Spurred on by its entry into the digital and mobile age, the fantasy sports world is booming. From the fact that a hilarious and increasingly popular show based on fantasy sports is about to enter its sixth season to Yahoo’s increasing investment in fantasy sports products as part of a new mobile strategy that comes all the way from the top, the signs are everywhere that fantasy sports is turning into big business.
Another potentially impactful development has been the recent entry of Barry Diller-led media giant, IAC, into fantasy sports. The company, which now owns sites like About.com and College Humor and has seemed increasingly focused over the last few years on acquiring or incubating its way to owning the online and mobile dating markets with Match.com, OkCupid and Tinder, decided to place a bet on a fast-growing fantasy platform built by a company called Skyllzone.
Now led by Match.com CTO and GM Mike Presz, Skyllzone was founded in 2009 by a group of friends and fantasy fans who were on a mission to remove as many of the traditional requirements (or barriers) traditionally native to the fantasy experience as possible. Like private leagues limited to competition among friends or co-workers, the potential for injuries to ruin a season, or having to collect money from the league yourself should you win, for example.
The team’s first production aimed at addressing fantasy’s UX friction was DraftStreet, a website and (later) a mobile app that allow gamers to play against a single opponent or hundreds, competing in free leagues or for money — in daily or weekly matches. Since launching in 2010, DraftStreet has become one of the most popular daily fantasy sports platforms on the Web, due in part to its being one of the first sites to offer the ability for players to earn points.
By playing in either free or for-money games, DraftStreet allows players to accumulate points or credits based on their performance, and to later exchange those credits for contests or prizes at their leisure. The site also gained traction based on both its reputation for paying out prizes and winnings quickly and reliably, and for offering user-friendly interfaces.
While these “qualities” may be expected parts of the user experience in other industries, in 2010, the fantasy industry was still experiencing digital growing pains and relied on simple ports of the offline fantasy model into an online interface.
Fast forward three years, and IAC stepped in to place its bet on DraftStreet and the team behind it. With support from IAC, Skyllzone is back with its second production, a mobile-focused continuation of its mission to create multi-platform, user-friendly products that bring daily and weekly gratification, and quick pay-outs to fantasy sports.
While these traits have been key to expanding and improving the fantasy sports user experience on the Web and mobile devices both in general and for DraftStreet, its second product wants revolutionize the market with some new technology.
With the launch of “Fan vs. Machine” today, Skyllzone’s new fantasy sports app joins a surprisingly short list of mobile-first fantasy products. The app uses the company’s patented technology to enable users to play on their own schedule and without committing to an entire season. Initially available for iOS, and slated to arrive on Android in the coming months, Fan vs. Machine’s core innovation, according to Skyllzone, is that it is one of the first apps to allow users to instantly to compete against the computers in day-long contests.
While the company plans to apply its technology to each of the major sports, Fan vs. Machine is exclusively focused on fantasy basketball. The free-to-play gameplay enables users to instantly snake draft, compete against the computer and earn cash prizes for beating Skyllzone’s Watson. For those unfamiliar, a snake draft is a type of draft in which positions within the draft reverse after each round and is considered one of the “fairest” drafting models. In other words, if you draft first in the opening round, you’ll draft last in the next round, and first again in the third round, and so on.
The app uses Skyllzone’s proprietary, patented game technology that enables users to play against computer teams, which are controlled by its algorithms for draft strategy and pick selections. Competing against the computer allows speedy draft pick selections and aims to take the friction and time usually involved in your regular old human snake drafts.
Meaning: Drafts can usually be completed within 5 minutes, which is refreshing. And, naturally, playing in a fantasy league against a computer means that you get to take your time, playing on your own schedule without having to commit to a full season, while your opponent’s picks (i.e. the computer’s) happen instantly.
Skyllzone Chairman Mike Presz believes that the company has created a “new way to play” fantasy sports with Fan vs. Machine, and no other mobile product offers a computer-automated fantasy experience. The team is hoping that the app can appeal to both casual and hardcore fantasy gamers alike, and that the experience makes for an easy transition into the world of daily and weekly games that have become popular through DraftStreet, FanDuel, DraftKings and others.
That being said, Skyllzone co-founder and product lead Michael Vu admitted that there’s plenty of room for improvement as far as the app’s algorithm is concerned. Beta users have found the computer to be pretty competitive, he said, and most find it a workable balance, though, nevertheless the team is still “going to make it more competitive,” he said.
Admittedly, even for someone like me who is far from being a fantasy basketball veteran, the app and gameplay experience are pretty easy to navigate. Users compete in a league with nine other teams, each of which are auto-drafted by computers and compete with you in one-day contests. Naturally, as part of the game, each team drafts one center, three guards, three forwards and two utility players.
What makes it interesting is that each of the nine teams being drafted by computers has a different strategy in the draft, which, based on your past experiences, may make Fan vs. Machine’s style way more compelling. However, the one potential void: You don’t make any transactions or moves. Instead, you just kick back and watch the games.
The app uses a simple scoring grid consisting of positive points with a three-pointer equating to one point, a made free throw being a 0.5 point and so on. If you accumulate the highest points, you win your league, and if you win your league, the app pays out $20 and if you beat everyone, you win an additional $200.
For fantasy fanatics who believe that the best or most fun part of playing is the draft, then getting to experience that multiple times a week will be a welcome change and make Fan vs. Machine’s appeal pretty straightforward. That and not having a time limit, needing to coordinate drafts with friends, reach consensus or be judged for picks. Then, every week, the app offers contents in which you can win cash and you don’t have to pay money to enter.
If any of that sounds appealing, then Fan vs. Machine is worth the free download — and, uh, free entry. Going forward, the Skyllzone co-founders said that their top priorities are going to be improving the app’s algorithm to make the computers more competitive, expanding the Fan vs. Machine model to other professional sports and boosting its social layer and leaderboards. With the first and last of those being at the top of the list.
All in all, if Tinder revolutionized dating by creating an addicting mobile user experience and by eliminating awkwardness, then you might say Fan vs. Machine is attempting to do the same for fantasy sports. With just two products, whether or not you fall in love with them, the team gets credit for pushing to expand the gameplay experience in fantasy and for reducing some of what many would consider the traditional barriers to entry. Just as with Tinder, if you’re a purist and not under 40, then it may seem superficial, and for fantasy purists, Fan vs. Machine could feel the same.
But who doesn’t love drafting multiple times a week, right?
For more, find Fan vs. Machine on the App Store here.