Was there cheating in online fantasy football?

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We recently learned that DraftKings employee Ethan Haskell did two things on Sunday, September 27:

He released data earlier than usual on how many people had chosen each athlete for an upcoming fantasy contest. With thousands of contestants competing in each round, leagues allow many people to choose the same fantasy athlete. DraftKings normally keeps this information confidential until fantasy players have finished choosing their players for a particular game.
He won second place in a fantasy contest hosted by DraftKings competitor FanDuel, winning $350,000.
Naturally, a lot of people wondered if these events were connected. Because the payouts in daily fantasy games go disproportionately to the top players, data about which athletes are most and least popular among other fantasy players can help a contestant boost the odds of winning. And while Haskell didn’t have access to any data about FanDuel users, the DraftKings and FanDuel contests are similar enough that data about DraftKings players’ bets should have provided a lot of insight about both sites.

However, DraftKings insists that nothing of the sort happened. The company says FanDuel’s deadline for choosing players was 1 pm, while Haskell didn’t get access to the DraftKings data until 1:40 pm — so data from DraftKings couldn’t have helped him assemble his winning FanDuel roster.


And to be clear, the data Haskell released was not sufficient, on its own, to win money. Far from it. Winning requires choosing a roster of players who perform well in a particular set of games. No one can know that in advance. So even someone who has data about other players’ rosters will only be able to win a small percentage of the time.

But daily fantasy sports, like most betting, is a game of averages. Knowing how other users have bet can help a user stand out from the crowd. And even modest improvements in the odds of winning can add up over the course of many bets.