What is sports without fantasy sports? How could we enjoy the real event if we didn't have made-up, hand-picked teams of our own to root for alongside the actual action from week to week?
Well, with the 2022-23 Premier League season upon us, we thought we'd try a fantasy league among some of our staff, except we'd do it a little differently and put a trophy at the end of the campaign for everyone to fight for, along with the eternal bragging rights and satisfaction that comes from humiliating and conquering your colleagues and friends.
ESPN writers Mark Ogden, Gab Marcotti, Julien Laurens, Tom Hamilton and Ryan O'Hanlon begrudgingly agreed to join the cause and throw down with ESPN editor James Tyler. Last week, on the eve of the first game, we drafted our teams, debated our picks, panicked when it was our turn to select and everything else you expect on draft day. We've begun tallying scores and will provide semi-regular updates throughout the season on the road to the inaugural FC Fantasy crown.
How we did the draft
We decided to go with "American style" for this experiment. Rather than the traditional, budget-based fantasy Premier League approach in which everyone has an equal pool of money to spend on their squad and players can appear in multiple teams, we went with a draft format whereby players can only be on one team. Once they're picked, they're unavailable to anyone else.
In addition, we did it in serpentine fashion: Rather than picking 1-6 and then the next round reverting back to the first manager, we went 1-6 in round one, then 6-1 in round two, 1-6 in round three and so on until we'd been through 15 rounds and everyone had a complete squad.
Oh, and everyone had 30 seconds to pick. No room for flip-flopping or second-guessing here.
The basic rules
With a broad template of standard Fantasy Premier League scoring behind us, the one nuance was that due to other commitments, we will tally the weekly points totals of the entire 15-man squad so as not to penalize anyone who was unable to set a starting XI. Plus, in the era of five substitutes, we presume our managers would be making as many in-game changes as their real-life equivalents. (That said, we have locked our free agency add/drop except in case of a season-ending injury. Much like the regular game where transfer windows are brutish and short, we're stuck with these players whether we like it or not.)
All the basics are covered, from good things like clean sheets (4 points for GK or DF, 1 point for MF) to goals (4 for FWs, 5pts for MF players, 6pts for GK or DF) and bad (-3pts for a red card, -2pts for an own goal, -2pts for each penalty miss).
The first two rounds
There were some surprises as elite defenders were drafted quickly, Cristiano Ronaldo fell to the fourth-round (23rd overall pick) and the two best goalkeepers were off the board before most players had figured out their strikers.
Round 1: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool; Laurens), Trent Alexander-Arnold (DF, Liverpool; Marcotti), Kevin de Bruyne (MF, Man City; Tyler), Erling Haaland (FW, Man City; O'Hanlon), Alisson (GK, Liverpool; Ogden), Heung-Min Son (FW, Tottenham; Hamilton)
Round 2: Raheem Sterling (MF, Chelsea; Hamilton), Virgil van Dijk (DF, Liverpool; Ogden), Harry Kane (FW, Tottenham; O'Hanlon), Joao Cancelo (DF, Man City; Tyler), Ederson (GK, Man City; Marcotti), Bukayo Saka (MF, Arsenal; Laurens)
(To see the entire draft, check the ESPN FC YouTube channel.)
The final squads
After much joy, pain, frustration and elation, we finished the 15-round draft. It's always a good sign when everyone ends up kind of unhappy about how their picks had panned out.
Without further ado, the teams... and we'll be checking in with the teams every 2-3 matchdays to see who's pulling ahead and who's lagging behind in the quest for the inaugural FC Premier League trophy.
GK: Ederson (Man City), Lukasz Fabianski (West Ham)
It's good to keep a clean sheet in this game, and Ederson is a pretty useful keeper. I'm not super-high on Chilwell's abilities in this game, but the machine told me he gets a lot of points. Dier? Meh, but he and Varane are kind of interchangeable in defense. Meanwhile, Alexander-Arnold will get me a lot of points given his assists and progressive play.
Beyond them, I'm predicting that Sancho's gonna bounce back big time for United while Tielemans, who is playing in a contract year at Leicester, is going to have a monster year. Of course, Saint-Maximin is a monster on his own, and I'm most excited about Bowen, who will be hoping to make the England squad for the World Cup.
Darwin may not get all the playing time at Liverpool that we think he might, but he'll get some, and he'll score goals: a decisive player. And from there, you may have noticed his strike partner, and my fourth-round pick, Cristiano Ronaldo. If he stays, he's going to have the power in the dressing room over Erik ten Hag, which means he should perform just fine this season.
ESPN+ writer Ryan O'Hanlon
Alright, so let's first clarify something here. The way this league works is you just add up all of the players points for the entire season. And the points aren't calculated in the same way you would, let's say, calculate whether someone is good or bad at the sport of soccer. So I just want to preface me announcing my team with all of that information.
All right, in goal: Ramsdale. My thinking there? He's on one of the better teams in the league, so therefore will not give up as many goals as some of the keepers on some of the worst teams in the league. That I've got Jose Sa as well: He was probably the best keeper in the league in terms of shot stopping last year, which doesn't really apply in fantasy soccer, so I don't know why I brought that up.
At the back, Trippier, Digne, Gabriel... I think of Digne as sort of a poor-man's Andy Robertson type, he'll get me some assists. Maybe Trippier will as well. The thing with Gabriel: Again, my "Ramsdale reasoning" there, hopefully they don't give up that many goals, and it seems like he'll play a lot. My other defenders are Romero and Mings -- I picked Mings purely because I think he'll play 3,000 minutes. With Romero, it's sort of a high-ceiling, low-floor pick -- as Juls pointed out, he has the potential for a lot of cards, but also, you know, he makes a lot of tackles and interceptions, he dribbles the ball forward and also does a lot of things that defenders don't typically do.
in the midfield we've got Zaha -- another pure minutes-based pick, plays like 3000 minutes a season. Maddison: same thing. Bruno, again, is just a raw points-total play. If he's playing for Man United, he's on the ball, trying ridiculous passes into the box, and even if he has a bad season, we'll probably have you know, eight to 10 assists or whatever. Foden I think speaks for itself.
Then up top we've got Haaland, who per-90 has been the most productive attacker in the Big Five leagues over the past three seasons. Kane, who led the Premier League in assists and goals a season ago, had his first bad finishing season of his career last year, so I undoubtedly expect him to lead the league and goals and assists this upcoming season. And then Mitrovic just set the record for goals in the English Football Championship, and we know that that will directly translate to the Premier League. So there we go.
Oh, and Ward-Prowse as well. FREE KICKS.
I mean, this is exactly the team like that I had on my draft prep paper, which I worked on last night until 4 a.m. -- I literally picked all the players I wanted to. It's amazing. We have such an impressive team: There are World Cup champions, European champions, Golden Boot winners everything -- it's all in there, literally.
You've got Lloris in goal: He's going to be even better with Antonio Conte after a full preseason and in his first full season. Robertson, Koulibaly and Matty Cash -- who is far more attacking under Steven Gerrard -- is full of assists, clean sheets goals from set pieces and even set-piece takers as well. It's a amazing back-three.
Then on the bench I still have Doherty and Matip if I fancy a few more points, play my "bench boost" (Editor's Note: there is no "bench boost" in our game), you know, all of that...
But look at the midfield! I mean the midfield is so good, it's hurting my eyes -- I can't even actually look at the screen, they're so good. Salah, obviously, is this game's king, Saka gets a lot of points and Mount will at some point get consistent and get a lot of points, too. Mahrez, Paris-born and bred, is a giant, and I picked Guimaraes because you need a little bit of the Brazilian touch in every good team.
Up front, Jamie Vardy is 52 years young, is still working out how to pay some legal bills, but he'll be amazing again once he can focus on the pitch. Watkins... you never know if he's going to even hit the target for most of his chances, but I believe in him this season. And then Martial, he's obviously still talented, and once he's fit again, Ten Hag can surely resurrect his career.
GK: Alisson (Liverpool), David de Gea (Man United)
OK, so Alisson in goal is fairly obvious: He keeps a lot of clean sheets, certainly more than most -- more than Ederson! Van Dijk keeps a lot of clean sheets, Cucurella is going to be playing for a big club soon, plays a lot, makes lots of assists. (Is that how this works?) Dias keeps clean sheets, is a good defender and plays a lot for a great team.
It's fairly basic stuff. Obviously you pick the best players on the best teams that don't concede goals!
In midfield, I took a bit of a gamble on Rashford because he's generally getting forward, but he doesn't score as many goals as he should. Big season for him. Bernardo Silva: lots of goals, lots of assists, lots of touches, doesn't lose many games. McGinn was a bit of a wildcard because I was running out of midfielders, but he does a job for Aston Villa, scores some goals, gets some assists.
Same thing with Odegaard: He was a last gasp pick (Editor's Note: Odegaard was selected in the 14th round) not really an Arsenal captain; he's not like a Patrick Vieira or Tony Adams, but he'll play a lot of games because Arteta likes him. Arsenal will probably underachieve again this year, though, so he'll probably let me down.
Then you've got Thiago: Fitness-wise, who cares? He has skills, creates a lot of goals, and he's great to watch. Toney is Brentford's penalty kind. Antonio is a bit of a gamble because his fitness record is iffy, but I was running out of picks (Editor's Note: Antonio was selected in the 10th round).
My "substitutes?" De Ge is gonna be on the bench. I think Alvarez will play more than people think for City. He's a decent talent, and I think he'll score more goals than people give him credit for -- he might be like the kind of the modern day version of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, underestimated but scores lots of goals.
So yeah, there you go. Not a lot of science in my team, but just gut feeling.
Well, basically... I completely panicked. So I've got about half the players I planned to have, so it hasn't really gone very well, but you never know.
I've got Mendy in goal. I'm hoping Chelsea keep a few clean sheets this season. James, Walker and Zinchenko is back three. I don't know if Lenglet is gonna play much. Hoping for lots of assists. I think Zinchenko might play a little bit of midfield as well.
Then in midfield, my first two picks were Son and Sterling. I think Sterling might end up playing a bit more of a central role, which should mean he scores a few more. I think Barnes is gonna have a big season at Leicester, and I'm expecting goals from Martinelli and Jesus as well. (I'm expecting big things from Arsenal?) Hopefully Bamford will get a few goals if he stays fit. Neto is underrated and a solid player at Wolves, while Scamacca played brilliantly in Serie A, so if he gets 10-15 goals this season, that's a solid investment for my eighth-round pick.
Oh, and the less said about Pickford, the better.
ESPN Editor James Tyler
So I'm really happy, though I have a uncomfortable amount of Man City players on the team. That said, I'm certainly happy with my midfield. They're going to have to work really hard to make up for the rest of the squad. I've got De Bruyne, Diaz, Grealish, Kulusevski and Coutinho in midfield... all of them can create and convert with ease, though I'm going to struggle for goals.
Jota is injured, Havertz is presumably Chelsea's striker-by-default for now, and Calvert-Lewin is still out for a bit, but is normally good for a couple of strong runs of goals every year. I'm just hoping Cancelo provides a lot of assists down his flank, while Thiago Silva is good for clean sheets and organized defending. Meanwhile, I'm forced to pray that Maguire has fewer errors than he did last season.
I like Guehi. He had a good year at Palace alongside Joachim Anderson, it just depends what the midfield looks like ahead of them now that Conor Gallagher is back at Chelsea. Oh, and Coady just doesn't miss any games -- even though he's just moved to Everton, hopefully he'll score some points.
Between the posts, I'm hoping Pope takes his Burnley form to Newcastle. I think they'll be comfortably in the top half of the table with him providing the shot-stopping they've been missing.