Review of AFL Premium Dream Team

The boys down at VirtualSports have recovered from the poor start to the season – where they were very late in launching the DT competition and then completely failed to handle the 70 minutes of madness just before the first lockout – and launched their version of the American style private draft leagues, entitled Premium Dream Team. The mainstream Australian fantasy football scene has developed very much along the British model thus far, with salary cap competitions run by media organisations being by far the most popular form of the game. Premium DT is built along the template laid down by the baseball, basketball and gridiron leagues that were the germination of the industry in the US.

The first thing to note is that Premium DT charges $12 entry. They say that entry is “free” but you have to buy a PDF in order to enter, so that’s just semantics. The Web site only accepts Mastercard and Visa cards – no PayPal support. VirtualSports are offering $5,000 for the top scoring team and $20,000 for the top league ($2,000 per team), which raises the question in my mind about whether this competition is actually gambling? It had been my understanding that if you charged an entry fee of more than 55 cents – i.e. the cost of a 1900 call – it did not qualify as a legal trade promotion lottery, which is what fantasy sports fall under.

The upshot of giving out prizes like this is that plenty of fantasy veterans will have the bright idea of subverting the competition to try to win the five grand by shelling out ten lots of $12 and concentrating all of the best players in one team. It’s an inevitable consequence of the way that the competition has been set up, a bit like how the weekly prizes in DT and SC are often won by “Frankenstein” teams which were launched after round 1.

So, let’s look at the team structure. Premium DT teams are much like Dream Team or Super Coach teams, and this is where the troubles start. Unlike all of the American models I have seen, Premium DT has no bench. You get to draft 22 players who start for your team every week, and that’s it. No emergencies, no cash cows, no backup at all. You get three trades each week, and that covers not only the trades you make for undrafted players, but also the intra-team trades in your league. If four or more of your players get injured, suspended or dropped in one week, well… you’re just going to have to cop some zeroes. If your #1 draft pick gets a big injury in Round 10, then you have to either wear his zeroes for the length of time that he is out, or you have to drop him. This is very much outside the norm for private draft leagues.

I can understand why VirtualSports chose to make the competition benchless, because the draft is going to be long enough with 220 picks as it is. They have set each draft to start at 6pm AEST with those 220 picks happening every 60 seconds or less, which translates to a 3 to 4 hour marathon. With the competition launching mid-season and with only a fortnight until the first lockout, there isn’t enough time for most leagues to get organised to have multi-night drafts, and with VS choosing not to enable commissioners, there would be nobody to herd the cats anyway. Things are much easier in NFL, NBA and MLB leagues because they pick starting teams of 11 or less, and their drafts rarely extend beyond 20 picks. It’s an ongoing problem that operators of private AFL leagues are going to have to solve – FanFooty’s solution was to cut the starting positions down to 11, for instance – and whichever way you go there will be problems.

Perhaps the biggest deficiency in Premium DT is the lack of full auto-drafting. Auto-drafting is part of every professional American fantasy draft application, where if one or more of the coaches are not present at the time of the draft then their picks are made automatically according to pre-determined draft orders, usually based on custom lists or popularity-based lists. There is a 50-player “pre-draft list” in Premium DT which serves as a half-arsed auto-drafting feature, but that’s only going to be good for 5 to 8 picks, and for the rest of the 22… you don’t get picks at all. Instead, those spots on your roster are left open, and it’s a first-come-first-served system for those who log in after the draft. This is a very poor decision by VS, because it’s going to cripple any coach who is not present at the draft. If they have built an auto-draft system already to handle the pre-draft list, why not extend it to the entire draft? It shouldn’t be that hard for VS to prepare a default 700-player pre-draft list to use as a base, then the coach can customise it if they want. The system as it stands is nonsensical.

One other issue that is a perennial problem for AFL-style leagues is player positions. Unfortunately, VS have decided to use exactly the same positions as in the DT/SC competitions. 7 backs and 7 forwards are needed for each of the 10 teams, which is going to mean that your sixth and seventh positions are going to be a constant source of pain if you play in these leagues. To illustrate, you need to have 70 backs and 70 forwards playing each week for no one to cop a zero, which means 140 in total. In round 7 just gone, there were 110 backs and 98 forwards – 197 combined – who played in AFL games. Similarly, there are 20 ruck spots to be filled and there were only 30 ruckmen playing. Meanwhile, there are 60 midfielder slots open and 147 centres played last week. This has obvious implications for drafting strategy, which I will explore in another post. The main takeaway of this issue is that it’s going to be a game of warm bodies, and it’s likely that league winners are going to be the coaches who had the least zeroes.

Overall, I’m glad that the industry is moving forward to embrace the US model, but there is still a lot of work to do to hone the product for the widest possible audience, and to iron out those structural bugs. I’ve signed up, and I’ll be fascinated to see how it evolves!

Note: FanFooty has been running its own free private leagues for three years now using our own scoring system, and there are examples of smaller league structures strewn across the Internet for more than a decade now (see my short history of fantasy Aussie Rules football post for more info).

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