A new season is underway in many countries across the world, and ESPN is launching its own fantasy soccer game!
You'll be able to build your own fantasy team for Europe's Champions League, England's Premier League, Spain's La Liga and Mexico's Liga MX. You can join a league at any time; signups don't close once seasons begin, so your season begins whenever you want it to!
Here's how it's going to work:
Your team will be made up of eight players, at four different positions: two forwards, three midfielders, two defenders, and a goalkeeper.
They will accumulate points in several categories -- 15, in fact, for outfield players. Goals and assists are very important, of course. But shots on goal, chances created, tackles and interceptions (among other things) count too. (Click here to read a more detailed breakdown of the scoring system.)
Goalkeepers will be assessed in 11 different categories, nine of them specific to their position.
And each week you'll designate one of your eight players as your captain, whose points total will then be doubled.
Every week, you'll pick an entirely new team, or you can stick with the same group of eight -- as long as they're all still in the same tiers. Your team will roll over from week to week, but you'll be at your best if you're checking in weekly to set a new lineup and pick the best players in the optimal matchups.
Here's where it really gets interesting. You'll be playing a head-to-head match against one of the other teams in your fantasy league each week. Just like in real soccer, you'll get three points for a win, and one for a draw.
Win or lose, you can still pick up a bonus point by finishing in the top half of your league points-wise that week. So if you have the second-highest score in your league, and unfortunately were up against the highest-scoring team, you'll still get some reward. And if you win with one of the highest scores, your four-point week could send you to the top of the table!
We wanted our fantasy soccer game to be a little more challenging, rather than just picking the very best players every week.
Instead, you'll have to choose players from different tiers. For instance, Cristiano Ronaldo -- who scored 15 Champions League goals last season, four more than any other player -- will almost certainly be a Tier 1 forward every week. But if you pick Ronaldo in a given week, you won't be able to select one of the other elite forwards, such as Lionel Messi.
Then you'll also have to select a Tier 2 forward, and Tier 2 will include less prominent players. Your choice could come down to the likes of Edinson Cavani of Paris Saint-Germain and Edin Dzeko of Roma, testing your knowledge of the competition and players even more.
There will be three tiers for midfielders, and two tiers for defenders. The difference between winning and losing each week could very well come down to how savvy you are in the second and third tiers. There will be weeks when most people pick the same Tier 1 forward or midfielder, due to a very lopsided-looking matchup, meaning the importance of your lower-tier players will be magnified.
We'll be providing you with plenty of information and advice throughout the season, just like with our other fantasy games.
But for starters, it'll be important to look at all the categories, and not just focus on goals and assists. There is lots of value in the other stats, too.
For instance, Sevilla midfielder Ever Banega completed a Champions League-best 924 passes last season. You only get 0.1 points per completed pass, but 924 would earn you 92.4 fantasy points -- the equivalent of 9.24 goals!
There are different approaches you can take, particularly in the lower tiers. Let's say you're choosing a Tier 2 midfielder. Willian might be one of your options, and he had three Champions League goals and an assist for Chelsea last season -- very capable of having a big day.
But a safer option would be Casemiro, who only scored one Champions League goal for Real Madrid, but was consistently excellent in some of the other categories -- leading the league in tackles (45), tied for fourth in interceptions (23), tied for sixth in blocks (11), and dwarfing Willian in all three. Casemiro's upside isn't as big, but he's more dependable for a decent score. And he outperformed Willian over the course of last season. Casemiro would have been the 45th-ranked player in the Champions League, producing 113.1 fantasy points. Willian would have been 127th, with 73.3 points.
You'll want to take a look at all the matchups in each round. During the group stages, there tends to be some very lopsided results. For instance, Liverpool recorded 7-0 victories over both Maribor and Spartak Moscow last season. The top teams often are heavy favorites, making their players even more attractive fantasy options.
It'll also be important to pay attention in the days and hours leading up to kickoff. This isn't like the NFL, which mandates that teams provide official injury reports on a daily basis. Starting lineups are announced just one hour before each Premier League game, and often there are surprises. However, you are able to make changes to your ESPN Fantasy Soccer lineup until each individual player's game begins, so if your sleeper pick isn't in the squad, you can get a new player in there right away.
Our hope is that by playing ESPN Fantasy Soccer, you'll have more fun watching the sport, and dig deeper into it, too. There's a reason why soccer is the most popular game in the world, so don't be surprised if you get hooked!