This is an archived article.

July 19, 2007

UW Bothell prof wins big in fantasy sports league

Clark Olson was in Hollywood last week, along with a plethora of top professional athletes, to attend the annual ESPYs, a sports award event created and broadcast by ESPN. The athletes were there to pick up awards in categories like “Best Football Player”; Olson was there because of his own award — placing first in ESPN’s “Uber Contest” in fantasy sports.

In his real life, Olson is an associate professor of computing and software systems at UW Bothell, but in his free time he manages virtual teams in every sport from baseball to bass fishing. Yes, that’s right — bass fishing. Only when you compete in a wide variety of sports do you stand a chance in the Uber Contest.

Confused yet? If so, you must not be one of the estimated 15 million people who play fantasy sports, making it a billion-dollar industry. Anyone can start an office league and do their own scoring, but these days most players participate online, for a fee, in leagues sponsored by organizations like ESPN, Yahoo or The Sporting News.

The concept is simple: Each participant selects a team from among active players in real-life leagues. Participants’ teams are grouped into virtual leagues, and they win points based on the performance of their players in real-life games. (Players can belong to only one team in a given league.) The team with the most points wins the virtual league championship.

Olson started playing fantasy sports in 1991, when he was still in college. “I’ve always been a big sports fan and a competitive person,” he says. “I played baseball up until I got to high school, but after that I pretty much stopped being an active player, except for a stint of ultimate frisbee when I was in grad school.”

Instead, he turned to fantasy sports, eventually signing up for ESPN’s online games in 1998. In addition to running teams with a registration fee of about $30, he also competes in so-called high-stakes leagues, where it costs more than $1,000 to participate. Of course, the rewards are commensurate with the costs. Winning a regular league gets you a t-shirt; winning a high-stakes league gets you $5,000. And once you’ve won your league, you’re eligible to compete for the championship, which is worth $100,000 or more.

Olson has yet to win the big money, but he has won $5,000 twice in baseball and once in football (the latter with a partner). “But I don’t play for the money,” he says. “I play for fun.”

And then there’s the Uber Contest. Olson has placed in the top three in that contest for the last five years, finally winning it and earning the trip to Hollywood. In addition to team sports like baseball and football, participants in the Uber Contest compete in “salary cap” sports like golf, NASCAR, and yes, bass fishing. In a salary cap sport, Olson explains, participants are given a certain amount of virtual money to obtain players for fixed amounts. Any individual athlete can be “owned” by more than one participant, so the problem is to figure out how to best use the money. Should you spend most of your money getting a few top players, with a few lower-level ones thrown in, or should you go more for the middle?

The analytical and technical skills Olson learned in his profession have come in handy when it comes to strategizing. In fact, he’s created a computer program to help him take projected statistics in a given sport and evaluate them to determine how players should rate.

“My program developed over a long period of time,” he says. “I started with a program that probably only took me an hour to write years ago, but I’ve added things to it and made changes to it so that over time I’ve gotten it very customized.”

He’s not looking to commercialize, however, noting that there are plenty of commercial programs out there already. Nor does he think it takes a computer scientist, or even someone with a wealth of sports knowledge, to succeed at fantasy sports.

“I know a little bit about most sports, but I get the vast majority of my information online,” Olson says “Knowing where to get good information is really key.”

The fantasy sports player has to keep up with what’s happening in the real-life sport. If one of the players on his team gets injured, for example, then he will need to make a substitution, and to do that, he’ll need to know which players are available to replace the injured one. The more quickly he can get the information, the better position he’ll be in to get the best substitute possible.

Olson says he spends an hour or two a day managing his teams, but then, at the moment he’s got 10 baseball teams — two in high-stakes leagues — and a few salary cap sports as well. In the fall he’ll come to one of his busiest times because football will be starting before baseball winds down.

He’s not alone in his devotion to the pastime. Among its 15 million adherents are many celebrities, including professional athletes themselves.

For Olson, the attraction is simple. “I’m a very competitive guy,” he says. “I like to win.”