DFS Strategy: How to Win Showdown Contests (Fantasy Football)

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Showdown contests are a different animal compared to the Sunday main slate. Understanding the intricacies behind these single-game contests is crucial to be a more successful showdown player, especially in the long term. I’ll preface this article by saying something I always on the DFS Podcast – Football is one of the highest variance sports that exists. Simply put, we (the fantasy community) aren’t that good at projecting what’s going to happen over the course of the season, let alone one week. Now, we’re trying to predict exactly what’s going to happen in a single game. Simply put, chaos is going to happen. For that reason, I recommend embracing the volatility of showdown contests and being willing to play in GPPs using the strategy outlined below.

Note: For the purposes of this article, most of the conversation will focus on DraftKings Showdown strategy, but similar concepts and strategies can be applied to FanDuel.

Scoring and Roster Format
  • Six total roster spots; one captain selection and five flex spots
  • Captains get a 1.5x scoring bonus but their salary also increases by 1.5x. For example, if a player’s salary is $10,000, his salary increases to $15,000 if he’s rostered as the captain.
  • You must roster at least one player from each team. For example, if the Bucs are playing the Texans, you cannot start six Bucs players. Any combination of six players is acceptable (5-1, 4-2, 3-3).
Choosing the Right Captain

This is the key to winning in showdown, so I’m going to focus a large portion of the article on this concept. For a more detailed discussion on this and Showdown strategy in general, be sure to listen to this episode of the DFS Podcast.

1.We should be choosing a QB, RB, or WR captain the vast majority of the time.

This is not the time to get cute. I went back and looked at FantasyLabs data over the last two years and found that a TE was the optimal captain selection just 3.5% of the time. Tight ends in fantasy just don’t have access to the ceiling we’re looking for at the captain spot. I’m willing to go with a Travis Kelce, George Kittle, or Darren Waller when it makes sense, but if we’re trying to pick the week a middle TE has a big game, we’re probably lighting our money on fire more weeks than not.

As for Kickers and Defenses, the same is true. We need a massive outlier performance from a kicker in order for them to beat a skill position player. Simply put, it doesn’t happen. When looking at DSTs, I looked at every winning lineup from each Thursday Night Football game from 2019-2020 and found there were just two (!!) games where a defense was the optimal captain. To put it simply, avoid kickers and defense in the captain spot.

2. Choose a captain on the favored team more often than not. 

When looking at the data from the games in my sample, it seems like our opponents generally know this. However, the field is not doing it enough. When looking at 2019’s showdown data in DraftKings tournaments, the field rostered a player from the favored team about 60% of the time. However, the top 1% of finishers rostered a captain from the favored team according to Vegas lines 75% of the time. In other words, Vegas is correct far more often than they are incorrect, and as a result, we should be willing to roster a captain from the favored team most of the time in order to reach the highest possible ceiling.

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3. Use Vegas totals when deciding what position to roster in the captain spot.

As detailed above, we want to be looking for a captain from the favored team, but that’s not the only Vegas line we should be considering. Vegas totals can help us predict when it’s optimal to select a QB, RB, or WR. In the data set I looked at, I chose to sort the games into two categories: A Vegas total of 40 points or less and a Vegas total of 49 points or more. Worth noting, the data didn’t seem to lean heavily towards any specific position when the game total was between 41 and 48.

When the Vegas total is less than 40 points, we can generally project a slower-paced, defensive type of performance. As a result, it’s more plausible to expect the running backs to dominate scoring. The data supports this. When the game total is 40 points or less from most often to least often, the top three scoring positions at the captain were an RB1, QB1, and a DST. When the game is low scoring, this is your chance to get fancy and play that DST in the captain spot, but before we lock into that strategy, it’s worth noting that the scoring discrepancy between the RB1 and the QB1 and the DST was still pretty wide. I.e. the RB1 and QB1 still beat the DST most weeks.

In games that feature a 49+ point total, we can project a more high-flying game environment, which produces more fantasy points. To no surprise, these game environments feature more of our usual suspects at captain – QB, WR, and RB. In these game environments, the most optimal captain in the data set I looked at was the QB1 by a decent margin followed by a tie between the WR1 and the RB1.

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Vegas lines and totals aren’t the end all be all, but they are a piece of the puzzle that can help us decide which player to roster at captain and can also help us to try to better predict game script. I’d recommend reading Matt DiSorbo’s article for more on projecting game scripts and why using Vegas favorites is more optimal.

4. Wide receivers give us access to a ceiling at far less roster percentage.

No doubt about it – QBs are much safer in terms of projecting fantasy points, especially over the course of the season. But remember, we’re trying to predict what’s going to happen in a single game, and while QBs do score more fantasy points on average than WRs, the wide receiver position gives us access to massive ceiling performances that can help us win a GPP.

On DraftKings especially, wide receivers can break the slate for the following reasons:

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  • Full PPR scoring
  • 100-yard receiving bonus
  • 6 points for a TD as opposed to 4 points for a QB

Don’t get me wrong – there are absolutely going to be slates where we want to roster a QB as our captain, but speaking generally, wide receivers have access to the same ceiling as QBs at less roster percentage, which is crucial for GPPs. Looking at showdown scoring on DraftKings over the last couple of years, the WR1 averages just three less fantasy points than the QB1. Here’s the key: the WR1 averages just 8% roster percentage in the captain spot while the QB is rostered at the highest rate of any position (11%).

The data suggests these two positions have a similar ceiling, yet our opponents are playing QB captain at an elevated rate. In tournaments, it makes sense to take some shots at WR captains given that we’re going to be gaining a decent amount of leverage on the field without sacrificing upside.

5. Be willing to fade the popular captain.

As discussed on last week’s DFS Podcast, Kyle went back and looked at every Thursday Night Football showdown slate from Week 1 to Thanksgiving to see who was the winning captain in a given week. As you’ll notice, there are some interesting names on this list but here are the biggest takeaways:

  • The average roster percentage in the captain spot was just 11% for the winning lineup.
  • The average captain’s salary was $11,275.
  • Only two winning captains had a roster percentage greater than 20%.

The data here tells us that we should be willing to look for contrarian, yet smart captain selections. When I say contrarian, I don’t necessarily mean we should be looking for that random TD from a team’s WR5, but I think it makes sense if we project a player to be rostered at more than 20% in the captain, to consider fading that player. More often than not, this is going to be the QB as the field plays this position in the captain spot most often. We’re going to be wrong from time to time, but the data here support that it’s viable to look at less popular captain plays using the strategies outlined above, especially when playing in tournaments.

Ways to Gain Leverage On the Field

To this point, the article has primarily focused on the captain spot, but there are other ways to create leverage on the field. Remember, in showdown contests, we’re embracing volatility and high variance. Simply doing what our opponents are also doing is unlikely to yield success in GPPs.

1. Be willing to leave salary on the table.

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When Kyle and I discussed strategy associated with building lineups on the main slate, it was clear that spending most of, if not all, of our salary when building a lineup, is optimal. In showdown, this isn’t necessarily the case. Given that our player pool is limited to just two teams, it’s more likely we see duplicated lineups in showdown contests. In order to avoid this, consider leaving some money on the table. In the data set I looked at, I found there was a significant increase in the frequency of duplicated lineups when DFS players spent more than $49,600.

2. Be willing to vary roster construction.

As described above, we get six roster spots to fill in showdown slates – 1 captain and 5 flex spots. When looking at how the field builds lineups, the vast majority of the time, our opponents are going with a 3-3 build, meaning they’re playing three players from each team. In GPPs, consider 4-2 builds and even 5-1 builds as a way to get different and reduce the chance of setting a duplicated lineup.

3. Be willing to roster the WR2 when it makes sense.

To this point, we’ve already established using a WR1 in the captain spot is a +EV move, and no doubt, there will be slates where this makes sense and is an optimal move. However, if we really want to gain leverage on the field, consider going with the WR2 or a secondary pass catcher when the TE dominates targets (Travis Kelce, Darren Waller). The average captain roster percentage in this data set showed that the field is rostering the WR1 at an 8.5% rate while rostering the WR2 at just a 4% clip. Recall, from previous episodes of the podcast this year, there is a strong correlation between the WR1 and his QB AND the WR2 and his QB…and it’s not that much different. Per FantasyLabs data going back to 2014, the WR2 correlation score is .52 while the WR1 score is .55. Both correlate relatively similarly, yet there’s a large discrepancy in how our opponents view this situation, rostering the WR1 far more often than the WR2.

Tell Yourself a Story…And Run with It.

Even though trying to predict a game script in a single game can be difficult, we shouldn’t be logging into DraftKings and blindly clicking buttons. The best way to think about building a showdown lineup is by trying to identify how a game script might go and building a lineup that fits that narrative. The goal here is to maximize correlation in order to achieve the highest possible ceiling outcome, thereby giving us a chance to finish atop the leader board.

Thinking about this can be a bit nuanced, but here are some general recommendations to follow in order to improve chances of hitting that ceiling outcome:

1. When selecting a captain QB, stack him with at least one of his pass-catchers, and when the QB is a pure pocket passer, consider double stacking.

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2. When using a WR as a captain, stack him with his QB in the flex.

3. Use no more than 2 kickers and/or DSTs in the same lineup.

4. When using a QB, WR, or TE as a captain, bring it back with a QB, WR, and/or TE from the opposing team. Using FantasyLabs data, an opposing QB, WR, or TE was included in 88% of winning lineups that rostered a QB, WR, or TE from the other team at the captain.

DFS Showdown strategy can be difficult on the surface as it’s definitely its own game compared to the main slate. However, using some of the strategies outlined above, we can increase our chances of being successful showdown players. Starting next week, be sure to come back to the DFS Pass every Thursday for our DraftKings Showdown article which highlights the Thursday Night Football game every week.


Dan says:

This was really solid content and I greatly appreciate it. These basic game strategy/theory articles are like gold.

Zoinked says:

I view sports betting different than most people. I view it much like horse racing in that it is a pool of money. My job is not to figure out the winner, my job is to figure out what is being over bet and under bet relative to all possible outcomes.

For showdown captain mode, what I would like to know is:

1. What percentage of first place line-ups have 0, 1, or 2 QBs over the course of several games..
2. What percentage of all paid rosters have 0, 1, or 2 QBs over the course of several games.

This will let me know what is being under bet in regards to QBs. The same concept could be applied to goalies in NHL and pitchers in MLB.

What I am getting at is if a roster with no quarterbacks wins 5% of the time but is only bet 2.5% of the time then a zero QB roster would be a good bet. If a roster with two QBs wins 50% of the time but is being bet 70% of the time then I would avoid the two QB rosters in most cases.

There is a lot more similar crunching that I can think of but that would be my first question.

Cooper Cerulo says:


rcgalyean says:

When is the DFS Generator going to be active?? It says week 1!

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