Head-to-head versus roto


LeBron or CP3? Auction or snake? Standard eight categories, or throw in turnovers? In most fantasy hoops leagues, various disputes occur (ranging from the bestowing of inappropriate nicknames to heated political debates) before the draft even begins.

But the superlative debate within fantasy hoops circles (which fall somewhere between drum circles and prayer circles on the hipness scale) is between the two primary schools of scoring: roto and head-to-head (H2H). Much like you have your Ford or Chevy guys, you'll find strong proponents for each. The nuances between roto and H2H are notable enough so that they feel like different games to a fantasy hoops veteran, although they're similar enough that if you monitor your box scores, check your team, actually watch some NBA games (important!) and have put effort into one method before, those skills translate from one to the other.


Roto, or rotisserie scoring, fits the name, because it's all about "cooking from all sides," and being balanced in all categories. The general idea is as follows: Owners accumulate statistics in any number of categories, usually the standard eight, although many add turnovers, and the possibilities are endless (triple-doubles, assist-to-turnover ratio). In each category, the leader gets as many points as there are owners in the league, then points are assigned in descending order. For example, if you have the most steals in a 10-team league, you get 10 points in that category, and the owner with the least gets one. The points in all categories are combined for a total number of points, which determines the standings. The owner with the most total points at the end of the season is deemed the victor.

Roto scoring is perfect for analytical people who play fantasy sports for fun, to watch more sports and for the mental challenge, because it's all about balance and big-picture strategy. And, well, more math. Balancing your roster through constant analysis and tweaks, identifying needs, performing strange calculations about the rate at which you've been climbing out of the cellar in free throws … if this sounds fun to you, you're likely a roto player. Instead of adding 15 guys per week to accumulate as many aggregate stats as possible and checking his team every 20 minutes, the roto owner writes down scribbles about his or her team and works them out on the bus before the impulsive add. Yep, roto players are into public transportation.

This overall focus on balance, stats and needs applies to draft day, because roto drafts are all about constructing a balanced team, not ensuring you get your favorite player. Your overall draft strategy is shaped around your first few picks, then you make choices that fill statistical and roster needs from there. During the draft, identifying which players will likely be available for your next pick while making your current pick is key, and making notes about your specific team and picks during the draft will aid later picks. Even though you're focused on categories and your team needs, though, you shouldn't make stupid decisions, and not draft a player who has fallen dramatically but doesn't fill your ideal need. Also, your late-round fliers are very important and specific in roto, as they're often used to fill gaps with specialists or add roster stability with "glue" players.

Roto is more of an apples-to-apples game, as each team has the same games-played limit and basic daily expectations, and it should be viewed as a marathon. Trades are much more about categories and filling needs than trading for players you really want or have a feeling about. Overall, roto is all about categories, needs and balance. Repeat these three words to yourself repeatedly as a pre-draft mantra, as well as every morning during the season, and good roto karma will come your way.


Head-to-head is often category-based, although many formats award weekly wins and losses. These are based either upon who won more categories during the week or upon a fantasy-point system that assigns values to different statistics. H2H leagues that give you a point in each category you win are much closer to roto leagues than those that result in one weekly win or loss per team. For this column, let's assume the H2H league in question is a categorical win-loss one. When deciding how much to tailor your strategy to the scoring system, follow these basic guidelines and tweak them according to your league's settings:

A player's aggregate fantasy value is king in H2H drafts, and you can almost go into a draft with your players ranked from highest to lowest and draft according to positional needs straight from that list. The best draft moves are about grabbing overall talent that has fallen, and late-round fliers are best spent on high-upside picks, without worrying about how they fit your team's needs as much. Ignoring needs is foolish in roto, but allowing overall value to plummet is foolish in H2H. Specialists have less value in H2H, especially in the more common categories like points, 3s and rebounds, so don't overpay for them.

H2H is ideal for those who love the competition of fantasy sports, and play them to win. In certain H2H scoring formats (namely non-category based ones with daily transactions), you can often win your league through sheer attrition, constantly starting as many players as possible, so if you have a lot of time on your hands and Internet access at all times, this might be for you.

During the season in H2H play, it's important to identify your strengths and make sure to lock those down weekly. Even though it's not as much about balance, your roster does need some stability. Also, focusing on the players in trades -- not stats and needs -- is critical. If a trade doesn't fit your team perfectly but you believe it will provide a significant leap in overall value, pull the trigger. H2H is more about loading up on players with huge contributions in a few categories, because it's like facing Adrian Peterson in that category every week. These players (Dwight Howard, Ben Gordon et al) bulldoze you with total stats and inflict pain, which is great since doing as much damage to your opponent this week is always your primary focus in H2H. Overall during the season, capitalizing upon misperceptions of overall player value when making roster decisions is key; stats and needs are, too, just not to the extent as in roto.

The difference

I'm a roto guy through and through (I throw in turnovers), but I like H2H as well, because you start with a clean slate weekly and there are usually playoffs, which are awesome. In all, if we had to pinpoint the critical difference between the two formats, it would be upon the importance and emphasis of statistical categories.

Players per category, by standard deviation

Using 2008-09 Player Rater

NOTE: Click on the category in the chart above to see the Player Rater rankings from 2008-09.

Easiest categories to fill

Points/Rebounds: Never overpay for points, but don't ignore the fact that the top players help you considerably. Since tons of guys are above average in both categories, just make sure the scorers and rebounders you do grab also help you in other areas as well. A key way to avoid languishing in the rebound category is by making sure your forward and center spots are filled with above-average guys, as power forwards who average only seven rebounds per game can be damaging.

Steals: A bit less common than points and boards, steals are still fairly easy to find, although there are fewer second-tier studs who are two standard deviations above. Having one of these players is crucial in establishing viability in the category, although I typically aim to start at least one point guard in a utility spot, which often adds another contributor in steals. If you employ a similar strategy and lock down one top-15 player in steals, you'll compete.

3-pointers: By far the largest number of overall positive contributors, because lots of players do it in bunches, while many don't at all (not the case for steals, blocks, assists and boards: Even players who struggle in many of these categories will accrue them every so often, which skews the standard deviation spread). Three-pointers is another area to not overpay for, but make sure you're not neglecting it. By implementing the aforementioned point guard strategy, as well as the overall strategy of avoiding guards who don't shoot 3s, you can be competitive here and target specialists in other areas.

Hardest categories to fill

Field goal percentage/Free throw percentage: They have a similar breakdown, and the table shows that we should pay for the top players in percentages. It's harder to be above average since they're averages, so comparing the fact that there are only 49 players above one standard deviation in free throw percentage and 84 in 3-pointers, the chart illustrates which categories are scarce. And percentages are at the top of the list. Pay for them.

Assists: The scarcest aggregate category, assists are so limited by position since there are only a handful of non-point guards who contribute greatly. Feel free to pay heavily for assists in roto leagues, and put it on your list with both percentages as key categories to lock up.

Blocks: There are fewer players who contribute overall here, so locking up a few big names is important, although there are more overall above-average contributors here than in assists. Still scarce, but based upon the chart, not as much as percentages and assists.

Negative Categories

Field goal percentage/Free throw percentage: A deeper dive into these statistics is upcoming in a future column, but the main takeaway with negative categories in roto leagues is to be very mindful of them. They drastically impact team value, but can be compensated for. Dwight Howard's value in a roto league is dwarfed by his value in a H2H league. Know this. More on why in the future.

Players made for roto: Shawn Marion, Shane Battier, Jamario Moon, Andrei Kirilenko, Charlie Villanueva

Players made for H2H: Dwight Howard, Andre Miller, Ben Gordon, Gilbert Arenas

Josh Whitling is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.