Bracket Pool Scoring Systems: Why They Matter & How To Exploit Them
Different scoring systems require different strategies to win a bracket pool. We discuss some common types of scoring systems and considerations.
In bracket pools, just as in basketball, the expected points for a given shot dictate whether it is a good choice (Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire)
Scoring systems matter in driving strategy. As a real-world example, the “small ball” revolution has led to dramatic changes in the game of basketball. Take a look at this chart from Kirk Goldsberry, the author of “Sprawlball,” illustrating the changes in shooting attempts in the NBA over the last 20 years.
The game has changed. pic.twitter.com/Bqh4swKxCN
— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) January 14, 2020
We’ve seen teams like the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets change how the game is played. If you are a team that is going to go down and post up the center and throw it in for a contested two, you will quickly find yourself trailing. Teams changed their approach. Now, it’s all three pointers and shots near the rim.
If you want to dominate March Madness bracket pools, you need to take a page out of their playbook, and play to the score.
It All Starts With The Scoring System
What’s a big reason behind the success of “small ball” in the NBA?
Smart front offices who:
- Analyzed historical NBA data
- Identified an edge from shooting more 3-pointers
- Shifted their personnel and coaching strategies to exploit that edge
In short, these outperforming teams optimized their game for the current NBA scoring system. They objectively evaluated the rules of the contest at a deep level, and figured out how to exploit them.
This post will show how you can apply similar logic to your bracket contest this year. It also will explore the dynamics of some of the more popular bracket pool scoring systems.
Why Your Bracket Pool’s Scoring System Matters
Most people who play in NCAA bracket pools pay far too little attention to the implications of their bracket pool’s scoring system.
That can be a very costly mistake.
Let’s take an example. Imagine you’re in the middle of picking the first round games in your 2021 NCAA bracket. Next up is a game between a No. 6 seed and a No. 11 seed.
Using our NCAA Bracket Picks product, you quickly pull up the latest Vegas odds and algorithmic game predictions.
There’s general consensus that the No. 6 seed has about a 60% chance to win the game; in the betting markets the No. 6 seed is favored to win by 4 points.
So which team should you pick in order to maximize your odds to win your pool?
Trick question, of course. The right answer depends on several things — one of which is your scoring system.
Case 1: Don’t Pick The Upset!
In a lot of popular scoring systems, the first round games mean little relative to later round games.
In the most popular bracket scoring system, for instance, getting your NCAA champion pick correct is worth 32 times the value of getting a first round pick correct.
In these types of scoring systems, an early upset pick that doesn’t go your way could come back to bite you if you’re not careful.
Weighing The Risks and Rewards
Imagine a scenario like this:
- The No. 6 seed is a decent favorite to win the game (as we stated earlier).
- The No. 6 seed also happens to be from the state in which most of your pool opponents live. So that team is likely to be a popular pick in your pool.
- If the No. 6 seed wins its first round game, the opponent they will face in the second round is probably going to be the No. 3 seed in their region. However, this year, that No. 3 seed happens to be the weakest No. 3 seed in the tournament.
Add it all up, and an upset pick here probably isn’t a wise move in a more traditional bracket pool scoring system. The risks simply outweigh the rewards.
The Good Outcome
A good outcome (you pick the No. 11 seed and they win) might only earn you one measly point in a lot of scoring systems.
Odds are you’d have the No. 11 seed losing in the second round, so there wouldn’t be any possible upside beyond that.
The Bad Outcome
However, a bad outcome looks like this:
- You pick the No. 11 seed.
- The No. 6 seed wins, then beats the weak No. 3 seed in the second round and makes the Sweet 16.
- Since the No. 6 seed was a popular pick, lots of your opponents earn multiple points from those two wins, but you don’t earn any points.
A result like that probably won’t completely crush your odds to win your pool. In a more traditional scoring system where later-round picks are worth a lot, you could still make up points in the future.
However, it could have a significant negative impact on your prize-winning chances.
Case 2: Pick The Upset!
On the other hand, some pools use very “flat” scoring systems, where getting first round games correct is worth a lot more relative to later-round picks.
Maybe getting the NCAA champion pick right is only worth six times as much as a first round game — or maybe it’s even worth the same number of points. Many customers of our NCAA bracket advice play in pools like these.
In these types of scoring systems, picking the No. 11 seed to win could be a great decision, with significant expected value.
Good vs. Bad Again
After all, the risk involved isn’t terrible. You’ve got a decent shot (4-in-10) to get the upset pick right.
And the reward could be quite significant, especially if:
- Your scoring system more heavily weights early round games
- You expect the No. 11 seed to be an unpopular pick in your pool.
- You would have the No. 6 seed losing in the next round anyway.
How Scoring Systems Impact Your Odds To Win
Besides influencing your optimal game-by-game pick decisions, there’s another angle to bracket pool scoring systems that nobody ever talks about.
Before you’ve even picked a game, your bracket contest’s scoring system has already impacted the chance you have to win your pool.
Choose your scoring system wisely
Every March, you usually have a choice of at least a few bracket pools to enter, if you look hard enough.
(Because bracket pools are such great investments, we’d suggest you enter as many bracket contests as you possibly can, if you have the means. But let’s assume you have to pick and choose.)
When faced with a choice, smart bracket pickers can stack the odds in their favor simply by choosing to enter pools with scoring systems that give them better chances to win.
The possible impacts of luck and skill
In short, the specifics of a given scoring system can:
- Enable luck to potentially play a huge role in the final pool outcome, thus leveling the playing field between basketball neophytes and algorithm-wielding number crunchers like us (and, by extension, our customers)
- Emphasize overall skill at picking many games right, thus providing a big edge to “sharp” players and making it far less likely that a casual entrant will win the pool
- Encourage participants either to take big risks with their picks or to play it safe, which impacts the likelihood of big swings in the standings as the tournament goes on
So if you’re playing in a bracket pool this year, choose one with a scoring system that aligns with your assessment of your bracket-picking skill level. All else being equal:
- If you’re a great bracket picker, try to enter a pool whose scoring system limits the potential impact of luck.
- If you’re clueless about college basketball (and aren’t going to pay for our advice to level-up to expert status), try to enter a pool with a scoring system in which luck can play a bigger role.
Round-Based Bracket Scoring: Options and Implications
Let’s dive into some specific scoring systems, review some of their implications, and compare how they emphasize luck vs. skill.
Our subscribers used our NCAA Bracket Picks product to create optimized brackets and multi-bracket portfolios for over 500 unique pool scoring systems.
As you might imagine, these scoring systems ranged from the straightforward, to the complex, to the downright insane.
While we can’t possibly analyze the implications of all them in a blog post (we’ve designed technology to do that for us), we’ll go over a few of the most popular options for round-based point values.
Note: The numbers in bold below represent the points you get for picking a game right, by round, starting with the first round and ending with the NCAA tournament champion.
This is the most popular bracket contest scoring system, used in roughly 65% of the pools that our customers enter.
There’s a certain simple logic to it, which is probably one of the reasons why it’s so popular. The points earned for correctly picking a team to advance doubles each round, and the total value of points available in each round remains constant at 32.
What most people don’t realize about this system is the very high leverage associated with getting later round picks correct.
The difference between an absolutely amazing first round (let’s say getting 30 of 32 picks right, which almost never happens) and a bad one (let’s say getting 14 of 32 right) equates to a difference of 16 points in the pool standings.
Simply getting your NCAA champion pick correct in this scoring system is worth double that difference — 32 points. That one final pick could more than make up for a horrible first round and/or second round.
A good system for the clueless
Now consider this: In the first round, a poor performance still nets you some points, but what you earn from your NCAA champion round pick is a completely binary outcome.
A great NCAA champion pick in 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring earns you 32 points. Anything else nets you zero.
That particular dynamic opens the door for luck to make a significant impact. Picking lots of tournament games correctly is indicative of skill, but getting a single NCAA finalist or champion pick right in a specific year depends much more on luck.
(Even the best teams in recent memory, like 2015 Kentucky that was undefeated going into the NCAA tournament, had less than a 50/50 chance of winning it all.)
As a result, the 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring system is one of the more forgiving systems for basketball neophytes.
There are still plenty of ways for sharp players to get a big long-term edge by using game theory and other approaches, like our bracket picks do. But if you’re clueless and want at least a fighting chance to win a bracket pool, entering a pool with 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring is a fine enough choice.
10-20-40-80-160-320 (ESPN Scoring)
For whatever reason, ESPN’s Tournament Challenge bracket game uses these point values instead of 1-2-4-8-16-32.
It’s the exact same as 1-2-4-8-16-32. Multiplying all the round values by 10 doesn’t impact the competitive dynamic, optimal picking strategy, or relative potential impact of skill vs. luck.
This is the second most popular round-based scoring system according to our customer data, used in around 3% of our customer pools.
(Yes, roughly 3% popularity was the next most common system after the 65% of pools using 1-2-4-8-16-32. There’s simply a huge variety of round-based point structures in use, with no single one besides 1-2-4-8-16-32 being super popular.)
The immediately obvious difference between 1-2-3-4-5-6 scoring and 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring is the greatly reduced point values of the late round picks:
- In 1-2-3-4-5-6 scoring, the first two rounds both have a total of 32 points up for grabs, then the points available per round drop quickly.
- The NCAA champion pick is only worth 5% of the total available points in the pool, compared to nearly 17% of total available points in 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring.
- Getting two Final Four picks right is worth more than getting your NCAA champion pick correct, while in 1-2-4-8-16-32 it’s worth half as much.
This system is nice for emphasizing picking skill through the first two rounds, while still placing a moderate amount of importance on Sweet 16 winners.
If you’re not in great shape by the Elite 8, however, it becomes very difficult to leapfrog lots of opponents in the standings with a lucky late round pick or two.
So this system puts unskilled participants at a significantly greater disadvantage than 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring does.
Want to minimize the role of luck in your pool’s final outcome, and all but guarantee that your pool’s top finishers are solidified by the Elite 8?
In this structure, over 83% of available points are up for grabs in the first three rounds. And unlike 1-2-4-8-16-32 and 1-2-3-4-5-6 scoring, the total points available per round decreases with each successful round.
In fact, the action packed 32-game first round is worth more than all other tournament rounds combined!
Consequently, overall picking accuracy in the early rounds is really all that matters in this scoring structure, and the results of a few very closely matched first round games are likely to make a significant impact in the pool’s outcome.
For purely round-based scoring, this is probably the most “sharp-friendly” scoring system. Participants who aren’t sophisticated enough to look beyond seed numbers and jersey colors to pick winners will be at a big disadvantage.
However, it can be a fun scoring system to use for a pool filled with skilled players, since the ability to identify subtle matchup advantages in early round games expected to be close could make all the difference in the final standings.
This scoring system is also known as “Fibonacci,” named after the badass 13th century Italian mathematician who introduced the numerical sequence to Western European mathematics.
The concept here is that each round value is worth the sum of the previous two round values. That progression modestly decreases the relative value of late-round picks compared to traditional 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring, but the altered ratios of round-to-round values have other effects as well.
With a total of 64 points up for grabs in the first round, the opening two days of the tournament are the most important in Fibonacci, but the next three rounds still offer good opportunities to distance your bracket from the pack.
As in the 1-1-1-1-1-1 system, available points per round decreases in every round, but the value decay here is much more gradual, so randomness will more frequently impact the pool’s final standings — just not as much often as it does in traditional 1-2-4-8-16-32.
If you like the concept of rewarding late-round pick accuracy to some degree, but to want to generally focus the pool more on early round performance, Fibonacci is a good option.
Here’s one of the random ones we picked out from our customer pool details database.
It’s not too different from Fibonacci, but has even more randomness thrown in thanks to the much higher point value for the NCAA champion pick. So compared to Fibonacci, it levels the playing field a bit more between skilled and unskilled players.
The first round remains the most important round in terms of points available (64), followed by the NCAA champion (50), and then the second round (48).
Meanwhile, the finalist and Final Four picks are a relative dead zone, so anyone who picks a team that makes the championship game but then doesn’t win it really gets screwed. That could lead to some nice participant anguish and subsequent trash-talking.
Compared to traditional 1-2-4-8-16-32 scoring, this system demands excellence at the beginning and/or the very end of the bracket, but still rewards a great performance in the early rounds slightly more.
TeamRankings Adapts to Different Scoring Systems
If you played all those scoring systems the same, you would generally perform worse in some of them. They all have the potential to incentivize different strategies. Upset points, Seed-Based Bonuses, and different point amounts for each round can change what becomes optimal.
Our track record speaks for itself there. We ask our subscribers how they did at the end of each year, and our results are positive across different types of scoring.
Over the last three years, our recommendations to the standard “1-2-4-8-16-32” scoring format have won a prize 4.8 times more often than expected for the typical entry. In seed-based scoring formats, they have also won 4.8 times more often than expected for the typical entry. Go to a round-based scoring format that includes upset bonuses, and our recommendations have won a prize 5.2 times more often than expected. For all the other variations of round-based scoring (without upset bonuses), it’s at 5.9 times more often than expected.
In some years, the specific results in the NCAA Tournament dictate that our picks in one type of format may do better than another, but we’ll take that range of results across all types of pools.