As we enter the final stretch of another season of Fantasy Premier League (FPL), thoughts are already starting to turn to next year and what changes might benefit the game ahead of its next launch. Discussions to date have surrounded the chips, player classifications, the bonus point system (BPS) and the scoring system in general among many others. Typically if you ask a hundred FPL managers what they’d change about FPL you’ll receive 100 different answers but, this time around, there seems like a greater demand for change than normal.
Maybe a change is due – there hasn’t really been a revolutionary change in the way the game is played since the chips were introduced seven seasons ago – but there’s also a pervasive sense in the FPL community that this season has been somewhat ‘sub-fun’. Maybe it’s the last-minute cancellations and all the stress that that generated during the winter, or perhaps it’s the endless procession of Double Gameweeks that it precipitated. Maybe it’s the ‘variance’, with entire seasons seemingly made or undone by a differential captain choice and, of course, there’s the fact that barely a single forward managed to stake a claim for their inclusion in our squads all season. More than anything, it feels like strategy this season has been strongly dictated by circumstance, rather than individual intent. We have been reacting all season, never really on the front foot. It feels like something should change.
But change does not often come without a cost and it can backfire, making the situation worse or creating new problems. This is especially so when change is inorganic, top-down or imposed by edict. Even with the best intentions, change in the form of institutional intervention can serve to stifle innovation and bring about unforeseen consequences. This article will discuss why this is sometimes the case and, via a detour into the 2008 Housing Crisis, it will urge caution with respect to any potential wholesale revamping of the FPL game.
The 2008 US Housing Crisis
An example that well illustrates the danger of overzealous institutional interventions can be found in the 2008 US Housing Crisis which, to cut a long story short, came about because too many mortgage loans were granted to too many people who could not afford to pay them back, and this ultimately led to the crashing of the global economy.
The most pervasive explanations given for how this situation came about tend to point to greed within the, sometimes predatory, financial institutions which were injudiciously granting the loans and the failure of the regulatory bodies to rein in their risky or unscrupulous behaviours. There is undoubtedly much truth to this perspective, but it does not tell the whole story.
In the build-up to the crash, many US government officials campaigned on the idea that their country was suffering from a nationwide affordable housing crisis and that lending institutions needed to do more to help lower-income and socially disadvantaged groups to afford housing. Supporting affordable homeownership was an extremely popular idea among voters and so politicians at the time practically fell over themselves to throw their weight behind various initiatives by which mortgage lenders were either incentivised or threatened to relax their criteria for granting loans. Lenders would almost certainly not have done this independently as the risk of loss to them was too great, however they did and the rest, as they say, is history.
What is almost never mentioned, however, is that there actually was no nationwide housing crisis in the US in the build-up to the crash. In most states, supply and demand tended to balance fairly well. It was only in states where the government had introduced strict land use and development regulations which had artificially pushed up house prices faster than the capacity of people to buy them. So, in many ways, the 2008 housing crisis came about not because of too little government regulation but because of too much government regulation and, while there are few innocent parties within the whole affair, it nicely demonstrates how institutional interventions can disrupt market forces and create problems that didn’t exist and/or make problems worse.
Back to FPL
It is unrealistic to think that FPL is a game without flaws or that it could not be improved by rule changes, but it is important that, if such changes are introduced, that they are necessary, that they solve a genuine problem and that they don’t instigate a whole new bunch of negative consequences. In fact, where possible, I’d argue that rule changes should be a last resort in most circumstances.
As with the example above, the marketplace has a tendency to resolve its own problems and inorganic interventions often serve to disrupt or undermine this process. The rules of ancient games such as chess or Go have barely changed in centuries, yet they continue to generate excitement and innovation. Indeed, throughout the history of FPL, it is typically not the rule changes that have generated energy and interest but, instead, the constant evolution of the actual game that it is based on and the inventiveness of those who play FPL.
In the past 10 years or so of FPL, the ‘template’ has gone from being built around attacking number 8s like Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, to classic 10s like Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie to hybrid 10s like Juan Mata and David Silva to weird 10s like Yaya Toure and Marouane Fellaini to inverted wingers like Mohamed Salah and Eden Hazard to attacking wing-backs like Joao Cancelo, Reece James and Trent Alexander Arnold. In that time, we’ve had the ‘Power Five’ midfield, the ‘Big at the Back’ experiment, Kanexit, Shane Duffy Triple Captain, defensive midfielders like Chelsea’s Jorginho and Crystal Palace’s Luka Milivojevic emerging as unlikely top scores for their respective clubs, anomalies such as 2019/20 John Lundstram at Sheffield United and 2020/21 Stuart Dallas at Leeds and a whole host of paradigm shifts and bold innovations. None of these required anybody to change any of the rules.
If you leave things up to the players, particularly games with a critical mass at the scale of FPL, they will typically find solutions and innovate faster (and often better) than the rule-makers could ever hope to.
An example of this can be observed even with respect to that soggiest of chips; the ‘Bench Boost’. The Bench Boost does not have many fans, some as awkward and overrated. But in the past couple of weeks, you might have noticed people using the Bench Boost in a new and fairly innovative way, namely; to offset a -8 or -12 hit that they can use to revamp and reinvigorate their teams and gain an advantage for the run-in.
Now, you could argue that FPL points are fungible so, if you ever gained any points from your Bench Boost, you could tell yourself that you are spending them now but the difference is that, at this stage of the season, a -12 is a more dangerous move than normal because there is so little time to make it up if it doesn’t yield instant results. But this is not the case if it is offset by the Bench Boost. From this perspective; the Bench Boost offers an advance on its value (a little bit like a mortgage…) to spend on transfers without the negative consequences for your rank. Imagine how much better you’d feel about the hits you might be planning to take for Gameweek 38 if you could offset them against your Bench Boost? All of a sudden it no longer looks so soggy and, again, nobody came in and changed the rules with respect to Bench Boost, some people just found a fairly clever new way to gain some additional value from it.
Much as I personally lean towards trusting the ‘free market solution’ when it comes to FPL, I’m not such a staunch ideologue as to pretend that the game couldn’t be changed for the better or, indeed, may need to be changed in order to maintain interest, variety or simply to move with the times.
What I would suggest, however, is that any review of the rules of FPL be done out of a clear necessity and in response to a genuine problem that couldn’t be solved or circumvented naturally by its player base given time. While innovation is often good and shouldn’t be avoided for the sake of it, organic or grass-roots innovation is typically preferable and carries fewer risks of backfiring when compared to explicit rule changes. Explicit interventions by FPL rule-makers may add new dimensions, but these might also end up being gimmicky or serve to dilute the skill factor of the game, creating artificial variance or strategic homogeneity rather than the individual agency, dynamism and diversity that makes the game great.
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