Introducing Bracket Bids: The Strategy Sports Pool Game Without the Homework


Games have always been a big part of my life: sports, board games, video games, you name it I've played it. For me, games are more than just a hobby as I've been involved in games both academically and professionally now for the last 7 years. I have a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence from the University of Alberta, where I was a member of a research group dedicated to the study of games. My thesis describes how to build computer programs that can play and defeat the world's best Texas hold'em poker players. Now poker is great, but when it comes to games, my true passion is sports. Bracket Bids is the consolidation of both my passion for sports and my expertise in games. My name is Richard Gibson and this is my story about how I started this venture.

Let's flash back about 5 years. I was doing my Ph.D. and hanging out in the AI research lab with some friends. We were talking about baseball, and we decided that we wanted to put together some sort of pool for the lab. Since we were all gamers, I suggested a fantasy sports pool on Yahoo! or officepools.com. So we did a draft and ran our pool, but unfortunately it wasn't very successful. Some of us found the game too time consuming, as there are thousands of players and dozens of statistics that you need to track when playing fantasy. For this reason, most of us stopped playing midway through and overall, the pool failed.

Later, when hockey playoffs rolled around, we wanted a pool that was easier to manage. So we ran a pick'em pool where we simply picked the teams we thought would win each series. While everyone found this much less time consuming, it went over even worse than the fantasy pool. These pick'em contests offered next to no strategy and player interaction whatsoever, something that we desperately craved as strategy enthusiasts. Simply picking the favourite to win each series was your best bet at winning. We quickly lost interest and stopped playing after the first round of the playoffs. This pool failed as well.

As games experts, we knew we could do better. We wanted a game that combined the elements of skill and interaction found in fantasy, with the accessibility found in pick'em games. So, we designed a sports pool game for league playoffs and special tournaments that has now become Bracket Bids. The game consists of only a live draft, but for the teams and not the athletes. The draft uses an auction format where each participant has, say, 50 "chips" to spend in the draft. To start, everyone antes 5 chips to create the initial pot so that all players have incentive to bid. Teams are drawn one at a time at random and bid for in turn, similar to a round of betting in poker. The highest bidder claims the team, pays up their final bid to the pot, and the next team is drawn. The draft ends once all teams have been drawn and bid for, which usually takes about 30 minutes for a 16-team draft. After the draft, there's no on-going management. You just sit back, enjoy the playoffs, and cheer for your teams to win. You either score points when your teams advance, or play where simply the owner of the championship winning team wins the entire pot. Your group can then keep track of chips won and lost over a series of tournaments across multiple sports until a champion is crowned at, say, the end of the calendar year.

After playing this format, we were immediately hooked. The biggest reason for this was because the bidding strategies were much more interesting than any of us had anticipated and really made the draft feel a lot like a game of poker. We have continued to play twice a year for both hockey and baseball playoffs. We started by playing in the lunch room with just pencil and paper to keep track of our bids, and a marked-up deck of cards to draw teams. After we graduated and moved away to different cities, I built a simple online prototype for us to continue playing by distance. We now reconnect twice a year online, something that we probably wouldn't do if it weren't for our playoff pools. Even as our lives have become more busy with work and kids, the format is so fun and so manageable that it has been easy for us to continue doing. I myself have two young kids, yet I now regularly play in up to 3 different pools at the same time with different groups of friends.

I'm going to end this post with the following analogy. Comparing fantasy sports to Bracket Bids is a lot like comparing Jeopardy! to poker. Jeopardy! is very much a knowledge-based game. The more information the player knows, the better chances the player has at winning. This is the same in fantasy sports where the players with deeper knowledge of athletes' statistics have a better chance at success. On the other hand, poker and Bracket Bids are strategy-based games. In poker, all players know how good each poker hand is. Success boils down to strategy and who bets and folds most wisely will win. The same is true for Bracket Bids: it is not who knows the most about the sport, but who plays the best that wins.

So, if you are looking to organize a sports pool that

  • requires no preparation or upkeep time,
  • is less about stats and more about strategy, and
  • is accessible to all your friends and coworkers,
then keep Bracket Bids in mind for your next playoff or tournament pool. Bracket Bids is still in development, but you can try out the demo over at bracketbids.com. Be sure to sign up for the latest news as we hope to launch soon.