Imagine being able to take $4 and, through a short, fortuitous series of events, having the chance to parlay that money into an opportunity to win a $1 million? And, all of this is possible simply because you just happen to know a thing or two about the game of baseball.

This is exactly what happened to Steve Ezzo of Boston. On August 25th he traveled to Toronto for the DraftKings 2016 $4 Million World Championship of Baseball. Back in June Ezzo’s $4 entry beat out 10,342 others, winning him the chance to play for the million dollar grand prize. To do it however, he’ll need to triumph over a good number of professional sports fantasy players (yes they exist) who actually do this for a living. Welcome to the brave new world of daily fantasy sports.

When we think of fantasy sports most of us have a dated vision in our heads. It used to be the sole dominion of the sports nerds among us. It was a process in which you’d get together with your sports-obsessed friends, act like real life general managers and select players to create your very own fantasy team in the hopes of showing off your sports knowledge. If you were lucky (or good) you might end up winning a little money and the bragging rights with your friends.

Fantasy sports were a season long affair. Sure you could tweak your team a little to improve your chances but unfortunately if you had a bad draft, you likely had a bad year.

Today that model has changed drastically. While you still can compete in the traditional form of fantasy sports, an entirely new animal exists today. Daily fantasy sports. A contest in which users can pick a brand new team every day by filling out a roster based on a hypothetical salary cap.

The process is done entirely online meaning that the logistics and infrastructure behind such a venture are quite daunting and impressive. Daily fantasy sports require highly-sophisticated Web sites with extremely intricate software, e-commerce capabilities and real-time connections with the sports leagues themselves. The contestants not only have access to software that calculates individual team salary limits but the Web site also allows each contestant to monitor his or her standing in real-time while the runs or goals or baskets or touchdowns are being scored. It’s akin to a desktop program that tracks the stock market only the stocks in this case are daily fantasy teams.

Players are permitted to have up to 150 entries. In some contests it’s not uncommon for some to employ charts, spreadsheets and algorithms that help quantify the massive amount of data available. There is a multitude of proprietary programs and services in the marketplace that help in taming the overwhelmingly large data stream which sure helps when you’re trying to decide which first baseman hits left-handed pitching better on the road on a Thursday night.

Without technology this entire industry wouldn’t exist. In fact up until 2009 it didn’t. The escalation of high speed dependability coupled with the ubiquity of mobile phones and proprietary apps to run the service created DFS out of thin air. Now that DFS exists in a digital space, namely the sports themselves who feed real time stats to their own servers, the marriage of tech and sports gaming was only a matter of time.

While all this digital sophistication might seem a little excessive it isn’t when you realize how much is at stake considering the potential payoff. Daily fantasy is big business for both the contestants and the DFS providers. Eilers Research CEO Todd Eilers estimates “that daily games will generate around $2.6 billion in entry fees this year and grow 41 per cent annually, reaching $14.4 billion in 2020.

DraftKings, based in Boston, along with FanDuel are the two pre-eminent daily fantasy sports providers out there. It’s a new and burgeoning industry and government legislators have been slow to figure out exactly what it is. Some states have classified DFS as a lottery, inferring a different classification incumbent with a massive set of restrictions whereas the DFS industry frames it as “a game of skill.” Ask any player to define the difference and you’ll get a resoundingly definitive  endorsement of DFS as truly a game of skill.

“Just try playing a random team or two and see how you do,” says JRake, another “lucky” $4 qualifier here at the championship and a player whose winnings from his qualifying tournament has helped pay for his college tuition.

Without question the DraftKings $4 Million World Fantasy Baseball Championship is a first class event. Each of the contestants here has won airfare, hotel accommodations in addition to the chance to play for the big money. Contestants are treated like celebrities. Food and beverages are all part of the package.

Prizes in these individual contests can run from hundreds of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on the entry fee and the number of entries. And, it is possible for a small fish like Ezzo to win the big prize. At least that’s the message DraftKings is trying to get across. While professional players may dominate the contestants’ list, the recreational player is the future of DFS. For this reason DraftKings has instituted a number of gaming policies to help level the playing field, among them Beginner Only tournaments, full disclosure of who your opponents are and limiting the number of entries each player can submit.

DraftKings Co-founder Matt Kalish
DraftKings Co-founder Matt Kalish

“We want to make it accessible to everyone where anyone can win,” says DraftKings co-founder Matt Kalish.

At the $4 Million Championship, there are 160 entries with a chance to win with some contestants having up to six chances (the maximum) in 160 to take home first prize. Each entry will consist of ten players which includes two starting pitchers, a catcher, a first baseman, a second baseman, a shortstop, a third baseman and three outfielders. Who these players are is your choice but you must fill out an entire roster and stay under the mandated $50,000 salary cap. Some will “spend up” on starting pitching while others will look for bargains there that open up salary room at another spot. With 11 games on the slate in major league baseball this night multiplied by nine players per team times 22 teams you soon realize the sheer number of variations and permutations possible. Factoring in an educated guess as to who other people will be picking on their rosters and it’s not hard to see why computers are employed to help hedge your bets in daily fantasy sports.

As the games begin and event gets started it doesn’t take long to appreciate the inherent drama in such a big time event. One single occurrence on the field can mean a world of difference from one contestant to the other. A single hit drives someone’s score up and someone’s score down. Contestants live and die with each pitch. Multiply this by nine innings per game and tens of thousands of dollars in potential prize winnings won and lost with each pitch and it’s no wonder they serve drinks here.

In the end the winning entry is CashMonet, a guy from Chicago who’s winning lineup includes five players from the same team who just happened to have incredible offensive production all on the same night.

The difference between first and second place in points is three which translated to baseball is one measly hit. In prize winnings three points is a difference of $600,000.

Here is the last leaderboard update

Most of the contestants head to CashMonet to congratulate him and perhaps breathe in a little of lady luck. For Ezzo “losing” means heading home in 104th place with a $7,500 consolation prize, memories of this great event and enough cash to try and get here again next year.

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  • Lots of exciting things happening with DFS these days! I really want to start entering into these big qualifiers to hopefully compete against fellow DFS users in person. Big honour for Toronto to host a major event, great to see Canada get some love from the big companies.

    Thanks for sharing this article Charlie.