A Nation of Losers


Elimination tournaments of various kinds have been the subject of most of the posts here, and that might make it appear that I’m a big fan of elimination formats. But I’m not. In fact, I really dislike elimination tournaments, and I’ll take time out to explain why.

The one distinctive thing about elimination tournaments is that they’re ruthlessly efficient in eliminating people, and that, to my mind, is not necessarily good.

It’s the day after the Super Bowl. Patriots fans are happy today. That means, I suppose, people who live in New England, and perhaps a smattering of ethically-challenged people who live elsewhere. But everyone else in the country, even those who decided to root for the Pats as the lesser of two evils, are feeling like losers. Because for yet another year, the fans of thirty-one NFL teams are all losers.

In a way, I’m in a better place than most people. Both of my teams, the Colts and the Vikings, were eliminated from the playoffs in week 16 this year. But then both of them won in week 17!

One of our many cognitive biases is the recency effect. Our feelings about things are disproportionately influenced by what happened most recently. My mood is lighter because both of my teams ended the season on a winning note.

Consider, for example, the contrast between NCAA basketball and NCAA football. The basketball year ends with an enormous elimination tournament that’s come to be known as March Madness. Think about the players. For almost all of them, their last college basketball game will be their last important basketball game of any kind. They’ll remember that last game, and it will have an outsized influence on the way they remember their playing careers. And, for almost all of them, that last game is going to be a loss.

Now think about NCAA football. The same malign motives that give us March Madness are pushing football in the direction of some sort of single-elimination playoff system. But, for practical reasons, you can’t really do that in football. So the football season ends with umpteen bowl games, only a few of which are part of the elimination bracket that selects the national champion. And that means that nearly half of the players on good college football teams get to end their seasons, and eventually their careers, on a high note, with a win! Perhaps this is one reason that football, despite its increasingly well-recognized tendency to degrade the bodies and minds of those who play it, is the real national pastime of the United States.

I think all of the goals of tournament design: fairness, efficiency, participation, and spectator appeal, are important. But if I had to choose one principal virtue, it would not be fairness – it would be participation. We play games and sports to win and lose, but that’s a zero-sum proposition because for every winner there’s a loser. But we also play games and sports for the sheer joy of playing, and that can be a win-win. And the best way to run a tournament is, to the greatest possible extent, to make everyone leave feeling, in some sense, like a winner.



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