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Fantasy football is a big deal. Here's the expert's guide

An estimated 40 million football fans are going to spend the week around Labor Day setting up their leagues. Here’s how you can join in.

Washington Redskins v Arizona Cardinals

Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson, left, is a no-brainer for your fantasy football team.

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Two laptops. One iPad. A smartphone, maybe two. And reliable Wi-Fi.

These are "the essentials" that fantasy football geek Greg Ross says he'll need to pick a winning team during his online draft on Labor Day, when he'll try to set himself up to crush the season's competition.

Why so many gadgets? The operations consultant from Oakland, California, wants player stats from as many websites and apps as quickly as possible. The information will become increasingly valuable as the 49-year-old moves deeper into his league's 18-round draft this weekend. And there's a lot on the line: Ross is determined to win his fourth championship, as well as $1,000 prize and an engraved trophy. 

"I'm getting my war room ready," said Ross, who's played in a fantasy league for 19 years and wants another season of bragging rights. "You've got to come prepared."

Ross' anticipation comes as the cultural phenomenon that is fantasy football brings family, friends and total strangers together online to battle make-believe NFL teams. An estimated 40 million football fans will spend the long holiday weekend participating in fantasy drafts, which let novices pick a group of NFL players to form their team, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. If that doesn't convince you of fantasy football's popularity, consider this: The game served as the backdrop of a hit sitcom, unsurprisingly called "The League."

The game-within-the-game's history dates back more than half-century, when former Oakland Raiders minority owner Bill Winkenbach and some buddies competed to see who could assemble the best all-star team on paper. They spiced things up by putting a little cash on the line. Now fantasy football is an estimated $7 billion industry, said Paul Charchian, board president of the FSTA, and it's fueled by free and for-pay sites, TV shows and podcasts, and video games like the long-running Madden NFL franchise. 

Fantasy football has also spawned a new form of gambling that pits players against each other for as little as a day. DraftKings and FanDuel are the two biggest sites for that type of play. 

Fantasy football is a simple concept. Participants create their own teams using players from across the league. Ever wondered how well a team that had both Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt would do? Fantasy football lets you find out. 

Each week, you and your league mates reassess your teams, counting points for how well players passed, ran and scored in real-world football games. The person with the most points wins and those with the most wins at the end of the season compete in playoffs for the championship. Winners get to boast, and, in some leagues, losers may face a punishment.

"Fantasy makes even the dullest football game more interesting, simply because we have a vested interest," said Charchian, who oversees the site LeagueSafe and hosts a weekly fantasy radio show.

Here are some quick tips on picking your best team, from Ross and Charchian, along with ESPN fantasy football analyst Matthew Berry and Jamey Eisenberg, senior fantasy writer for CBS Sports. (CBS Sports, like CNET, is owned by CBS). 

Stay on top of fantasy news

Charchian recommends Fanball.com, Rotoworld and fftoday.com for great free and subscription-based fantasy content. He also suggests Twitter, where experts including Footballguys.com writer Matt Waldman, SiriusXM radio show host Brandon Marianne Lee and writer Patrick Daugherty answer fan questions almost nonstop. Their comments often cover queries about sleeper picks and best players.

Use your first rounds wisely

You want to move fast to pick studs in key positions, such as running back (think David Johnson and Le'Veon Bell), quarterback (perhaps Aaron Rodgers) and wide receiver (maybe Antonio Brown or Julio Jones). You can fill out the rest of your roster in later rounds.

Catches like this make Pittsburgh Steelers' receiver Antonio Brown, right, a perennial top fantasy football draft pick.

Catches like this make Pittsburgh Steelers' receiver Antonio Brown, right, a perennial top fantasy football draft pick.

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Remember that even though you're in a fantasy league, there's only one Cam Newton. If a league mate chooses the Carolina Panthers quarterback, you have to make some sort of deal to bring him to your team. Or go without.

Take the best players first

The biggest mistake rookie fantasy participants make is trying to fill out all the positions first, instead of taking the best players available. You can always use an extra stud for a trade.

Focus on running backs

ESPN's Berry, who spent 28 straight hours on air helping the network sign up more than 2 million fantasy players two weeks ago, says the best approach is trying to collect as many quality running backs as possible. For one thing, they're hard to come by. For another, they often get injured and you'll need backups. 

No regrets

And if there's a favorite player you must have on your team, Charchian said, "just do whatever it takes" to get him. Or feel regretful.

"At the end of the day, fantasy is supposed to be all about fun," he said. "Right?!"

The NFL regular season kicks off Sept. 7 with the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots taking on the Kansas City Chiefs.

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