Now down to the Sweet 16, this year’s NCAA men’s tournament has been a record setter on many levels. For ESPN Fantasy’s Men’s Tournament Challenge, the kick off to the three week rite of spring resulted in all-time record of over 11.01 million brackets submitted (thegame debuted in 1998). That’s up 35 percent compared to last year’s record of 8.15 million. John Diver, senior director, game operations, spoke to Front Row and offered a look at the 2014 trends and a look ahead to future years.
When you look at this graph (above), what are some key takeaways?
The first thing is the huge spike in traffic just before the tipoff on Thursday. Starting around 11:30 a.m. ET, procrastinators across America made a rush get their brackets in, and we peaked with 11,983 brackets/minute (199 brackets/second) at exactly 11:59 a.m.
By 12:01 p.m., the number started dropping somewhat sharply, which leads me to believe many thought the game locked at noon (for the record, it locked at 12:15 p.m.). During this very important 45-minute window, over 500,000 brackets were submitted from every type of device with no server issues — not an easy task. Getting through that spike is a testament to our tech teams building a product to handle scale. Second, is how the year-over-year delta is consistently higher than 2013 and how it appears to increase as the week progressed.
One more takeaway: the bar has now been set high for 2015.
We’ll get to the future in a minute. But first, do you have any theories on what caused the huge spike this year?
I think it’s a combination of a few factors. The first is a generalization that in last few years “Fantasy” has become more mainstream. Television programs, commercials, podcasts, apps, etc. have been created all promoting the task of filling out your bracket. Celebrities go to Twitter asking their followers to join their TC group. Folks like our resident Bracketologist Joe Lunardi seem to become one of the most important men in America.
Another key factor — like every digital product today — was the advent of the smartphone. Since our first iPhone app was released in 2010 through this year’s, we’ve seen a seismic shift in brackets being submitted via a mobile device. The ability for people to submit their bracket from anywhere is a big factor.
Specific to this year, even though ESPN didn’t host it, Warren Buffett’s $1 billion contest helped raise general awareness of the game. I don’t think anyone actually thought they’d win the billion, but the “what if” scenario inspired folks to participate.
Other observations from data through the years?
It is quite remarkable how consistent the trending is year-over-year during the 3.5 days (89 hours) the brackets are open. From the moment they’re released on Selection Sunday through the first tip-off on Thursday, the trending basically mirrors the year previous. There are some spikes like Tuesday night when ESPN’s Bracketology TV special aired and Wednesday morning when President Obama’s bracket was made public.
If we pulled the graphs for all 17 seasons we’ve done Tournament Challenge, I believe they would look very similar, even as more and more people use their mobile devices.
What is next for Tournament Challenge in terms of technology, personalization and interactivity? In your opinion, what will be the next innovation for “bracketeering”?
This is a question we constantly challenge ourselves with in all corners of ESPN. My first thought is to continue to improve the accessibility of the game, making the task of joining it and filling out your bracket easier to do, especially with mobile applications.
Likewise, we’d like to improve the tasks of creating a group with your family, friends and co-workers and sharing via social platforms, a text message or email. We’ve come a long way already, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
In terms of next innovation, I foresee in the near future the ability to interact with the game through your television. I’m sure when you look at Tournament Challenge 2024 there’ll be some changes we haven’t even thought of yet.
Now, some of what you may have missed over the weekend. . .
— Dishin' & Swishin' (@DishNSwish) March 23, 2014
— Tim Gibson (@TimmyG_32) March 22, 2014
2. More on this display of wardrobe later today on Front Row. . .
— ESPN New York 98.7FM (@ESPNNY98_7FM) March 21, 2014
— Brendan Suhr (@brendansuhr) March 22, 2014
Talking to every source possible for info at the NFL Owners Meetings in Orlando…. pic.twitter.com/EYyApb0TW0
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 22, 2014
— Derek Volner (@DerekVolner) March 23, 2014
— Josh Walker (@JoshWalk) March 23, 2014
— Kerry McCoy (@kmac120) March 23, 2014
6. More on the poignant Kevin Mackey profile by Dwayne Bray, which will have a written accompaniment in the upcoming NBA Playoff issue of ESPN The Magazine.
See these guys everywhere and there is no better NBA talent scout better than Kevin Mackey @OTLonESPN
— Kevin McNamara (@KevinMcNamara33) March 23, 2014
— Karen Sullivan (@fancybones) March 23, 2014
— The V Foundation (@TheVFoundation) March 23, 2014
Acá mi crónica del partido. "Una liga para cualquiera". http://t.co/TUhcjH4XEL
— Fernando Palomo (@Palomo_ESPN) March 23, 2014
Bill Hofheimer, Amanda DeCastro and Sofia Rocher contributed to this post