The meta game

Have you ever heard the phrase “that’s so meta”?

In gaming, the ‘meta game’ means “the game within the game” (bear with me here!)

Check the reddit or forums for any long-running game, and it will comprise of lots of threads that are specific to the current state of play within those games, and how players are strategising to maximise their chances of victory within that.

The ‘meta’ (I’m going to shorten it to that for this article, and remove the quotes from this point) will always exist: as time passes, the state of games change. Strategies fall into, and out of favour, reflecting the changing context (or meta). And that’s something which strikes me as being hugely applicable to FPL.

As such, the ‘future trend’ in this article is not so much about something that will change next season, but more about highlighting something that has always been present but might not have been previously thought about.

The FPL meta

To me, in an FPL sense, this idea of the meta refers what we see as the prevailing line(s) of thought on twitter and the forums. For example, think of how innumerable RMTs and requests for advice on transfers on the FFS forums come laden with caveats such as “I’m hitting for the long-term” or (as in the example that follows) “because [player] has a match in gameweek [x]”.

Think of how the “template” team changes slowly over the course of the season. It happens that way for a reason. It’s because the meta is constantly evolving as the season progresses.

It is our view that identifying and understanding the overriding factors that make up this meta game, and the key benefits and risks associated with following the crowd (what psychologists refer to as herd mentality, also commonly known as “being a sheep”) could be beneficial to FPL managers in riding out the challenges that are thrown up throughout the season.

This article will show you how understanding this concept of the meta can help you to make better decisions.

This is because the meta can have a big influence on our decisions.

Let’s make this relatable through an example many of us will still be smarting about.

The example: the Gameweek 27 TC Fail

Oh, Sergio!

Think about the season just gone, Gameweek 28, which fell on the second weekend of March. Due to other competitions (the League Cup and FA Cup), we knew from early January that some Premier League games would be postponed – much to Jose Mourinho’s later annoyance – becoming the double game weeks at the end of the season.

We changed our behaviour, and altered our decision making, because of that knowledge.

We began to plan our transfers differently, placing an inordinate amount of emphasis on the players who would have a match in that gameweeks, often at the expense (what economists refer to as “opportunity cost”) of shorter term assets who were performing but did not have a fixture that week.

Resultantly, many an active manager undertook a sub-optimal play.

In our example, the exploits of many a seasons’ saviour Harry Kane – who scored a hat trick and an assist, or 20 points in gameweek 26 – were mostly ignored (if a non-owner) or devalued (if an owner). It seems crazy now, in the reflected glory of 7 goals in the last 2 gameweeks of the 2016/17 season. But it’s what happened.

In fact, almost incredibly when we look at the data, between gameweeks 26-27 he saw net transfers of -79,992. After scoring a hat trick!

He did, of course, get injured by the end of gameweek 27, but that’s beside the point as, in that gameweek, he scored another 2 goals – 13 points – as Spurs beat Everton 3-2 at home.

Why did this happen? Well, that’s because the meta was focused on getting in those players in gameweek 28 that were going to have a match, alongside another related factor: Manchester City unexpectedly had their game with Stoke moved back to gameweek 27, creating the season’s first double game week.

Sources like FFS and the FPL twitter feed were heavily trailing the fact that Spurs had no match in gameweek 28, whilst the injury to Gabriel Jesus ensconced Sergio “Kun” Aguero – a much beloved asset from seasons past – as both the #1 City forward and also the prime target for transfers in that week. Despite very little recent form to speak of, many managers – myself included – saw a gameweek 27 DGW versus a rapidly fading Sunderland and an inconsistent Stoke as a massive opportunity for a huge haul, a sudden standout triple captain contender.

We were wrong.

Those removing Kane for Kun only saw, at best, a modest point upswing from the change they made (1 point assuming a TC for Kun over a © for Kane, and a loss of 5 points if just a regular captaincy) as he only managed 1 goal and 3bp over 2 games. A below par 27 points overall.

We could only watch – in some anguish – later in the season as TC choices such as Sanchez in gameweek 36 (42 pts) or, for the minority of even cannier managers using the same player in gameweek 37 (81 pts) flourished.

So why did this happen?

The importance of herd mentality on decision making

Reading about FPL is a self-selecting behaviour. Being involved in the (amazing) FPL community, be it through lurking or commenting, and be it through Twitter or fora such as Fantasy Football Scout, means you tend to internalise what the prevailing view in the community is. Around this time, there were two major strands of thought in the meta game which, taken together, created the impact I’ve described above. These were:

  • Kun, given his legacy of massive output at home (5 goals in 20 mins v Newcastle at home in 15/16 is etched in the psyche of many an FPL manager), could destroy either/or both of Stoke and Sunderland; and
  • Kane didn’t have a gameweek 28, so why not remove him for Kun?

These led to a swirling maelstrom of popular opinion that we should be removing just about anyone – including a massively productive Harry Kane – to get Kun into our sides. And many – though of course not all – got sucked into the meta and did it.

In psychology, the (highly, highly condensed) idea behind herd mentality is that emotional motivations – greed and fear – drive the need to conform. In an FPL case, you can see the parallels straight away: managers greedily wanted to get a Kun explosion on triple captain and/or were afraid of the fact that other managers would benefit from this when others would not.

The meta promoting the twin ideals of a Kun explosion coupled with a Kane blank in 28 forced many a manager to act irrationally.

Without the influence of the meta game feeding into our need to conform to the herd, many a manager would have been, on average, 19 points better off (assuming you’d have kept and captained Kane, and then TC’d Sanchez in 36).

Fine margins, yes, but thinking about all of our final ranks I’m betting that would’ve made a nice little positive difference in how we ended up overall.

Addressing the counterpoint

Of course, there’s the argument to be made that we wouldn’t have known where else to play the TC so we might as well have – after all, many managers wildcarded in Gameweek 36 to bench boost in 37. But why not wildcard in 35 and TC in 36? Or what if you’d triple captained Harry Kane in Gameweek 38 instead? Or Romelu Lukaku for his 4 goals vs. Bournemouth in Gameweek 24?

There are always options and choices, but the dominant view influencing the community’s decisions is the meta in action – many believed that WC36/BB37 was the best strategy and followed it, at the expense of other, more lucrative (FPL points wise) avenues.

The Kun example isn’t an isolated incident. I could’ve taken quite a few from this period, or others throughout the season – it’s just that this particular example is a nice instance of how this whole train of thought crystallised.

Around that time, too (just to show further examples), how many of us found that getting in players like Funes Mori or Brunt (both of whom didn’t start 28) caused us to lose out on points overall as we were forced to remove them later (often for a hit), as either their lack of double gameweeks and/or blanks (WBA) or injuries (Funes Mori) caused them to fall out of favour?

And, finally, think about your less involved FPL-playing friends. They probably did at least as well as you in this period despite not planning and just getting the players in who were doing well.

The reality is that the meta game is a huge part of how we come to the decisions we make in FPL, especially amongst those more engaged in the community.

A new voice in the crowd

A final recent example of this idea is the case of Hazard starting Gameweek 38. Because he’d somewhat surprisingly started in 37, the prevailing meta was that he would not play in the final gameweek. Clearly, looking at the facts, this was ludicrous: he’d played practically every game up ‘til that point (only missing GW 29 with a slight injury, not because he was rested), and had had 6 days’ rest after 37, with another 7 days’ rest before the (ultimately unsuccessful) FA Cup final. But we were influenced by it – many a manager did the straight swap for Hazard to Coutinho, gaining a meagre 1 point through their decision. A bit of a waste of a final transfer, no?

Identifying and calling out the meta game will be a key part of what Who Got The Assist? will try to do this season. We will try to understand and summarise what the key trending thought processes are and analyse them through the lens of cold, hard fact.

In short, we’ll try to be a new voice in the crowd.

We will look at whether you really should be busy chasing price rises on mid range players, like Ilkay Gundogan, who has just scored and are rapidly rising, or are better off saving your transfer.

We will be keeping an eye out for the “gaps” in the meta, like Josh King before his entry on to most people’s radar in Gameweek 34.

And, most of all, we’ll try to help you make better decisions.

“That’s so meta”, they may say. Well yes, some things are. This article is not rebutting the fact that that is true, nor is it saying that we will be perfectly immune from it.

The future trend here is not emphasising how things will be different, but how things will remain the same.

But what is different is that, this season, we’ll be here to help guide you through the ‘game within a game’ and, hopefully, to a better FPL OR. With or without the herd following us.