Academic algorithm takes on fantasy sports

English Premier League fantasy players were no match for a professor's algorithm. ESPN.com Illustration

In 2010, Dr. Sarvapali Ramchurn, a professor at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, and his student, Tom Matthews, were designing algorithms aimed to help form optimal urban fire and rescue teams for emergencies.

Unfortunately, the lack of data didn't allow them to fully test the effectiveness of the algorithms. So they tried the next best thing: They applied their tech to English Premier League fantasy football.

They tested their artificial manager offline against the 2010-2011 Fantasy Premier League and the computer finished in the top 1 percent of the 2.5 million players.

“We were quite surprised that a basic algorithm could beat 2 million players,” Ramchurn said. “This means most humans typically choose poorly either because they tend to choose players from their favorite teams or do not put enough effort in optimizing their budget.”

The computer doesn’t play favorites. It crunches a large set of stats including historical match results, player appearances, goals and assists to determine player point distributions and player price trends. The software could ultimately be applied to any fantasy league.

“The difference between leagues are the rules of the game, but the real-world uncertainty is about the same,” Ramchurn said. “The software will make sure the budget available to managers is spent with respect to different possible futures.”

Ramchurn and Matthews envision developing a product that will give advanced analytic advice to fantasy players. Humans do have one advantage over the computer, however. They can see what transpires in real life, whether that’s an athlete’s injury, argument with a manager or off-the-field problems that might impact play. The computer can't take those situations into account.

Next week Ramchurn and Matthews will present their findings at the top artificial intelligence conference in the world, the AAAI-12 in Toronto. One thing they won’t mention is their one gripe with the invention. Says Ramchurn, “We were not too happy that the artificial manager actually beat our own fantasy teams, even though we invented it!”