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How Tournament Brackets Took Over the World

Every spring, sports fans of all stripes get swept up in March Madness. The National College Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament determines the national champion of men’s and women’s college basketball; it’s a beloved American sports tradition characterized by high-stakes games, the potential for underdog victories or shocking upsets, and, of course, the now-ubiquitous playoff bracket.

March Madness brackets are arguably one of the primary reasons for the popularity of the NCAA men’s basketball postseason. In the tournament’s 82-year tenure, the rise of bracket predictions has spread far beyond the sport — in recent years, we’ve witnessed a bracketology takeover in culture at large. Everything from food and drink, to TV shows, to music fandom, to technology, and more, are subject to seeds, predictions, debates, and contentious wins or losses in the eyes of the internet.

So what, exactly, is a tournament bracket? And how did it evolve from a college basketball pastime into the pop-culture juggernaut it is today? Read on to learn about how tournament brackets took over the world.

What Is a Bracket?

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A bracket is best described as a series of competitions within a single-elimination (or sudden death) tournament. When put to paper, the drawing resembles a tree; pairs of branches, or slots, represent the matches that will be played between competitors, with the number of slots decreasing as the tournament continues and teams or players are eliminated. The name quite literally comes from the fact that, when these slots are all joined together, they resemble the square bracket punctuation symbol.

Tournament brackets have existed at least as far back as the mid-1800s, when a simplified version of one was used for the London 1851 chess tournament. But while this 19th-century undertaking indeed whittled its field of 32 competitors down to one victor by pairing them off in single-elimination contests, the way in which the players were matched up was nothing like how series are determined today. According to Slate, the London 1851 chess matches were determined by chance, when the winners of each round drew names to see whom they would play next.

Modern tournament brackets are far less random. Generally, competitors in a bracket are “seeded” — meaning, strategically placed based on preliminary rankings — so that the overall tournament, if not necessarily each individual game, is more competitive. Teams are ordered from best to worst from the get-go, and the first match-ups often see the best teams playing the worst. While it hardly makes for a thrilling kickoff, this type of seeding — which has been documented since the end of the 1890s — all but guarantees a more exciting tournament as the finals approach and teams are whittled down to only the best.

The March Madness Phenomenon

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Brackets have been used in the NCAA basketball tournament since it began in 1939; at that time, there were just eight teams divided into two regional brackets. By the time the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, the bracket was already well on its way to becoming an NCAA phenomenon, with the emergence of competitive betting pools among not just ardent basketball fans but the general population.

One of the earliest NCAA bracket pools started in 1977 in a Staten Island bar. In that (very informal) bracket, 88 bar patrons paid a $10 buy-in and wrote down their predictions for each game. Over the years, the bar’s bracket pool grew, eventually exploding in the late '90s with the advent of personal computers and the plotting and printing capabilities they allowed. In 2005, 150,000 people took part in the bar’s once-modest bracket pool, ballooning the prize money to $1.5 million dollars (and even triggering a tax investigation by the government).

By that point, the bar’s popular pool had long been a media phenomenon; it led to copycats across the country and, in the late 1990s, a new term for the unfolding accompanying madness: bracketology. The term "bracketology" was first used in 1996 by a Philadelphia Inquirer journalist to describe the work of NCAA analyst and prognosticator Joe Lunardi. It was popularized — and given a more official tie-in to the NCAA tournament — when Lunardi started appearing on ESPN, first on air in the late '90s, and then, in the early 2000s, online, where bracketology spread like wildfire over the ensuing decade.

The Bracket’s Breakout

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It’s easier to track the bracket’s transition from its utilitarian roots to its prominence in the NCAA than it is to follow its evolution from those same sports bettors to armchair internet pundits — but it's safe to say that the tournament bracket was given a whole new life by Grantland.

Owned by ESPN and launched in 2011 with veteran sports journalist Bill Simmons at the helm, Grantland was the first hybrid sports and pop-culture website of its kind. The site arrived in the early days of the hyper-nichification of entertainment media, when fan communities were represented like never before, and in March 2012, it launched a fan-targeted bracket that would change everything.

The series was called Smacketology, and it was a tournament designed to determine the best character from HBO’s critically acclaimed crime drama The Wire. The bracket evolved from Simmons’ interview with then-President and Wire fan Barack Obama, during which they discussed basketball — Obama helped contribute to the NCAA bracket’s popularity by publicizing his own picks every year since 2009 — and their favorite Wire characters. (Obama's take: “[Omar]’s got to be the No. 1 seed.”)

When Grantland’s Wire bracket went live, fans of the show were rabidly galvanized, and the rest of the internet took notice. While some publishers jumped on the fresh concept and adapted it for their own use, others disliked it (and its admittedly subjective seeding), and dished out some not entirely unfair criticism. Still, the bracket format took off, overtaking — but not entirely replacing — the top-10 list as the preferred competitive online ranking. Grantland continued to host popular brackets for everything from hip-hop groups to basketball players to pop culture’s greatest second bananas, until the outlet’s 2015 demise.

Tournament Brackets Take Over the World

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The cultural obsession with putting just about anything into a bracket raged throughout the 2010s; media outlets often rolled out their own brackets to line up with the NCAA’s March Madness in the spring. Things reached a fever pitch around 2018: In March of that year, the tournament bracket evolved yet again from a seasonally stressful undertaking pitting pop-culture fans against each other to a full-blown social media meme. Brackets for everything from beauty products to snack cakes to memes themselves circulated for weeks. One particularly divisive bracket, which forced people to choose between Disney and Pixar movies, went viral, appearing all over the internet and in the media.

By this point, the onslaught of frivolous brackets had turned from potentially lucrative prognostication fun to just another way to argue on the internet. Unlike in a sports tournament, no objective truth can be revealed with a pop-culture bracket. But that doesn’t mean there's no thoughtful application of the bracket’s ongoing place in culture — even if it just ends up being a crystallization of a passionate community around a piece of art.

Unlike the low-stakes imprecision of a pop-culture bracket, an NCAA March Madness bracket has a decisive outcome in the end. The odds of a perfect prognostication may be about one in 9.2 quintillion — a harshly discouraging (though not entirely impossible) reality — but the phenomenon still grows. In 2019, according to the American Gaming Association (AGA), 40 million people filled out approximately 70 million NCAA brackets, collectively wagering $9.2 billion.

The NCAA’s tournament is an electrifying postseason even without the added social phenomenon of the bracket: Every game is sudden-death, breathtaking buzzer beaters are bound to happen, and the “Cinderella stories” (unlikely underdog upsets) are a driving part of the tournament’s narrative. It’s high-stakes sports at the best of times, but with the added mass appeal of a bracket, it’s not hard to see where the “madness” really comes in.

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