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A boutique, brainy vision of fantasy baseball, from an Adams Morgan apartment

Niv Shah runs Ottoneu Fantasy Sports out of his Adams Morgan apartment. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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The world’s most lifelike fantasy baseball game isn’t made by CBS, Yahoo or ESPN. It’s produced by one man, operating out of his Adams Morgan apartment, whose work has drawn the acclaim of major league insiders and given hardcore fans a beloved underground outlet — a “Fugazi of fantasy baseball,” as some call it.

Ottoneu, founded by former Silicon Valley programmer Niv Shah, is a boutique fantasy baseball platform whose stated aim is “to mimic the job of an actual general manager as closely as possible.” That means 40-man rosters, winter meetings, thousands of minor leaguers, market-based free agency and even salary arbitration — features rare or cumbersome on the major platforms.

With more than 300 active leagues and almost 4,000 active managers, Ottoneu — entering its 10th year — represents the culmination of a vision, buoyed by a generation of fans interested in sabermetrics, to make fantasy baseball more lifelike. In Ottoneu the game, you build for the long haul, investing in players who might offer a better value than flashy stars. Ottoneu the start-up endorses a similar long-term strategy, eschewing ads and counting on the loyalty of its often-fanatical users, who pay an entrance fee, starting at $20 per year — meaning Shah is only beholden to his customers, a few of whom have graduated to jobs in MLB front offices.

He loves it, too. If you could tell 8-year-old Niv Shah, surrounded by baseball cards, that he would run a successful fantasy baseball site, one that would pay the bills and put him in the orbit of real-life baseball teams? “His brain would explode,” said Shah, now 39.

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The 2003 publication of “Moneyball” changed how a generation of baseball fans thought about the game, and Shah and his friends from high school in Cleveland were paying attention. Batting average and RBI — scoring categories in traditional fantasy baseball — were revealed as phantoms. Fans and front offices alike started looking more closely at player value, encompassing both performance and cost.

“People were trying to figure out, ‘What is actually valuable?’ ” Ben Lindbergh, baseball staff writer at the Ringer, said in a recent podcast reviewing that era. “It did lead a generation of people to look at things from the GM’s perspective.” That was especially true in baseball markets with spending constraints — such as Cleveland in the early 2000s, which successfully rebuilt by trading ace Bartolo Colón, then nearing free agency, for prospects Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore, all of whom became all-stars.

That trade impressed Shah and his friends. Under the influence of “Moneyball,” and inspired by that Colón trade, they started tinkering with their Yahoo fantasy league.

“First off, I want to build an organization, not just a team,” said Chad Young, Shah’s longtime friend and fellow fantasy player. “Second, I don’t want credit for batting average and RBI and pitcher wins, now that I know there are better ways to measure the value a player brings to the table.”

They began using spreadsheets to manage rosters larger than what Yahoo allowed. Eager to ditch the waiver-wire method of player acquisition, they held onerous free agent auctions over email. After a heated debate over whether a rookie Cole Hamels had been won fairly, Geoff Newton, a young economist with the Federal Reserve, suggested they switch to Vickrey auctions, a sealed-bid auction in which bidders are incentivized to bid what they believe to be the true value of the item.

How could they seal the bids? Shah, who studied computer science and history at Tufts University, wrote a quick Web app to handle the auctions. That planted the seed that would become Ottoneu.

Value, not simply performance, would be at the heart of their new game. Building on the auctions, Newton proposed a basic economic system: 40 roster spots and a $400 salary cap. Every new player acquisition would be market-based, and teams could trade with one another and loan money, too.

Serving as a general manager in baseball is a year-round job, and two of Ottoneu’s key innovations occur after the World Series and before spring training. Inflation, incurred annually, would help to break up superteams, a problem that plagued dynasty-style fantasy leagues. Even more turnover comes from arbitration, a mechanism by which managers get to raise the salaries of their competitors’ best contracts — consistently cited as one of the most compelling parts of the game.

“Thinking about player value over a longer period of time — no one else could support that,” Young said. “It starts to feel like this is the way a real team would build their roster.”

Shah added a player pool into the web app, then realized he could access stats, too. There was no longer any reason to keep their league on Yahoo. And now they could choose new scoring categories that better reflected modern baseball thinking, swapping out batting average for on-base percentage. (Later versions would incorporate scoring based on the Wins Above Replacement metric, a sabermetric shibboleth.) They began to play on Shah’s site, naming the league after a player, Otto Neu, who appeared in one game for the St. Louis Browns in 1917 but never made a plate appearance or had a chance in the field.

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Thus began Ottoneu’s “League One,” and the players were hooked immediately. “At first he just built it for us,” Young said, but “we all liked it better than all our other leagues, and we knew we couldn’t be the only ones who will like this.”

To reach those audiences, Shah tapped into a nerve center for this new wave of baseball thinking.

David Appelman quit his day job in 2006 to focus on the baseball blog FanGraphs. The Arlington-based site quickly became a go-to source for sabermetric writing for the masses. FanGraphs writer Eno Sarris heard about Shah’s strange new fantasy baseball creation over Twitter and saw something that fit FanGraphs’ mission and audience.

After the two had beers in Palo Alto, Calif. — Shah was working in Silicon Valley at the time — Sarris phoned his boss, Appelman, with a suggestion: Put Ottoneu on FanGraphs.

“Fantasy [baseball] got so big that people realized not everyone needed to be on Yahoo,” Sarris said. “Niv went out and built exactly what he and his friends wanted in a league.”

Shah flew to D.C. to meet with Appelman, who saw a potential win-win. He had wanted to create a fantasy service before starting FanGraphs, and he knew fantasy players were among the site’s most dedicated users.

“That’s when it became real,” said Young, who now writes about fantasy baseball for several sites. FanGraphs “is a major player in baseball analysis … and if Eno thinks it’s cool, it must be.” Shah quit his day job before he had even inked the deal with FanGraphs in 2010. The next year, the site launched for public use.

Once Ottoneu was up and running, Shah had less to do. He moved to D.C. after finding work again with Vox Media, at that point still a start-up with fewer than 100 employees. He ran ad operations and pioneered new forms of display ads, but the days were long. He felt Ottoneu “was in a kind of stasis.”

In 2015, two things changed. First, Shah created a daily fantasy game, Pick Six, that quickly gained popularity. Then, he received a message from Cleveland assistant general manager Mike Chernoff, who had heard about Shah’s creations and admired their approach. The call from Chernoff, now Cleveland’s GM, convinced Shah to take his sports work even more seriously.

“Like, what is going on?” Shah said. “This was signaling to me that Ottoneu was turning into what I had always wanted it to be.” He sold Pick Six to Vox’s SB Nation, raised a bit of funding from family and friends and left Vox to focus on Ottoneu full-time.

“Ottoneu had a bit of following, and Niv could see that there was daylight,” Appelman said.

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Today, Ottoneu Baseball — still affiliated with FanGraphs — has almost 4,000 users, growing mostly by word of mouth over the past decade and “slightly profitable,” according to Shah. “It’s been permeating,” Shah said. “Slow and steady feels sustainable.” That said, Shah said he has seen a spike this spring, and Ottoneu content has recently shown up on new fantasy news sites, such as PitcherList.

Even if it’s a drop in the bucket when it comes to the nearly $2 billion fantasy baseball market, Ottoneu is a vanguard in terms of experience. “What [Shah] gave that was new was an opportunity to play a long-term game, a dynasty game, that’s open all year round and handles all that nastiness for you — inflate all the salary, port over keepers, and do it in a really easy-to-use format,” Sarris said.

Eric Karabell, a senior writer at ESPN covering fantasy sports, singled out the site’s persistence in a tough market as proof of its worth. “ESPN, Yahoo and CBS have been around forever as known fantasy platforms,” he said. “It’s tough for niche sites to infiltrate, grow a meaningful base and, perhaps more importantly, make money. Ottoneu is distinctive.”

Indeed, more than 700 Ottoneu players are members of a Slack channel where they debate trade proposals and review rosters. Shah is a member (don’t ping him unless you mean it) and often seems more community member than CEO — maybe because he still plays every day. When Ottoneu whiz Justin Vibber started offering Excel-coded spreadsheet tools for fellow managers, Shah helped him out by tweaking site code to make the tools work better. The community comes together offline, too: Washingtonian Dustin Beruta, an Ottoneu player who found the site through FanGraphs, has hosted get-togethers for local players at Pop’s SeaBar in Adams Morgan, with Shah presiding.

Shah isn’t done innovating. He rolled out Ottoneu Football in 2018, attempting to tap into the biggest segment of the fantasy market. A best-ball option for fantasy baseball, Ottoneu Premier League, debuted this year. “Basketball will be next,” he said.

Running a business based on baseball (indeed, on the business of baseball) hasn’t dimmed Shah’s appreciation for the game. Still a Cleveland fan, he was at Nationals Park for most weeknight Nats games before the coronavirus pandemic. “There’s a really pure joy about watching a guy step into a batter’s box and watching someone try to get him out,” he said. “I like drinking a beer at the ballpark, and the smell of the grass, and the sound a bat makes when it meets the ball, and the sound a glove makes when it catches a ball.”

Shah’s earliest baseball memory may be of defeat — the 1997 World Series lost by Cleveland. His most recent, though, is victory, because last year — for the first time since launching Ottoneu publicly — he won his league.