How Clark Olson Beats Everyone Else In Fantasy Everything

The guy who just beat everyone else in America at all the fantasy sports, again, is a computer science professor who is not so much into trades but who is really, really into spreadsheets. Clark Olson, the 2012 winner of ESPN's omnibus Uber Challenge fantasy game, again, tallied the high score across an Olympiad of fantasy games, from baseball and football and basketball and hockey to niche sports and individual game picks. He is the fantasy Jim Thorpe.

"I try to keep it from taking over my life," Olson told me by phone today. "I do have a regular job and everything."

He lives in Seattle and teaches at the University of Washington at Bothell, northwest of the city. On a typical day he wakes up, checks his email and updates his teams, which are spread across several leagues. Baseball's his jam, his first passion, and he spends the bulk of his time on it. Football's next, with basketball and hockey more rote. For the ESPN games, he'll then make picks on women's college basketball or NASCAR or draft forecasts or whatever else is the more exotic pick of the day. "Used to be they'd have crazy stuff," he said. "I certainly wasn't willing to put hours of research into a fantasy fishing game."


When he's not teaching or in meetings he'll keep a browser window open and monitor his little sports world, but he doesn't exert "constant effort" to feed and water his teams. He doesn't propose many trades, unless he has a rotisserie league that's flagrantly unbalanced. The bulk of his effort is on the front end. Mostly, he drafts well. Before a given season he collects various analyses he trusts—all publicly available, he says, and none very expensive*—and then grinds up the numbers himself.

"There's almost no sports knowledge going into it," Olson said. "I'm generally taking projections I've found from sources I trust and then the spreadsheet's all analytical."


America, you're getting your ass handed to you by a guy who's just really good at statistical meta-analysis. But then, he is really, really good. During the 12 full seasons that ESPN has been compiling this Uber game, Olson has won three times now. The New York Times wrote about him in 2007 after a five-year run in which he finished no lower than third. In that story, ESPN's senior director of fantasy games compared Olson to Albert Pujols, saying also, "When you consider that 15 million people play fantasy sports, what he has done as a fantasy gamer has been unreal." A minority owner of the Mariners read the story and invited Olson to watch a game with him near the dugout.

Olson started playing fantasy in 1991, joining a keeper league at the University of California, where he was working on his doctorate in computer science. (He's still in that league, actually.) For his two previous Uber wins, ESPN gave him trips to the ESPYs in 2007 and 2010. It was fun hobnobbing, he said, but it's not as if anyone knew who he was, and he wasn't keen on tugging on athletes' sleeves. The prizes this year worked out to $3,000 in Best Buy gift cards, which he might indeed prefer.

The biggest purse he has won in fantasy has been winning a league sponsored by CardRunners, the card-playing site, a couple of years ago—that was $15,000. He's picked up several thousand dollars in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship but has yet to claim the top, $100,000 prize.

His worst beat? Losing ESPN's Nationwide Series fantasy game, which, by dint of its title sponsor's largesse, paid $25,000 to the winner. Down the stretch in the final weeks he was in the lead, down to the final race, in which it was a 50/50 proposition between him and the guy in second. And, yeah, the guy in second pulled it off.

"If I'd made one pick different I'd have won," he said. "I finished second and the payout for second was—zero." The story of someone else's life, usually.