In the business of winning: How a DFS champ used analytics to win $2.5M

The right combo of players, like Alvin Kamara down the stretch, could have you celebrating too. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Analytics have become a key component of NFL decision-making in recent years, but they've long been the driving force behind Daily Fantasy Sports profitability.

One shining example of the latter is David Bergman, who won the top prize of $2.5 million in DraftKings' Fantasy Football World Championship on Dec. 20, 2020. Bergman beat out 199 other contestants, each of whom also had to earn their entry through qualifying tournaments held throughout the season to that point.

Bergman isn't the first to take home a huge DFS prize -- our very own Al Zeidenfeld won the Millionaire Maker in 2016 -- but his background story hits close to home.

Why? Well, for starters, he is close to home. Bergman is a UConn professor who lives only 25 minutes away from ESPN's Bristol campus. His department? Business, which is also the background of your favorite fantasy analyst, Field Yat ... I mean, me!

Similar to the DFS insight and analysis you see from us here at ESPN, Bergman has used his background in business and his understanding of data analytics to find an edge in the world of DFS.

I spoke to David recently after his win and asked him for some techniques and strategies we can use to win big in DFS.

First of all, congratulations! What was the sweat like leading up to the win?

Such an amazing experience. Seeing the lineup rise throughout the 4 p.m. set of games was exhilarating. My wife and I were juggling our two kids while the lineup was inching up the board, and we put them down to sleep right as Kamara scored the touchdown that basically sealed the victory

For this win specifically, what was your lineup build?

I had three players on the roster who were hardly rostered by anyone else - Chase Edmonds, Durham Smythe, and the Cowboys DST. Edmonds and the Cowboys far exceeded expectations (Dallas was actually the highest scoring DST that week), and Smythe had fine production (9 points) for his super cheap cost. Edmonds was rostered on only one other lineup, and Smythe and the Cowboys DST started on only two other lineups. The rest of my winning lineup was Kyler Murray, Alvin Kamara, Emmanuel Sanders, DeAndre Hopkins, Calvin Ridley, and Tony Pollard (who was starting in place of the injured Ezekiel Elliott that week). The "build" itself came out of a combination of matching high-end receivers with the aforementioned players, based on the player projections I had for the week.

Is that you preferred build or do you have a few go-tos?

I use the same lineup building routine each time, though because the player projections and salary costs change, each week you see very different lineup selections.

We often teach our listeners/readers about stacking. How often do you utilize it and how many teammates do you like to include with the quarterback?

Stacking is a useful tool. I usually include at least one (and most of the time two) "pass-catcher(s)" stacked with a QB in a given lineup. That "pass-catcher" can be a TE, WR, or a certain set of RBs. Guys like Kamara are pass catchers but Derrick Henry isn't.

What about "bringing it back" with a player (or two) from the other team?

I don't typically employ this strategy. You'll notice that my winning lineup did not have any players on opposing teams.

Do you usually try to incorporate secondary stacks, perhaps a DST with a running back?

A QB against an opposing DST never makes sense to me, but a RB and a DST certainly can. In order for a QB to have a great game, his offense has to score a lot of points since he only gets 1 point for every 25 passing yards and 4 points for a TD pass. A RB can have a solid or even great game while the score remains low. Those types of stacks can be useful, but I don't always incorporate them.

What about the flex? Running back only or do you consider a wide receiver or tight end?

Both DraftKings and FanDuel have a PPR point system (1 PPR in DK, 0.5 in FD), which boosts the WR and TE scoring relative to RBs. Due to those scoring rules, I keep the FLEX position as "flexible" as possible.

The key to winning a big tournament has been understanding projected rostership. How do utilize it?

I can't give away all of my secrets here! One tip to keep in mind is that backups getting a spot start can be hugely valuable. Their costs are usually low and other DFS participants tend to ignore them. You'll notice my winning lineup had Durham Smythe (in for an injured Mike Gesicki that week) and Tony Pollard starting in Zeke's place, as mentioned above. And though Kenyan Drake was listed ahead of Chase Edmonds on Arizona's depth chart, Edmonds had been getting double digit "opportunities" (either rushes or targets in the passing game) pretty much all season. Just because a backup is forced to start in a given week, most teams don't completely abandon their team philosophy and game plan. The Cowboys still want to run the ball, and the Dolphins rely on a short passing game, which is ideal for tight end production.

How do you handle the players who are projected to be highly rostered in a given week?

I want those players in some lineups so that I don't miss out on a potential big game, but I want to be underexposed to players who will be in a significant percentage of lineups in the field. If that player has a disappointing game, I'd have a nice edge.

There are always players who jump out as elite values every week, so how do you diversify while also getting those core players in as many lineups as possible?

The rule of thumb is to swap in two or three different players as you go entry-to-entry and I agree with that. It's okay if you really like a stack and you should feel free to load up on it. That may hurt your bottom line at times, but would obviously be very beneficial if it hits.

I think in 2020, more so than usual, hitting on a slate breaker was massively important in cash and, of course, tournaments. Do you have any strategies to identify a slate breaker?

First of all, realize that a "slate breaker" isn't nearly as important in smaller entrant contests. In larger ones, sure - it becomes nearly impossible to win if you don't have the highest-scoring player per dollar. My best advice there is similar to what I said above about backups getting spot starts for injured starters.

Do you need a ton of lineups to win?

No. A few years ago, somebody won the standard Sunday millionaire contest (which allows participants to enter up to 150 lineups and pays $1M to the top scoring entry) with just a single entry. It certainly increases your probability of winning by having more lineups, but each entry also costs more in entry fees. Since your total entry fees increase linearly with your total number of entries in any given contest, the better question is whether increasing your entries increases your win probability at a higher rate than your costs. I'd say that's still an open question, and one that I'm currently exploring.

Do you use an optimizer?

There are a number of optimizers available, but I do all of my lineup building without any of the DFS optimizers.

This one is close to my heart - what is the value of player projections?

They're the most important ingredient in playing DFS successfully. There are a ton of websites offering player projections, some for free and some for a fee. Suffice to say, "the wisdom of crowds" (i.e., combining multiple sources) is good advice for starters. The actual projection you have matters not only because of magnitude, but also because it ranks the players in the slate by value. The rank can be nearly as important as the actual value.

Do you rely on projected points/salary to identify value plays?

For sure. That's as valuable as the projections themselves.

When you're looking at a player, what variables determine your exposure? PPG, Matchup, Price, Rostership, Vegas line, etc.?

They all matter. Any professional player is thinking about matchups, game lines, etc. To beat the professionals, you have to think like a professional. Don't shy away from more data.

When evaluating your winning lineup, you talked about your DST target. Do you prioritize DST when setting your lineup or is it whatever fits? If so, how do you identify the best plays?

Picking the right DST can be the difference maker. Both the Cardinals and the Cowboys had great Week 14s and Week 15s. (Week 15 was when the DK Championship occurred.). I think the best strategy is simply to diversify. Instead of locking into the same defense or two, cover as many as possible in your lineups. One way to accomplish this is to avoid always using all $50,000 of your budget. By leaving cash on the table, you avoid being stuck on one defense.

The rise in NFL scoring is sometimes frustrating as a prognosticator as it's easier to project touches and yardage than it is touchdowns. How do we take advantage of this instead of viewing it as a detriment to strong projections?

The scoring systems can help mitigate that. As stated before, DraftKings offers full PPR and FanDuel is just half PPR. Plus, DK offers bonuses for yardage milestones (100 rushing/receiving, 300 passing) while FD doesn't. With those DK rules, the variability of scoring touchdowns becomes less relevant in projections than it would in FD. If you're making projections, projecting players at fractional touchdowns can also help.

Related to that, variance is obviously a major nuisance but accepting and understanding it can be a big advantage over time. How do you do exactly that?

As my buddy tells me each week: "May the variance be with you." That's my motto. Don't hate variance, love it. Find some players with high variance and couple them with some solid starters. Also, don't worry when variance goes in the wrong direction in a given week. Part of what analytics teaches you is that you can make the right decision and the outcome can turn out wrong. Analytics allows you to shift probabilities more in your favor, but no outcome is ever certain. Take an example from poker. Suppose you are dealt pocket aces, and get someone to match your all-in call. If you lose that hand, did you make an incorrect choice? Of course not. You made the right choice. It just didn't work out that time. Same applies to DFS. There can be a string of weeks where you miss, but if you feel your process is right, sticking to it can eventually realize a win. If you lose with pocket aces once, would you shy away from going all-in again?

You mention a lot about opportunity, which aligns with my "Volume is King" philosophy, but how much do you weight efficiency? An example would be Frank Gore, who gets decent usage but has almost zero upside. How does your model account for this?

I think you want to think about the particular contest you are entering. If you are playing against 200,000 people, Gore might not be the right choice. If you are playing against 100 people, Gore might be great since you won't generally need an outlandish score to win.

With most players aware of strategies like stacking and considering projected rostership, how can we find an edge in 2021?

What gets us to the next level? Honing your projection model. Suppose you had the best projections in the world. It would be easy to win. Without high quality projections, how are you going to compete? Also, and I confess that I'm not at this level yet, but finding a way to follow as many teams as possible (in as much detail as possible) by reading the local sports reporters could be advantageous toward understanding who might be the focus of a team's offense in a given week. Realize that most DFS players are using national sources, like ESPN, for their information, which is great and gives you the overall view of what a slate has to offer. However, local sports reporters -- like ESPN's NFL Nation team, for example -- might have a better feel for local teams.

I'll also add that a lot of people hone in on one quarterback and build many of their lineups around him, but keep in mind that a lot of quarterbacks tend to perform well in a given week. Don't center your plan around only one quarterback. And, if you're looking for a wider range of outcomes at wide receiver, consider digging deeper on the depth chart, as opposed to No. 1 wide receivers, as everyone knows they will generally see a decent share of the targets.

Any other advice for those trying to be the next to earn that big prize?

You gotta be in it to win it! Don't be scared of backups. And remember: variance is your friend.