To understand the difference in strategy between cash games and tournaments, we need to understand the payout structure for each type of league. The massive difference in payouts causes us to treat each league type differently. Your lineup building strategy should always match the type of league that you are entering.
Cash Game Strategy
In most cash games (50/50’s and Head-to-Heads), typically, half of the field is paid out. The half of the field that cashes has zero difference in payouts, regardless of their finishing position. For instance, if you join a 100-man 50/50, the top-50 players are going to place (or cash) in that contest. Each lineup in the top-50 is going to get paid the same amount. Therefore, the ultimate goal in cash games is to build a lineup that has the best chance of finishing in the top half of the field.
Cash game strategy is typically thought of as taking the safe approach every night. We want to target players that offer great value, players that are in great matchups and players that are consistent and have a high floor. Being contrarian in cash games is not nearly as advantageous as it is in tournaments.
In cash games, we shouldn’t purposely avoid the players that are expected to be popular. The risk definitely outweighs the reward when we do. It doesn’t hurt to have a player that is 80% owned in a 50/50 league, but it can hurt to fade that player. If that player performs well, your lineup will immediately be at a disadvantage to 80% of the field. Since we need to finish in the top 50% to cash, our lineup is going to have a lot of ground to make up.
In tournaments, the philosophy is much different. A typical tournament on DraftKings awards prizes to the top 10-20% of the field. This changes our strategy because we now have to beat out 80-90% of our competitors in order to cash. Plus, the payouts in tournaments are top heavy, so the ultimate goal is to create a lineup that has the best chance of beating out all of the other lineups in the field. This is a far cry from the 50% of the lineups that we need to beat out in cash games.
In order to cash in tournaments, we have to be able to differentiate our lineups from our competitors. The key word that we focus on in tournaments is upside. Upside is another way to describe the fantasy potential of any individual player. Players that have high upside are great tournament targets, as they have the ability to post huge fantasy outings, which we need from each and every position.
In tournaments, we should be targeting players that have a high ceiling, rather than focusing on players that are consistent and have a high floor. Our concept of value also changes, as we now require more production from each and every player in our lineup. Instead of using the standard 5x salary value method, we need 6x-7x salary type of production if we want to cash in tournaments. We can target contrarian players to gain an edge on the field or we can fade the players that we feel are going to have high levels of ownership. Both are great strategies to differentiate your lineups from the rest of the field.
Picks Aren’t Mutually Exclusive
One of the biggest misconceptions in daily fantasy sports is that players have to be either a cash game target or a tournament target. The two are not mutually exclusive, though, as players can be both. There are key differences in strategy between cash games and tournaments, but individual players can be used in both.
I am a promoter at DraftKings and am also an avid fan and user (my username is Notorious) and may sometimes play on my personal account in the games that I offer advice on. Although I have expressed my personal view on the games and strategies above, they do not necessarily reflect the view(s) of DraftKings and I may also deploy different players and strategies than what I recommend above. I am not an employee of DraftKings and do not have access to any non-public information.