Types of Daily Fantasy Contests

Types of Fantasy Leagues & Contests

Signing into a daily fantasy sports site for the first time can be very confusing. There are a large number of different contest and league types at most sites, all with names that might not make a lot of sense. It's very easy to be overwhelmed by this, but things aren't as complicated as they might seem.

All the different DFS contests and leagues are just variations of two main types. They can be divided into the following broad categories.

  • Cash games
  • Tournaments

Once you grasp the concepts behind these two main types, the rest is just detail that's fairly easy to learn. The first thing you should know is that cash games are contests where you have a relatively high chance of winning a relatively small amount of prize money, while tournaments are contests where you have a relatively low chance of winning a relatively high amount of prize money.

Everything else you need to know about the various leagues and contests in daily fantasy sports is covered below. We explain more about cash games and tournaments, and also look at the various subcategories of each type. We also offer some advice for choosing which contests to take part in.

Daily Fantasy Cash Games

The main cash game contests you'll encounter are 50/50s and head-to-heads. These are very popular, thanks largely to their simplicity and the fact that they represent a good chance of winning some money. We'll now explain how they work, and also look at some other types of cash games too.


A 50/50 fantasy sports contest features multiple entrants, and the top 50% of the entrants win money. Each entrant whose score is in the top 50% of the field wins an equal share of the prize pool. Those entrants whose scores fall in the bottom 50% of the field get nothing.

Here's an example of how a 50/50 contest can work.

50/50 Contest: $10 Entry Fee
  • 100 entrants buy in to the contest.
  • 50% of the field stand to win prize money (50 entrants).
  • Total entry fees collected equal $1,000 (100 x $10).
  • Site takes 10% commission ($100)
  • Prize pool is $900 ($1,000 in entry fees less $100 commission).
  • The top 50 entrants each win $18 ($900 / 50).

The correct approach in contests of this kind is basically to give yourself the best possible chance of placing in the top 50%. There's no reward for being in first place as opposed to 49th place, so the goal is not necessarily to get the highest score possible. There's no point in taking any risks to try and place in the top few positions, because there's no reward for doing so. Instead you simply want to select a solid lineup that should earn an above average score.


A head to head contest, or a heads up league, is very similar to a 50/50. It's exactly the same principle in fact, but there are only two entrants. The entrant with the highest score wins, the other one loses. The correct strategy for head-to-heads is basically the same as for 50/50s. You're not really shooting for the highest score possible, but rather going for a low risk approach that should be enough to beat your opponent.

Head-to-heads and 50/50s are also sometimes called double up contests, because there's roughly a 50% chance of almost doubling your entry fee. Notice that we said almost. It's not quite double, because of the commissions charged by the site.

Other Cash Games

There are a few variations of the double up concept, including contests called triple ups, or 4X or 5X contests. These are still considered cash games, although you have to place higher in order to receive a payout. The upside is that the payouts are higher relative to the entry.

Here's an example of one of these.

Triple Up Contest: $10 Entry Fee
  • 30 entrants buy in to the contest.
  • 33% of the field stand to win prize money (10 entrants).
  • Total entry fees collected equal $300 (30 x $10).
  • Site takes 10% commission ($30)
  • Prize pool is $270 ($300 in entry fees less $30 commission).
  • The top 10 entrants each win $27 ($270 / 10).

As you can see, a triple up works in pretty much the same way as a 50/50. They're slightly harder to win, but the rewards for winning are greater. A 4X contest would be harder still, with only the top 25% winning, and a 5X even harder with just the top 20% winning.

Daily Fantasy Tournaments

Tournaments are contests which typically attract large pools of entrants. They come with staggered payout structures for the winners. These types of leagues reward high variance play with a higher payout, but your chances of winning are lower.

About The Payout Structures

Tournaments usually feature a tiered payout structure where only the top 10% or top 20% of the contestants get paid. The higher your score, the more you get. For example, first place in a tournament might win $10,000, second place might win $5000, and third place might only win $2000.

There are essentially two major differences between cash games and tournaments. The first is that tournaments reward a smaller percentage of the entrants, and the second is that the amount of prize money won in tournaments varies depending on the finishing position. The strategies for tournaments also vary significantly from cash games.

Guaranteed Prize Pools and Overlays

In order to generate excitement, daily fantasy sports sites often hold tournaments with guaranteed prize pools (GPP). This means that they're guaranteeing the prize pool regardless of how few players enter the tournament. Usually the buy-ins cover the prize pool, but in a GPP tournament it's possible that the site might have to make up the difference.

Here's an example:

GPP Contest: $20 Entry Fee & $20,000 Guaranteed
  • 800 entrants buy in to the contest.
  • Total entry fees are $16,000 (800 x $20).
  • Prize pool is still $20,000 due to the guarantee.
  • The DFS site makes up the $4,000 difference.

The difference between the entry fees collected and the guarantee is called an overlay. Contestants should love overlay situations, because they create positive expectation wagers.

Let's assume that everyone in the example tournament described above has an equal chance of winning (i.e. all the contestants have the same level of skill). Just to keep the math simple, let's also assume that the only place that pays out is first place, and the winner takes all $20,000.

If you'd paid $20 to enter this tournament you'd have a 1 in 800 chance to get a payout. That payout would return 1,000 to 1 on your money. If you were to enter 800 contests exactly like this, the odds say that you'll win once and lose 799 times.

When you win, you get a $20,000 payout. The other 799 times you lose $20, for a total loss of $15,980. The profit for those 800 tournaments is $4020, or a little over $5 per tournament. Another way of looking at is that your entry fee to each tournament is worth a little over $25, but only actually costs $20.

You don't really need to understand all the math here. You just need to know that overlay situations are good. If you never become better than average at selecting a roster, you can still almost guarantee yourself a profit if you only play in tournaments with an overlay.

Please bear in mind that, the more popular the site, the less likely it is that you'll find an overlay situation. There can, therefore, be an advantage to trying out new sites that are just getting started, as they may have more overlay situations where you can gain some extra value. You should keep your eyes open for overlay opportunities at the established sites too though.

Other Tournament Variations

There are also some other variations of tournament types. The most common are step tournaments and qualifiers.

The idea with steps is that you have multiple buy-in levels for tournaments. At the lower levels, you can buy in cheap and then win your way up to the higher buy-in steps.

Here's an example of a typical step tournament set up:

  • Step 1 is a 10 person contest with a $2 entry fee.
    • 1st place and 2nd place get free entry to Step 2.
    • 3rd place and 4th place get a free entry back to Step 1.
    • The bottom 6 get nothing.
  • Step 2 is a 10 person contest with a $7 entry fee.
    • 1st place and 2nd place get free entry to Step 3.
    • 3rd place and 4th place get a free entry back to Step 2.
    • The bottom 6 get nothing.
  • Step 3 is a 10 person contest with a $25 entry fee.
    • 1st place and 2nd place get free entry to Step 4.
    • 3rd place and 4th place get a free entry back to Step 3.
    • The bottom 6 get nothing.
  • Step 3 is a 10 person contest with a $25 entry fee.
    • 1st place and 2nd place get $200 each.
    • The bottom 4 get nothing.

Step contests are fun because they offer the chance to parlay $2 into $200. You don't necessarily have to play through the first three steps to get into the final tournament though, as you can buy straight into steps 2, 3, or 4 if you prefer. The exact details for step contests vary from one site to the next, but they all follow the same general format.

Qualifiers are closely related to step tournaments. These are contests with a relatively low entry fee, but you don't get any money for winning them. Instead, you get an entry into a higher priced tournament. For example, there might be a qualifier with a $2 entry fee to a tournament where the prize is a ticket to another tournament which normally charges an entry fee of $100.

Qualifiers are also sometimes called satellites. As with steps, you can go through multiple qualifiers or satellites before getting to the final tournament with the cash prizes.

Which Contests are Best?

There's no correct answer to this question. It really comes down to what your goals are, or simply what you prefer playing. Recreational DFS players might play a wide variety of leagues and contests just for their entertainment value. Serious players might be more interested in grinding out small profits over large numbers of cash games. Some players might just prefer the challenge of trying to win a big payday.

No matter what your goals or preferences are, you're sure to find a contest or league type to suit. The best approach is probably to experiment with various options and then decide which ones you enjoy the most, or which ones give you the best chance of making money. Just remember that strategy varies according to which kind of contest you're playing in though.

For example, in cash games, you'd rather have a roster that gives you a 70% chance of landing in the top 50% than a roster that gives you a 20% chance of landing in the top 10%. You don't get any kind of bonus for a super-high score. On the other hand, in tournaments, you want to aim for the top 10%. This means taking risks, such as embracing players who aren't performing great but might have a breakout week. You'll also stack players differently in tournaments versus cash games.



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