On March 6, outside of the Orlando Magic locker room, roughly 45 minutes before a meaningless home game against the Sacramento Kings and shortly after interim coach James Borrego had met with reporters, it was revealed that center Nikola Vucevic would not play. Channing Frye would start instead.
It's a moment now etched in daily fantasy sports lore.
The late-breaking Vucevic reports started appearing on social media shortly after 6 p.m., less than an hour before a big $400,000 tournament on DraftKings locked. That was enough time for a vaunted DFS high-volume player known as "Maxdalury" to adjust the bulk of his 400 entries -- yes, 400 -- to reflect Frye as a starter. Frye had a season-high 22 points and 10 rebounds. Maxdalury won first, third, fourth and seventh place. Out of 22,900 total entries, close to 300 of Maxdalury's 400 reportedly finished in the money. Some have speculated he won $500,000 or more that night, but Maxdalury, via Twitter, told ESPN Chalk after this story posted that multiple six-figures was a more accurate estimate.
Now, four months later, the daily fantasy community is looking back at that epic performance and wondering whether it represents the future of the game. It would have taken a firestorm of keystrokes and clicks to manually adjust 400 lineups in an hour, but a computer script could do that work in no time. Will that kind of computer automation make high-volume traders even more powerful? The vast majority of players don't support that vision, while the biggest game operators, for obvious reasons, are attracted to the larger contests that high-volume players create. Last week, both DraftKings and FanDuel, the two competing industry giants, made decisions benefiting high-volume players.
It's created a divide and brought us to a pivotal point in the meteoric rise of daily fantasy sports, the micro-version of the traditional season-long rotisserie game that is a suddenly a billion dollar industry. At a time when more eyes are on DFS than ever, are computers taking over the game?
Industry leaders weigh in
A recent addendum to DraftKings' terms of service allows the use of computer scripts to create contests, enter a guaranteed contest, create and edit lineups and withdraw from a contest. FanDuel also clarified its policy on allowing scripts for certain activities, upon approval, last week.
A computer script is a list of commands that a computer can execute without the user's interaction. For example, a player could use a script to convert data from a spreadsheet into hundreds of unique lineups almost instantly, rather than entering them manually on the site. Setting 100 lineups manually is nearly a day's chore. Scripts also could be used to adjust lineups quickly on late-breaking news.
"Competition is breeding the issue, with FanDuel and DraftKings," said Dan Back, a podcast host at RotoGrinders.com and a respected voice in the industry. "Both sites really want to run as big of games as they possibly can. And if people have a way to be able to create and put in more lineups quickly and easily, they're going to be able to play more lineups. They're going to be able to play and make the contests bigger. That's the reason why."
The announcements by DraftKings and FanDuel, posted last week on RotoGrinders' main forum, have sparked a polarizing debate in the passionate DFS community. The overwhelming reaction has been negative. Doomsday theorists say allowing more computer automation could destroy the industry. The majority of the community is much more tempered but still strongly believes scripting detracts from the spirit of fantasy sports and creates an uneven playing field.
"It gives you an advantage, especially from sweat equity type of thing and roster lineup management side of things," Back said. "If some people who are good at building code and have the ability to build a script and other people don't: Is that really in the spirit of what daily fantasy sports was built on? I don't think so. Being able to edit lineups massively because you're good at writing computer code -- that's not daily fantasy for me."
There's also a small but savvy contrarian side that says the ability to efficiently enter and manage lineups offers no competitive edge. Ed Miller is a noted authority on poker and game strategy who plays 100 lineups a day. He says there is no mathematical advantage to entering 100 lineups compared to one.
"In fact, it's less, because each successive lineup is slightly worse," Miller told ESPN Chalk. "Assuming that you're able to rank your best, second-best and third-best lineups accurately, by the time you get to your 100th lineup, then it's not going to win as much money on average."
DraftKings said last week's decision was based on trying to improve the user experience for a small percentage of its players -- who also happen to be the ones who put the most money in play -- while not affecting 99 percent of users. The company said it does not believe allowing scripts creates a competitive advantage.
"No. Absolutely not," said DraftKings co-founder Matt Kalish. "There is no relationship between the lineup construction process and the decision that we made in an attempt to increase and improve the experience for a couple of users, who I think were experiencing a very poor usability of the site. Basically a very small percentage of people [play many lineups]." Kalish emphasized that DraftKings doesn't provide optimal game-management support for high-volume players, as it's difficult to enter and manage a large number of lineups.
DraftKings began having the discussions about scripts as soon as the company realized the scripts were being used.
"As soon as we became aware, that's when we began to dig into the question at large," Kalish told ESPN Chalk. "We discussed out loud what were the acceptable uses of some sort of automation and what was not acceptable. Our framework all along was that absolutely nothing was acceptable that would create any sort of competitive advantage for players who use it."
FanDuel allows players to request to use scripts to "easily enter numerous lineups or create number head to heads and leagues."
"Conversely, and most importantly," company spokeswoman Justine Sacco said in a statement, "there are scripts that we will ban outright, like selectively scooping multiple head to heads, edit lineups or other uses that unfairly impact competition. We will continue to monitor for suspicious behavior -- as we have always done -- and rest assured that in the rare cases where automated behavior has demonstrably harmed the user experience, we have contacted the offenders and ended the abuse ... immediately. In no case will we approve a script that we believe is anticompetitive.
"Moving forward we will continue to provide updates on types of scripts that are allowed, prohibited and provide guidance on the reasoning," continued Sacco's statement. "We'll be transparent and will make sure that this information is widely available to all of our users, while maintaining an ongoing dialogue with this community."
A divided DFS community
Right now, that community is divided into giant pools of fun-loving, yet competitive, fish and high-tech sharks with deep pockets.
"Think about how many people have the ability to create a script right now" said Back. "Maybe 1 percent of people playing daily fantasy. If you're not in that 1 percent, why would you be OK with it?"
A daily fantasy player survey by industry consultant Eilers Research showed that the perception that DFS is "too intimidating/time consuming" was a popular reason responders chose to play season-long fantasy sports instead of daily. Among other popular answers: "Too many sharks/only top 1 percent ever win."
There's also a divide among operators. Victiv, a rising year-old site, is standing by its prohibition of third-party automated scripts in all capacities, including any automated means to enter or participate in contests. Victiv founder and CEO Matthew Primeaux, another veteran of the online poker industry who has transitioned to daily fantasy, said his company separates scripts into two categories: constructive and destructive.
"Constructive scripts simply attempt to make tedious or repetitive tasks easier or faster for the users," Primeaux said. "When we see those types of scripts, we look at them and decide that some aspect of our user experience likely should and could be improved.
"Destructive scripts are those that are used to automatically target contests with specific types of users or scripts used to make last-minute, broad-sweeping lineup changes that aren't offered to all players equally. It's our stance that those aren't good for the space," he added. "They're not good for the enjoyment of the game, the retention of the players or really the growth of the industry. We actively monitor and aggressively combat that type of scripting."
The overall impact of scripts in the long term is also debatable.
"I think it's going to be pretty big separation at least between high-volume players, who are obviously going to utilize it, and the more average person who is only going to play $20 to $50 a night," said Ben Brown, co-founder and chief editor at industry site DFSReport.com. "He doesn't really want to compete with those people. Once this gets going, it's probably going to develop really quickly."
Back hopes the spirit of daily fantasy isn't lost in the process.
"Daily fantasy is supposed to be fun for people," Back said. "People do it as a distraction from everyday life; they do it to follow something that they like. The amount of interest that daily fantasy brings is amazing. It's great. And I feel like that's kind of getting lost a little bit here."
Back said he worries that those view the game as a hobby -- the majority of players -- could lose interest playing against those who do it professionally.
"Ninety to 95 percent are still hobbyists," he continued. "I don't think we should lose that -- that thought. I think that's still an important thing for the sites to remember. And we shouldn't alienate new players coming in."
As of Wednesday morning, 134,500 entries had been submitted to DraftKings' $3 million Open golf contest. By the time the tournament tees off on Thursday, more than 170,000 $20 entries are expected to be submitted. The last two millionaire-maker golf tournaments on DraftKings were won by players with a single entry.