[toc]DraftKings made a rather small change that affects its users this week. That small change, however, points to an idea that could gain greater traction as the daily fantasy sports industry moves forward.
What DraftKings did
For people who don’t follow the DFS industry closely, the move from DraftKings might not seem like a big deal. Here’s the background:
DraftKings has a feature on its platform called “late swap.” The idea behind it? Users draft their fantasy team before all the games covered by a DFS contest start. However, the late-swap feature lets users change their fantasy players for games that start later in the contest.
For example, in an NFL contest, games commonly start at about at about 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Eastern. Late swap would allow daily fantasy football users to change any players in the 4 p.m. games, in case of news about injuries comes out after the start of the underlying DFS contest but before the start of the later games.
So what did DraftKings do? It eliminated late swap for one sport: NBA. Here is how the DFS operator explained the move:
All lineup selections will lock at the start of the contest (i.e. you will no longer be able to swap players after contest lock). This change will allow our customers to enjoy the games and follow their teams rather than monitoring for late breaking news leading up to tip-off of each game.
The change was only instituted for NBA contests; in the NBA, starting lineups are not always known ahead of time.
Inside the change, good and bad
The opinions on the change ran the gamut.
On one side, the late swap feature is one of the only things that differentiates DraftKings NBA contests from competitor FanDuel. It takes away the ability of the user to alter a lineup after a contest begins, something that was never available at FanDuel.
On the other side, getting rid of late swap makes the underlying contest simpler — or at least less of a potential investment of time — for the user. To wit, from a DraftKings rep:
That talks to the idea that the best — or most heavily invested DFS players — will constantly monitor developments during the period between 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Eastern. By taking that ability out of the equation, users no longer have to constantly check their lineups and make changes. Everyone simply sits back and watches the games after the contest starts.
The DFS industry constantly tells us that the game is about fun, at core. And while research and finding edges via a feature like late swap is undoubtedly classified as “fun” for some hard-core DFS players, it’s certainly not in line with creating a product that is more appealing to a wider audience.
The casual player — both that already plays at DraftKings or that DFS operators would like to attract — likely wants to set a lineup for a contest and see how it does. While late swap does encourage increased engagement with the DraftKings platform, it’s not the kind of engagement that can necessarily be termed a positive one.
The daily version of fantasy sports already asks users to come back day in and day out to set new lineups. Increasing that investment of time from a casual player, in the form of having late swap available for NBA, is a big ask.
Change is good for the DFS industry
While the change made here by DraftKings is relatively small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, it speaks to a larger issue in the DFS industry.
The DFS product as offered by FanDuel and DraftKings has not changed or iterated in meaningful ways in recent years. I am sure the industry and some observers would disagree with that take; and yes, there have been changes, some brought on by regulation. Also this year, both sites have aimed at creating a more social experience that can be carried over the course of a season. (More on those efforts here and here.)
But the changes to the underlying contests are often made incrementally, like the late swap alteration outlined above. At core, the salary-cap model of DFS persists at the “big two” and hasn’t changed that much from day one.
For the DFS industry to grow and be a viable product moving forward, it seems clear it needs to adapt. Making the game simpler and more accessible to the casual player likely has to be a part of the process.
We saw DraftKings and FanDuel spend hundreds of millions of dollars on commercials and marketing in 2015. And while user numbers and revenue might be up year over year, the metrics should have been up even more given that spend. (Yes, there are mitigating factors surrounding the growth of the industry, including legal problems in a variety of states, the bad PR that came in the wake of the DraftKings data leak, and an increased concentration on lobbying efforts.)
Simplifying DFS contests — or perhaps even creating new DFS products under the same umbrella — would seem to be a worthwhile endeavor to create a more user-friendly experience.
To date, the DFS industry has beholden to the notion that it is a “game of skill” to avoid problems under state gambling laws. But that is a battle it showed it was increasingly capable of winning in state legislatures. Lawmakers in a variety of states have moved forward with bills that DFS can be defined as “not gambling,” no matter how much skill is actually employed for the underlying contest.
Making DFS easier to play — or, said another way, reducing the amount of emphasis on skill, time investment, research, etc. — can help the growth of the industry while likely creating no real new concerns on the legal front. And DraftKings’ small change on its late-swap offering is one small example of how that can be accomplished.