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How to play fantasy football

What exactly is fantasy football? It's a way for you to be the general manager of your own football team, one in which you -- and only you -- determine which players you want to own. You select a roster of NFL players for your team and use their real-life statistics in order to compete against other similarly selected teams to see which owner did the better job.

As the football season unfolds, each week, the on-field performance of the players you have decided to put into your starting lineup will help determine the success or failure of your fantasy team. It's up to you to bench slumping players, to work the waiver wire to grab that hot free agent, or to try to wheel and deal to get rid of that aging veteran before the wheels fall off in exchange for a rookie about to catch fire.

It's incredibly easy to get started right here at ESPN.com. All it takes is a few simple clicks to join a league looking for new members using the League Directory. After all, fantasy football is not a game of solitaire. As a newcomer to the game, if you're not comfortable risking the chance of being the lone rookie in a league full of veterans, then perhaps you should consider starting a league with a bunch of interested friends. Please note that there's no need to go hunting around for warm bodies just to fulfill some preconceived quota of how many teams make up a league.

League size

Leagues come in all sizes, and you can choose to play with as few as four teams or as many as 30. Just keep in mind that the fewer the number of owners, the more superstars there will be on each roster. However, have a league with too many teams and in order to field a lineup each week, you might have to know the names of fourth-string tight ends. That might be biting off a bit more than even non-casual fans might be able to chew.

To me, 12 is the perfect size for a fantasy football league. This way, each team ends up with a nice mix of talent; not only does each team have a few studs, but owners also have to dig a little bit deeper into the player pool in order to fill out the roster. However, there are still likely to be good players left over when all the rosters are filled, meaning that as the season gets into full swing, there's still a chance for owners to improve their lot. But it's far better to start small with an intimate group of owners who are gung-ho about the idea of playing all season long, rather than loading up your league with people who will drop out just as soon as you ease up on the arm-twisting.

Draft methods

So how do we determine which fantasy owner gets which player? You could just pick names out of a hat, but that kind of defeats the purpose. Most leagues choose to hold a draft in which the owners take turns selecting players who have not yet been assigned to a roster. Typically, this draft is done in a "snake" format, in which the team that picks first in one round picks last in the next in order to make sure teams are balanced.

Another popular way to allocate players is to hold an auction. In an auction format, teams all start with the same amount of fantasy money to bid with and take turns nominating a player. The highest bid on a nominated player wins, but of course, the winning owner now has less money left to bid on subsequent players. So while an auction does give every owner a chance to go after whichever players he/she wants, each owner needs to make sure to budget properly or else he/she may end up with three MVP candidates alongside a bunch of "scrubs."

While many leagues hold a new draft at the start of each season, others choose to allow owners to keep players on their teams for multiple seasons. This is a decision that should be made before you draft for the first time, because knowing whether or not you're selecting players for just one year, or for years on end, will cause you to make different decisions on exactly whom you might pick when your turn comes up.

Regardless of which method you decide to use to distribute the available talent pool, it makes a lot of sense to get a feel for what drafting is like before you jump into battle for the very first time. That's why it's highly recommended to try your hand at a few mock drafts -- practice drafts -- before your league's official event. There are always some open rooms full of fantasy players looking to hone their player evaluation skills in ESPN's Mock Draft Lobby. Remember, practice makes perfect!

Schedule

All right, so we've got our league in place and we know how we're going to divvy up the player pool. But how do we know which players we want to draft? That all hinges on the next big question you need an answer to before draft day: How do we figure out who wins?

There's no one right answer to this question, and ESPN offers up a customizable combination of categories that leagues can use to compare player performance each week in order to settle the score.

Generally speaking, each league will have a schedule in place that pits your fantasy team against another owner's team every week in a head-to-head battle to accrue the most points from your starting lineup based upon how those players do in their real-life games. At the end of a predetermined amount of games, typically in the neighborhood of Week 13 or 14 of the NFL season, the top teams in the league in terms of wins and losses will move on to a single-elimination playoff format, with the last team standing being declared the champion.

Scoring methods

So, the schedule is set, but how do you figure out how many points each player scores each week? Well, that depends. Some leagues simply give each player who scores a touchdown six points, and leave it at that. ESPN's standard scoring goes into more detail, also rewarding for yardage and subtracting points for interceptions thrown and fumbles lost.

Most leagues at least begin with these standard scoring settings, with points being awarded to each player involved in a touchdown, as well as some points based on how many yards from scrimmage a player gets. For example, ESPN's standard scoring awards one point for every 10 yards rushing or receiving. Quarterbacks typically earn points for passing yards (one point for every 25 yards in ESPN standard play). Some leagues also award bonus points for reaching certain milestones (like 100 yards receiving or 300 yards passing) or for "long touchdowns" (say, an extra two points for any TD run or catch of more than 50 yards).

Kickers also are typically added to the mix, with field goals worth three points (longer kicks may also earn a bonus) and extra points being worth one point. Missed attempts may earn you a deduction. Traditionally, defenses are drafted as a unit, with fantasy points being assigned based on the actual points they allow in a game and total yards allowed to their opponent. Sacks and turnovers forced are also often added to the equation. Click here for a complete list of scoring categories in ESPN's free standard leagues.

Know your league's rules

Scoring: Again, I can't stress enough how essential it is to know what these rules are prior to taking part in your league's draft. A popular customized scoring option is PPR, or point per reception. It sounds like what it means, as a player receives a point for every reception he gets in a game. In a PPR league, this can make a big difference in evaluating running backs, for example, because two backs who each finish with 1,500 yards from scrimmage might have different values if one catches a lot of passes and the other doesn't. If you are in a standard league, though, the number of receptions is not a factor, which is why it's important to know your league's scoring rules.

Roster/starting lineup limits: Additionally, it's important to know not only how many players comprise a complete roster, but also exactly what kind of positional requirements constitute a legal lineup on a weekly basis. It's all well and good to draft the top three quarterbacks in the NFL with your first three picks, but if you're allowed to start only one each week, and you have only three bench spots on your roster, you're digging yourself a huge hole by doing so.

Not all leagues have the same rules, so you need to know how many quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends you have to start each week, and if there's any flexibility in this regard. For example, some leagues may allow you to start any combination of six RBs, WRs and TEs. Others get very position specific. In ESPN standard leagues, you start one QB, two RBs, two WRs, one TE, one flex (which can be a RB, WR or TE), one team defense/special teams unit (D/ST) and one kicker, and you have seven bench spots.

Managing your roster in-season

While you always want to make sure you're prepared for draft day and do your best to draft a competitive team that can potentially win your league title, chances are that your team's roster at the end of the season will look nothing like it does at the start of it.

That's because the NFL season is a long one and you need to manage your roster to deal with several built-in hurdles to success, namely bye weeks and injuries. From Week 4 of the season through Week 12, as few as two and as many as six NFL teams get a week off from playing, and if you own players from those squads on your fantasy team, you need to have a replacement lined up for that week's action.

To some extent, you can prepare for this on draft day. If you draft your No. 1 quarterback and know he has Week 7 off, then when you decide it's time to select his backup, you make sure to draft someone who isn't also off that same week. However, things don't always work out perfectly in that regard. That's why most leagues allow for in-season trading and waiver-wire pickups, so that you can adjust your roster during the season to make sure you can field a competitive team all season long.

Some leagues assign one day a week on which owners can make free-agent pickup requests, naming a player to be cut from their roster in exchange for an unowned one chosen from the list of available options on the website. In many leagues, such as ESPN standard leagues, these requests are processed in reverse order of the standings. In others, each team is given a budget of imaginary dollars to use throughout the season in a bidding process for these free agents. Still others simply let this process become a free-for-all with the first owner to make a claim on the website getting dibs on whichever player he or she wants. We say it again and again: Know your league's rules!

Knowing how your league handles this process is also essential when dealing with the multiple injuries your team is sure to suffer throughout the course of the season. Again, some leagues will allow you to stash a player on injured reserve (IR) if he gets hurt. If so, you may not have to drop a player in order to replace him on your team. Even in leagues that do have IR spots, there is usually a limited number of such spots that you can utilize and still retain ownership of them, so at some point, you may be faced with some tough decisions. ESPN standard leagues do not feature an IR slot, so make sure you're aware of that if you choose to play in such a league.

Apart from the waiver wire, the other method of player movement in fantasy football comes via the trade. When it comes to trades, some leagues believe that "anything goes," while others have some sort of veto system in place by which potential deals can be nixed by the majority of the league if there's a feeling that they are too lopsided in nature.

Most of the conflict in fantasy leagues comes from this part of the game, and it is the reason that all leagues should have a written set of rules -- a constitution -- in place. At the very least, the league manager (LM) should make sure that all owners are up to speed on the particular rules that your league is using to avoid any potential confusion that may arise as the season moves along. As an LM, it's always good to communicate with the rest of the league about how the league operates in hopes of avoiding any potential issues.

One of the best parts about ESPN Fantasy Football is that you can play for free! So what are you waiting for? Fantasy football is huge, and it's not going anywhere anytime soon. Why not give it a shot?