and categories – with hundreds of options to choose from. And on the Internet, you can have a web site build a homepage for your league and keep track of the stats and standings for free.

There are three different styles of leagues to chose from: points, Categorical and Head-to-head points. Most fantasy football leagues play in a head-to-head format with a 14- or 15-game schedule and then a playoff system with a final championship game. (Many leagues don't like to play their super bowl on the last week of the season when many superstars are benched to rest for the playoffs).

In the head-to-head points format, a team earns points for what each player does in the league's categories (for example: 6 points for a rushing touchdown, 3 points for a passing touchdown, 1 point for every 25 yards rushing). The point totals are then added together for a final score. Between the two teams playing on that week's schedule, the team with the higher point total is the winner.

Points earned in head-to-head points leagues are based on touchdowns, yards and bonus scoring. Most leagues award six points for every touchdown scored rushing or receiving with three points for a passing touchdown. The points are reduced for passing touchdowns since quarterbacks typically throw twice as many touchdowns as other position players score during a season. (However other leagues like to keep all touchdowns at six points for simplicity).

Yardage totals are based on each players' rushing, receiving or passing totals in each game such as 1 point for every 25 yards rushing or 50 yards passing. Bonus points are based on achieving certain benchmarks during a game such as bonus points for a 100-yard rushing game, a 300-yard passing game, or extra points for a 50-yard touchdown score or a 50-yard field goal.

A traditional head-to-head points league has the following scoring system: 6 points for every rushing or receiving touchdown, 3 points for every passing touchdown, 1 point for every 25 yards rushing, 1 point for every 50 yards passing, 3 points for a field goal, one point for an extra point, 2 points for safety, 2 points for an interception, 1 point for a sack and 6 points for a defensive touchdown.

Leagues where touchdowns comprise most of the scoring are often referred to as "touchdown leagues" while leagues were passing, rushing and receiving yardage comprise the majority of the points are referred to as "yardage" leagues.

The Categorical scoring method is the traditional fantasy baseball format which is also often called "Rotisserie" scoring. It can also be used in football. In each category, you receive a unit every time one of your players contributes to that event in the game. For example, if your player throws a touchdown pass, your passing touchdowns category is increased by 1. Then your total team's passing touchdowns are compared to all other teams in the league then points are awarded.

The number of points a team receives in each category depends on the number of teams in the league. If there are 12 teams in the league, the team with the best stats for a category receives 12 points. If your team had the most total passing touchdowns based on the example above your team would receive 12 points. The team with the second best stats receives 11 and so on until the worst team receives 1 point. Points in all categories are totaled for each team to determine the team's standing in the league.

The Points style is similar to the head-to-head points style format. The only difference is that there is no schedule. Whoever posts the most total points wins the league, regardless of where they stand in each individual category.

Your league will also need to decide how many players to draft and start on your team. Traditional standard is to start one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, one tight end, one kicker and one team defense.

Some leagues prefer to start two quarterbacks or three wide receivers so that leagues have to go deeper in the talent pool. Other leagues don't like forcing teams to start a tight end, since there are so few of them that catch the ball regularly. Instead, these leagues often start three or four receivers with owners able to use a wide receiver or tight end in these slots.

Another roster decision your league will need to make is how your league configures the use of defenses and special teams. Many leagues will elect not to use any defensive players or points at all. Most leagues elect to use a "team" for a defense (so that one fantasy team has the "Tampa Bay" defense).

Scoring is based on turnovers and defensive touchdowns or based on points or yards allowed. Scoring formats for team defenses that favor points for touchdowns and turnovers and sacks often don't reward the best defensive unit - rather the unit that's on the field the longest. Yet another method is for league to draft individual defensive players with points awarded for such categories as sacks, interceptions, tackles, fumble recoveries and touchdowns.

Special teams are another area to iron out before the season starts. What happens when a player scores on a punt return? Some leagues give credit just to the individual player. Other leagues give credit for special team touchdowns to the team defenses. Other leagues pick separate "team special teams" (such as "Kansas City") in addition to team or individual defenses.

Using "team" or individual quarterbacks and kickers is another debate. Some leagues like to use "team" quarterbacks, so that if you draft the Green Bay Packers quarterbacks, you get Aaron Rodgers and all his backups. Since quarterback is the most productive offensive position, teams like to prevent one key injury from ruining a team's fantasy season.

Many leagues also like to use team kickers since it's hard to keep track of all the kickers' names with many last second cuts and signings in training camp. The theory here is that most fantasy leagues don't like to follow kickers, just the teams they play for.

Most leagues also allow for a reserve list of to seven to ten players for a total roster size of 15 to 20 players. With each team having a bye during the NFL season, each fantasy team will need plenty of reserves during the course of the year.

Once you have decided the format, there are a few other decisions you need to make.

Someone from your group of friends will have to serve as the commissioner to settle disputes, enter the league's information on your web site and work to resolve other issues. Having an organized commissioner and a format to settle disputes (maybe a league vote) is very important to keeping things fun. You would be surprised how even the most mild-mannered owner can get hostile over a dispute in the rules.

Your league will also need to decide how to choose its players. Most buddy leagues like to have their selection process in person, on a conference call or in a live online draft room. Half the fun in these drafts is the ability to mock your friends' picks and talk trash.

There are two formats to most roster selection processes: an auction or a pure draft.

The pure draft format works much like the NFL or NBA draft, with teams drawing their pick number out of a hat. The order is then usually reversed in the even number rounds, so that the team that has the top pick also has the last pick of the second round. The draft continues until every team has all their active and reserve roster spots filled.

Most fantasy football leagues are based on the draft format and the rankings you will find in most fantasy football magazines are based on a draft (as oppposed to an auction).

At RotoWire, customized player rankings for your league can be computed by entering the number of teams in your league, your point system and the positions you start each week. Our draft kit provides a wealth of useful information.

The other selection process is an auction, where teams are allocated a salary cap to chose their players. This is the format used by most fantasy baseball leagues.

Using the auction format allows for a myriad of variations that can get quite complicated – and add flavor to your league.

You can use the prices paid for your players in the auction as a reference point for keeping players for the next season, for example (these leagues are called "keeper leagues").

Before the season gets under way, you will also need to determine a process for conducting transactions. First, you will need to determine a deadline for making roster moves (most leagues have weekly deadlines, but with the Internet many have daily transactions).

Second, your league needs to determine the process by which teams can pick up undrafted players (free agents). Among the common ways to determine priority for selecting free agents is reverse order of standings, a free agent budget and first-come, first-served.

The free agent budget seems to be gaining as the favorite of most leagues because the one person in your league watching ESPN all day doesn't always get the first free agent. The teams at the top have a shot to get the one free agent they need to win.

Once you've defined the setup of your league and drafted players, you are ready to roll.

Two words of advice as you move forward.

First, make sure there is a method to keep everyone interested all season long.

A system where teams can keep players for next year keeps the last-place teams interested as they try to improve their teams for next season. A prize for a second-half winner or a penalty for the team that finishes last is another option. When teams that fall out of the race lose interest and don't turn in lineups, it often makes it too easy for the top teams to win games.

This is the problem that plagues many free contests and leagues where random people meet online. When half the league isn't participating come Week 12, the league isn't as much fun. Keeping everyone active and interested makes it more fun for everyone.

Most of important of all, it's best to keep it as simple as possible.

Though you will have some members in your league who want to use a complicated formula or an obscure statistic, keeping the league rules and setup simple will make it more fun and keep everyone active. Resist temptation to add more rules and categories.

Remember, fantasy football isn't the real thing. It's more fun.

Peter Schoenke
Peter Schoenke is the president and co-founder of He's been elected to the hall of fame for both the Fantasy Sports Trade Association and Fantasy Sports Writers Association and also won the Best Fantasy Baseball Article on the Internet in 2005 from the FSWA. He roots for for the Minnesota Twins, Vikings and T-Wolves.
Fantasy Football Advice