League Spotlight: JFNFL

What is your name?
Justin Eleff
 
What is the name of the league that you are presenting for “League Spotlight”?
JFNFL (short for John Forbes Nash Jr. Fantasy Football League)
 
Is there a website for the league that are you comfortable sharing publicly?
I believe we’re mostly visible to the public at ESPN (http://games.espn.com/ffl/leagueoffice?leagueId=770610&seasonId=2017), but you’ll probably get a better sense of things by reading the rest of what I’ve written here.
 
What is unique about the league?
We named the league after John Nash because we based a number of our rules on game theory concepts, hoping to maximize the number of difficult decisions each team would have to make in each phase of the season. It’s a small league, but we encourage co-ownership, partly because I believe it’s often harder to make good decisions in tandem, and partly because I wanted to test how jointly owned teams would fare against individually owned teams. I don’t think we’ve reached any consensus, but as of 2017 half of our teams (including my own and Moishe’s) were jointly owned and half were not, with a total of fourteen people involved in running eight franchises. We double up a couple of positions, with each team starting two QBs and two TEs, and we have very deep benches (eight reserves behind a ten-man active roster). We don’t use kickers or defenses, because kickers and defenses are bullshit — kicking points just flow from what other offensive players are doing anyway, and scoring systems for DSTs tend to make one foundational error or another: they place wildly disproportionate emphasis on largely random events like pick-sixes, or they get horrendously complicated whether or not they succeed at measuring the real-life quality of a defense. Separately, we allocate players in some unusual ways, the best of which I’ll cover below.
 
Who founded the league?
I did, together with my intrepid (if not entirely useful) co-owner.
 
How long has the league been in existence?
Depends on how you count. I threw something of a tantrum a few years back and quit fantasy football for roughly ten minutes. Then I discovered that I could not live without this league specifically, so we relaunched, for good this time, in 2017.
 
How did the idea for the league originate?
I had played fantasy football for something like fifteen years before founding the JFNFL, and in that time had gotten very good at winning casual leagues and even better at complaining about the rules they were using. So there were two prongs to the idea: bring together only a bunch of people who were serious about this stuff, and make a new sort of league that maximized the number of difficult decisions each team would have to make while minimizing the role of luck in determining who won and lost.
 
What are you most proud of about the league?
Because I was bored with my candy-from-babies casual leagues, and also because I liked the idea of running the new league as a kind of social experiment, I recruited a bunch of owners who hadn’t been in my previous leagues, but had instead been the best owners in their respective unconnected leagues. They didn’t know each other at all, and most of them knew my name but nothing of real substance about me. Chairman Moishe of this very website was one such recruited stranger; I believe I “met” him when he wrote in to ask a fantasy baseball question in one of the springs I served as editor of Fantasy Baseball Index magazine, and I asked him to join the JFNFL when we decided to expand the league that fall. What I’m proudest of now, many years after most of these strangers came together, is that we still know each other only through the league — and yet we all genuinely want to destroy each other season after season after season.
 
Are there any funny anecdotes from league history?
My favorite is the time one of our sets of co-owners, a father and son team, chatted through each pick they were about to make live in our draft room. No phone call, no series of texts. Just “You thinking Matt Ryan here, Casey?” and then “I want to grab another receiver first, then we’ll come back for the quarterback next round,” right there in real time in the same thread where we were all shit-talking each other. This went on for two hours but has now lived in legend for something like five years.
 
Are there any unique rules or crazy side-bets in the league?
The best rule we have is also the best idea I will ever have in my life, and I share it here in the sincere hope that someone somewhere will see this and decide to give it a try in some other league, too. Believe me when I tell you the idea is too good to be confined to our one Little League That Could.
You remember a few answers ago when I mentioned game theory? Each of our teams gets its first few players each season by way of a process we call “blind bidding,” which doesn’t actually involve any bidding but is entirely blind. It works like this: As commissioner, I send an e-mail containing only the name of one player I want to own to a person who isn’t part of the league. That locks in my team’s first bidding pick. Then I send another e-mail without the player’s name, BCCing the league, to announce that the first round of bidding is open. Each team responds directly to my BCC, so no one else sees what they’re sending, with the name of one player it wants to own. Then I reveal all of the names that were sent in these e-mails — one name for each of our teams — to the whole league, and that closes the round.
In each round in which we do this, if a given team is the only team to send a given name, that team gets that player. If any two or more teams have sent the same name, no one gets that player. Then we move on to the next round, in which we repeat the process. I’ll show you how this works in just a minute, but the short of it is that we keep sending these blind e-mails round after round until each team owns three players, and then the blind bidding is finished and we pick the rest of our players in a traditional snake draft. But there are two catches: 1. We choose our draft positions in the same order in which we get our blind bidding players, so the first team to get its three players gets first choice of draft position, the second team gets second choice, and so on. Any ties are broken by what amounts to a series of coinflips. 2. If in any round of the blind bidding, every team that remains in the bidding names the same player, that player is removed from the bidding pool and goes directly into the draft — where he might be picked by a team that has finished its blind bidding early.
I know this is a lot to digest, but here’s a really simple illustration of how it can work. To make it as uncomplicated as possible, say the league consisted of three teams instead of eight. Round 1 of the bidding might look like this:
Team A: Aaron Rodgers
Team B: Todd Gurley
Team C: LeVeon Bell
So far, so good. Each team is the only one to name its player, so each team gets that player and we’re on to Round 2, which might look like this:
Team A: Antonio Brown
Team B: Ezekiel Elliott
Team C: Ezekiel Elliott
Now we’ve hit a snag. Team A gets its man, and it now has Rodgers and Brown. Teams B and C counterfeited each other’s Round 2 picks, however, so they still have Gurley alone and Bell alone, respectively. It’s important to note that we haven’t yet triggered the second of my two “catches” above; this isn’t a round in which every team that remained in the bidding named the same player (because Team A didn’t name Zeke), so Zeke is still in the bidding pool, and any team can name him in Round 3, which might look like this:
Team A: David Johnson
Team B: Ezekiel Elliott
Team C: Ezekiel Elliott
Same as above. Team A gets its man again, and it now has all three of its bidding players (Rodgers, Brown and now Johnson), so it will have first choice of draft position but will sit out the rest of the bidding. Teams B and C have continued to lock horns over Zeke, so they still have only Gurley and Bell, respectively — their players from back in Round 1 — and they’ll go head to head for the rest of the bidding. Zeke is still fair game for now, because we still haven’t had a round in which every team involved in the bidding named him. But because there are only two teams left in the bidding, any time they name the same player in a round from here on out, that player will be removed from the bidding pool and delivered to the draft. By the same token, any time they name different players, they’ll get those players. Round 4 might look like this:
Team B: Ezekiel Elliott
Team C: Ezekiel Elliott
And now Zeke is out of the bidding, and if Team A wants him it will be able to grab him at the top of the draft, because — again — having completed its bidding ahead of everyone else, it also gets first pick of draft position. But Round 5 will have to look different, because neither bidding team can name Zeke again. So it might look like this:
Team B: Kareem Hunt
Team C: Alvin Kamara
Now Team B has Gurley (from Round 1) plus Hunt, and Team C has Bell (from Round 1) plus Kamara, and they do the same thing again. Round 6 might look like this:
Team B: DeAndre Hopkins
Team C: DeAndre Hopkins
In which case Hopkins follows Zeke into the draft, and again both teams have to pick a new name. Round 7, finally, might look like this:
Team B: Odell Beckham Jr.
Team C: Rob Gronkowski
Now everyone is done. Team A finishes with Rodgers, Brown and Johnson, plus first choice of draft position. Team B finishes with Gurley, Hunt and OBJ, and Team C finishes with Bell, Kamara and Gronk, and they’ll flip a coin to determine who has second choice of draft position. The stakes here include the right to add Zeke, who you have to figure will go to Team A after it chooses to draft first, and also presumably the right to add Nuk, who we know Teams B and C both want because they both named him back in Round 6.

 

Once you get your head around this you’ll realize that the possibilities are endless, particularly because we’re doing this with eight teams at a time and not three, and once you actually put it into practice in your league you’ll realize something else, too: you aren’t going to sleep much the night before this process starts, because you’re going to make yourself absolutely crazy trying to decide between bidding for the guy you really want and bidding for a guy you have a better chance of getting, because you might be the only team to name him. Last year my team and another locked horns for several rounds over Dav
id Johnson, which seems comical in retrospect, while our eventual league champion was picking up multiple running backs no one wanted quite as much. You know, like Todd Gurley. And when the last two teams left in the bidding eventually counterfeited Antonio Brown, sending him through to the draft, the Gurley owner got him too. No one wins or loses our league based on the bidding alone, but as it plays out over several rounds (and sometimes several days), you definitely feel like you’re winning or losing. Please, someone, try this. It’s the most fun you can have before the season starts. And if I haven’t made the process quite perfectly clear above, feel free to reach out to Moishe and he’ll either walk you the rest of the way through or put you in touch with me.
What else would you like to share?
That was enough words, no?
 
If someone were interested in finding out more about the league or possibly joining, who should they contact and how?
Moishe will be in the JFNFL as long as I am, because his Alamosa County Fire Ants and my far more dignified Mississippi Queens are bitter rivals. One way or another he’ll get your questions answered.
I am long-time fantasy football player (entering my 24th year), a long-serving commissioner of multiple leagues, and creator and designer of two leagues, including a one-of-a-kind contract league.