Winners and Losers – An Overview of Double Elimination Brackets
By Garrick Neuner
Volume 1 Issue 4
January 20, 2021
Image provided by Wikipedia
The single elimination bracket pairs opponents by predetermined seed in a cutthroat competition, where one loss brings the end of a competitor or team’s run. The NCAA March Madness tournament demonstrates the volatility of the system year after year, often losing some of its most highly ranked teams early on due to a single loss. Despite its flaws, the system is simple and understandable, helping cement March Madness as a household name to sports fans across the nation. Double elimination, though, requires a thorough explanation to detail its nuances.
As the name suggests, a double elimination bracket ejects competitors after two losses, not one. At the onset of a traditional double elimination tournament, all competitors are seeded into the “winners' bracket,” much like in March Madness. The winners of each match move on to face the winner of a different match, repeating the process until the contest’s finals. Following a competitor’s first loss though, they are sent to the purgatory unique to double elimination: the “losers' bracket.” In this bracket, competitors play matches in a field that grows with the passing of each round as more players fall out of the winners’ bracket. Thus, to keep the size of the losers’ bracket stable, more matches are played. Losing your first match early is not a death sentence, but a grueling challenge. Competitors who succeed in the slog of losers' bracket are said to have a great “loser’s run,” commending their extra effort for staying in the tourney.
The pattern of a shrinking winners’ and slowly dwindling losers continues until the apex of the tournament: the finals matches. While March Madness has a rapid one-game determination of a winner, a double elimination bracket has three matches to declare a champion. The first of these is “winner’s finals,” wherein the remaining two perfect players battle for a spot in the grand finals. The winner of that match enters grand finals undefeated on the “winners' side,” while the loser is sent to “loser’s finals.” This match pairs the latest loser with the last competitor battling through the loser's bracket. The loser of this game is eliminated at 3rd place, while the victor enters grand finals on the “loser’s side”.
Now for the final twist. Remember how a competitor must be eliminated twice to exit the tournament? This law still holds true in the grand finals. For the combatant on the loser's side, this means beating the undefeated player in the tournament twice! That player can “reset the bracket” by defeating the winner’s side champion, thus setting both players to one loss in the tournament. At this point the second grand finals match determines the first-place finisher. If the winner remains undefeated through match one of the grand finals, though, they win the tournament with a perfect record.
Through all this explanation, you may ask, why bother? Why use such a complicated system when single elimination is so much easier to understand? You see, the kinds of games that hold double elimination tournaments rely on at least one of two key factors of their brackets: more matches and more drama. One major group of double elimination brackets is children’s sports leagues such as the Little League. For players so young, the experience of playing more matches and continuing on after a loss provides valuable experience, strengthening skills and having more fun on the field. The other major group, my personal favorite, are fighting game competitions. In these convention-style events, hundreds of competitors meet and pay considerable cash to battle for glory. For the brand new to average players, double elimination gives more tournament experience for their dollar, once again providing invaluable teachings. For spectators, though, the double elimination bracket provides drama. Watching your favorite player lose a heartbreaking set early on, only to climb their way to grand finals is a sensation unparalleled by single elimination. The mythos of the winner’s bracket puts palpable pressure onto the best of the best, urging them to win or be sent to a much more difficult loser’s run. The grand finals most importantly supports a built-in underdog story, making the conclusion of every tournament a heart-racing brawl. In these settings, the confusion of the bracket is outweighed by aspects of the sports themselves, breathing a new life into these already fascinating games.
Winners’ Bracket - for undefeated players, similar to a single elimination bracket
Losers’ Bracket - for players who have lost a game in winners and are on the brink of exiting the tournament.
Winners’ Finals - the last match in the winner’s bracket, with the winner exiting on “winner’s side.”
Loser’s Finals - the match following winner’s finals, pitting the loser of that match against the champion of the loser’s bracket. The winner is sent to grands on the “loser’s side”
Grand Finals - the last match(es) of a double elimination bracket
Bracket Reset - when the loser’s side competitor defeats the winner’s side entrant in match one of grand finals, triggering a second and final match where both competitors each have one loss.