Combine intense competition, trash talk, betting on up-and-comers, and wagering on who’s eventually going to put a ring on it, and that’s The Bachelorette fantasy football. With the NFL season beginning on September 5, August is the hottest month of the year for fantasy league drafting. And if you’ve ever thought about playing, but didn’t know where to begin, keep reading.

In fantasy football, fantasy franchise owners (you) draft and manage a team of players over the course of a full NFL season (September–February). Each week, you set a lineup of starters from your roster, and your team is matched up head to head against another team in your league. Players score points according to their running, catching, and touchdowns on game day, and the team with the most points wins. Playoffs take place during the last few weeks of the NFL regular season, with a champion crowned just before the real-life playoffs begin.

The buildup to a fantasy football draft is exciting (a good draft party is not so dissimilar from a good Super Bowl party), but the actual management that takes place afterward can be just as fun. During the NFL season, anything can happen: You may need to replace injured players, bench an underperforming star for his backup, or trade for help at quarterback because you’re starting Mark Sanchez.

Whether you’re new or experienced to the game, here’s how to join a league, have fun, and maybe even win a championship.

Joining a League

In the U.S., about 20 million people play fantasy football every fall, so the odds are quite good that one of your friends, co-workers, or family members is already playing. Just ask around! If you don’t already know someone who plays, or if you live overseas where (real) football isn’t popular, there are many free-to-play online leagues looking for owners (popular sites include ESPN and Yahoo! Sports).

Naming Your Team

Wit is an underappreciated part of fantasy football; it’s all fun and games until someone gets super serious about it.

The three ways to go when naming your team are funny, offensive, or both. Punning on a favorite player’s name is a classic (“Rice, Rice, Baby,” “Orton Hears a Boo,” “Offense is Not My Forte”), as is digging on a rival team (“Belichick’s Video Rentals,” “OMG They Killed Henne”). Going off topic into movies, music, and politics is OK, too, as long as it’s amusing. If you’re in a league with friends and family, you should feel absolutely free to take aim at a particular owner.

Drafting

If you’re the competitive type, the draft is your best opportunity to show off your knowledge of players and teams, rookie scouting skills, and decision-making ability, all while on the clock. Unlike the actual NFL draft, a typical league runs a “snake”-style draft, in which a random draft order is selected, and the order is reversed after the first go-round (i.e., the last team to pick in the first round goes first in the second round). Also popular is an auction-style draft, in which players go to the highest bidder and owners have a salary cap.

For basic draft strategy, ensure you have a good mix of reliable stars such as Drew Brees, Ray Rice, and Aaron Rodgers and lesser-known players with potential. Called “sleeper” picks, rookies, former backups thrust into starting positions, or former stars coming off a major injury or layoff (Terrell Owens, for example) can add a lot of value for a low draft pick. Covering all the positions and having sufficient backups is important as well: Each league requires a certain number of starters at each position, so don’t get caught shorthanded at wide receiver because you drafted only running backs with your first five picks.

Another popular strategy is to simply draft everyone on your favorite team. (Yes, even the kicker.) This is 100% guaranteed to piss off that one guy in your league who has read every fantasy football article he can find and has participated in dozens of mock drafts all in the name of fantasy football domination.

Midseason: Free Agents and Trading

A good draft is just half the battle in fantasy football. Every fan knows that the NFL season is unpredictable, with injuries to key players happening at the worst possible times. But don’t worry: To replace injured or underperforming players, you can pick up undrafted players from the free agent pool.

If you’re a working stiff like me, you should appreciate that the NFL schedules games only once a week, which means that checking up on your team once on Monday evening (to see if anyone’s been hurt) and once on Saturday (to set the starting lineup) is sufficient. Compared to the scheduling of NBA games (every other day) or baseball games (every time you brush your teeth), this makes fantasy football’s time commitment relatively manageable.

Trading players can be a lot of fun if you enjoy wheeling and dealing. There aren’t really any rules governing this—anything goes here. The best trades benefit both teams: if you’re feeling weak at tight end but have a number of quality receivers, look for another team with the opposite problem and there might be someone interested in making a deal.

And that’s all! Yeah, it’s a little bit of trial and error, but give it a couple of games, and I promise, you’ll be hooked.

Feel free to comment or email with more specific questions. Best of luck in 2012!

Photo courtesy of Ed Yourdon.