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How I would change March Madness bracket scoring

posted 2024.03.06
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I like March Madness, and I like the whole bracket thing people do. I participate in it myself usually. But one thing that bugs me is, picking interesting upsets is almost never worth it. Small upsets, like an 10 seed over a 7, are so common they don’t even feel interesting to pick. Medium upsets, like a 12 seed over a 5, are neither smart decisions nor exciting ones, so you usually only take a couple so you can feel like you made an original decision. And big upsets, like a 15 seed over a 2, are objectively stupid picks every time.1 The theoretically optimal bracket, in terms of chances to win your bracket pool, has so few upsets I’d feel kind of ashamed to submit it.2

But isn’t that lame?! The most fun part of March Madness is the upsets! But in the generic scoring systems that everyone uses, 14 seed over a 3 is worth exacctly the same amount as picking a 3 seed over a 14. That’s why I propose a simple scoring change for March Madness pools: give bonus points for big upsets!

Specifically, here’s how I would do it: in the Round of 64, you get double points for picking a 14 seed to win, triple points for picking a 15 seed to win, and quadruple points for picking a 16 seed to win. Then in each successive round, the thresholds get two seeds lower, like this:

Round 2x threshold 3x threshold 4x threshold
Round of 64 14 15 16
Round of 32 12 13 14
Sweet Sixteen 10 11 12
Elite Eight 8 9 10
Final Four 6 7 8
National Championship 4 5 6

So if you correctly pick a 14 seed to win in the Round of 64, you get double points. If you pick them to win in the Round of 32 or later, you get quadruple points for it.

These thresholds are pretty conservative; picking big upsets is still a stupid play 95% of the time.3 But at least when you pick one you get a real reward for it! And maybe 5% of the time, even if the upset doesn’t improve your score on average, a win could set you apart enough that it’s actually worthwhile to pick.

None of the bracket pool websites allow you to add upset bonuses like this, but I’d be happy to run a pool with this scoring system manually if enough people messaged me with interest.

(Another small complaint: I don’t like how the standard scoring system makes the later rounds worth so much more than the early ones. Instead of 1-2-4-8-16-32 points per round, I think 1-2-4-6-8-12 would be better. Or the Fibonacci-based 1-2-3-5-8-13 would be cool. But I digress.)

  1. Yes, objectively, even if you get it right. When you pick this type of upset, 90% of the time you’ll be stupid, and the other 10% of the time you’ll be stupid and lucky. 

  2. I can’t prove it, but I’m 80% the optimal bracket for most pools is chalk, except for a slight dark horse as national champion and a couple slight upsets in other rounds. 

  3. I’d be interested in a pool where all those thresholds are moved one seed lower, which would make picking upsets actually a good idea sometimes, but I’d expect more pushback for that.