We previously looked at NFL handicapping contests for 2023. Now we’ll update your NFL survivor contest strategy for 2023. Survivor contests take NFL season-long contests to a whole other level with their simplicity. Pick one game each week. If your teams wins, you move on. If your team loses, you are eliminated. Oh, and you can’t pick the same team twice. What begins as a trivial exercise in Week 1 becomes a grueling gauntlet a few weeks later.
Elimination-Based NFL Handicapping Contests
Most NFL survivor contests do not require you to pick against the spread. You just pick an outright winner each week. One notable exception is the Last Man Standing contest at Stations Casinos in Nevada. For years, they were the popular elimination contest in Las Vegas despite similar contests being run at other sportsbooks such as William Hill.
Again, along came Circa Sports to shake up the scene in 2020. They launched Circa Survivor which was played without a spread. Just pick a winner each week straight up. They offered a $1 million dollar bonus split among anyone who could go perfect over the course of the season. However, they made Thanksgiving its own week. In 2020, large upsets were less frequent and 35 out of 1,390 entrants completed a perfect 18-0 season. That winner-take-all $1.39 million dollar prize (plus $1m bonus) was split 35 ways.
In 2021, despite the NFL regular season expanding by one week, Circa upped the ante. Christmas games were also their own week and to achieve the bonus you needed to save Tampa Bay or Kansas City until Week 20. They also offered an unprecedented $6 million guarantee, which in the end created a hefty overlay. Last year in 2022, people chased that overlay again. However, Survivor went off without an overlay. 6,133 entries, all of which contributed to the $6,133,000 prize pool. Two entries walked the tightrope and survived all 20 weeks and split the prize.
Circa’s Twist For 2023
This year, Derek Stevens and his Circa Sports crew are guaranteeing $8 million to be paid out. As with last year, you’ll need to go a perfect 20-0 or be the last entry standing to win your share of the prize. There is no second place. This year, breaking a two-year tradition, there is no bonus for keeping last year’s Super Bowl teams until the final week. However, this year the max number of entries per person doubles to 10. As with last year, if you lose entries on the Thursday Sept. 7 kickoff game, you can re-buy those entries.
This has resulted in Circa Survivor already having more entries than last year with the final three-day push yet to come. It’s still an overlay as of this writing, but I don’t anticipate it’ll go off that way. Either way, it’s plus-EV as I’ll explain later.
New Company Making a Splash
New for 2023 is Splash, which offers real-money survivor-type contests. These contests are classified as games of skill and available in many states beyond the traditional regulated sports betting states. This is the first year for Splash, and as the name implies, they’re looking to make one in the sports contest market. They are offering contests which will almost certainly have hefty overlays. A $1-entry contest with a $5,000 winner-take-all prize. Also $10 or $100 contests, each with $100,000 winner-take-all top prizes.
DraftKings is also offering a prominent survivor contest this year. The DraftKings contest has a $1 million guarantee and only costs $100 to enter in any of the states where it is legal. That means they will need 10,000 entries to avoid an overlay. It’s currently at 5,000 and I’d guess it’ll get to 10,000 by 1 p.m. on Sept. 10 – but they won’t mind if it doesn’t.
The Plan For Profiting: Survivor Contest Strategy
In the handicapping contest article we listed four key concepts to use in approaching NFL handicapping contests. We are also going to apply them to NFL survivor contests:
- Prize Probability
Key Concept: Participation
As with other contests (and honestly, as with anything in a sportsbook), you need to know and understand the rules explicitly. What happens if a game ends in a tie? What happens if a game is postponed but still played? When does my pick need to be in?
As mind-boggling as it may be, there are people who forget to put their entry into these contests for Week 1. Last year, 27 entrants torched their $1,000 by failing to enter a pick. Through the first three weeks of last season, 59 people failed to enter a pick. It’s really amazing.
Your preparation adds to your EV. You get to overcome the dead money in the pool from entrants that didn’t take the time to study the rules. If you’re in Circa Survivor this year, remember that you only have eight teams to choose from on the Thanksgiving/Black Friday games and six teams on the Christmas Day games. Also pay close attention to that Christmas week where the window to get your play in for games on Dec. 25 is only nine hours from midnight to 9 a.m. on Christmas Day.
Key Concept: Prize Probability
Enough with the small talk let’s bring some math in here to quantify how you’re going to find an edge in a contest where almost all the prize pool goes to most likely one entrant. Calculating and projecting an overlay is the first concept. This is done by dividing the prize pool by the number of entrants. Circa is currently getting a lot of attention due to the eye-popping overlay in Circa Survivor.
Your odds of winning an elimination contest are much like your odds of hitting a parlay since you’re going to need to roll over a streak longer than anybody else in the contest. The advantage is you don’t have to pick against a spread. Some weeks of the NFL season there are teams that are -400 favorites (80 percent implied probability) based on the moneyline. Other weeks maybe a -120 (54.5 percent) is all you have left to use.
Even if we assumed you could find a 63 percent chance to win every week, the odds of you running off 20 straight winners is 0.63^20 = .000097, or roughly 1 in 10,000. Fortunately for you, you’re not competing against the house in a challenge to rip off 20 winners in a row. You’re competing against other entries facing similar odds.
Estimating How Long an NFL Survivor Contest Will Last
Last year I gave a formula for trying to estimate how long an NFL survivor contest would probably last. Overwhelmingly, NFL elimination contests follow a predictable pattern. People play the heavy favorites. It gives them the biggest odds of surviving. In our Process section we’re going to explore why that’s not always the best strategy. However, for now let’s correctly assume almost everyone in the contest will pick winners at a 64 percent success rate.
That means that roughly 64 percent will survive each week. However, how long would we need to survive to win a contest like that? We can use the LOG function in Excel to give us an estimate. All we need to know is how many entries are in the contest and what their projected success rate is:
If we estimate that Circa Survivor will reach exactly it’s overlay point, that would be 8,000 entries. A 64 percent success rate would be:
That is projecting an elimination contest with 8,000 entrants and a 64 percent pick success rate will on average resolve around week 20. However, there’s also clumping involved since a large proportion of the entries will likely be on the same play each week. This 20 week estimate is probably plus or minus three weeks due to clumping of outcome. You can play around with those numbers a bit to create your own projections. You may also want to tweak the predicted success rate per your inclination.
Either way, the answer does provide us with a key piece of information: This is a marathon, not a sprint. Circa Survivor is likely to require a full 20-0 run to win. That brings us to our next key concept, Process.
Key Concept: Process
The biggest misnomer in these NFL elimination contests is that the object is just survive the longest. After all, it’s called Survivor for a reason. Ironically, it is the logo for the long-running reality show Survivor which gives us a clue about how these should really be approached.
Outwit – Outplay – Outlast
In these contests, you are in first place until you finish in last place. There is no second-place or consolation prize. In fact, I would contend the worst outcome is to make a deep run in this contest and come up short. You wasted a lot of time.
Instead, your survivor contest strategy shouldn’t just be to survive, but to outwit and outplay your opponents. Identify points where you can hopefully eliminate a large portion of your opposition while you survive to the next week. It is obvious that most of the entries will focus on the biggest moneyline favorite in the week. This is especially true early in the season.
This is the time you can look for a mediocre team playing a bad opponent. Maybe the third or fourth best value, based on moneyline. You save some heavy hitters for later in the season and you position yourself for a modest contrarian swing. Many of your opponents aren’t thinking about the pick you are making, but you are certainly thinking about them.
Overcoming Your Fears
Many players will quickly reach for the relative safety of taking their last best option as their available remaining teams dwindle. They are painting themselves into a corner with this approach. Remind yourself that there is no second place and be willing to take a risk before you are left with just the bad options.
You don’t have to take the opposite of what everyone will be playing. For instance, taking the Texans in Week 1 at Baltimore is a bridge too far. However, instead of taking the Ravens there, look for a game that fewer will be playing. Many weeks, this might be the Thursday Night game.
Perhaps people think Thursday games are trap spots for some teams. Perhaps they don’t want to ruin their entire weekend by flunking out of Circa Survivor days before. For whatever reason, people tend to avoid picking Thursday games. Use that to your advantage.
In the previous article, we explored having a two-speed approach. Staying with the pace of traffic and trying to pass the traffic. Staying with the pace of traffic isn’t an option in elimination contests. You want to always be trying to pass traffic. You don’t have to take a home run swing every week, but you should at least be looking for the road less traveled. That brings us to the final key concept, your path.
Key Concept: Path
Just like NFL handicapping contests, your Circa Survivor strategy needs an endgame strategy. The difference is endgame starts almost at the beginning of the contest. You need to plot out your path right from the jump. You can change your path as the season goes on but you’ll need to factor in how those variations alter your path.
This year, Unabated is here to help. We have a new Survivor Tool to help you plot your path. You specify a blend of power ratings systems and we’ll simulate out the season. You can be chalky or contrarian. You can also decide how much you want to weight the future value of teams. This results in a prescribed path forward. As the season changes, revisit the Survivor Tool to find your best options with what you have left.
In a contest such as Circa Survivor your path must account for the Thanksgiving and Christmas games. Our Survivor Tool does that for you. Creating a 20-week season. You can also import your entry on DraftKings Survivor, and any RunYourPool or Splash Survivor contest.
My advice is to create a path now and revisit it frequently. Don’t wait until early November when you find yourself still surviving but with dwindling options. You’ll have visions of a $6 million dollar prize in your head by this time, but no realistic path to get there. For more information on the Survivor Tool, check out this primer.
The Survivor Tool is available to Essentials subscriptions and above.
Practice Your Survivor Contest Strategy for Free
You can practice your survivor contest strategy by competing in Unabated Survivor for free. Hosted by our friends at RunYourPool.com, this contest actually has some runner-up prizes.
The last person standing will win a one-year Unabated Premium subscription. If the winner is already a Premium Subscriber, they can choose to take the win as two free months of Concierge Tier. As for the runner-up prizes:
- Survive through Week 8 and receive an Unabated koozie
- The last 10 survivors will receive an Unabated T-shirt
- The final 5 survivors will receive an Unabated hat
- NFL survivor contests begin seeming simple but turn into a very complex equation
- Following some key concepts can gain the edge over the majority of your opposition
- Know the rules since any missed entry is a contest-ending mistake
- Devise a process for attacking the contest
- There is no second place. You are in first place until you are in last place
- Don’t be afraid to take risks
- Utilize tools to help you plot your path
- Constantly revisit your path as the season progresses