March Madness and Kickstarter

15 March 2018 | 16 Comments

Today is the first day of the annual NCAA men’s basketball tournament. 64 teams compete in a single-elimination tournament, with an estimated 40 million people filling out brackets to see if they can guess the winner of each game.

I’d wager that only a portion of those people care about college basketball before March. It’s a rare cultural event in America where it’s completely normal for you to go from not even knowing there is a Lipscomb University to refreshing your browser every 10 seconds to see if they pull off the upset against UNC.

Imagine if you had that kind of engagement on your Kickstarter campaign or business website.

I had a sense of deja vu as I was thinking about this blog entry. Then it hit me: I’ve done this on a Kickstarter campaign. And I think you can too.

On my Euphoria Kickstarter campaign 5 years ago, I hosted something called the Tournament of the Apocalypse. Euphoria is a game about running a dystopia, and many dystopias in fiction are the result of world-changing events. So I selected 16 scenarios like alien invasion, bipedal dolphins, and robot takeover, put them in a bracket, and let backers vote on each head-to-head matchup.

The level of engagement was incredible. The tournament was a major focus of conversation during the campaign on project updates, our website (where the polls were posted), and elsewhere on social media. Backers returned to the project day after day to see who was winning, and over 2,500 people voted on the finale (internet disconnected vs. moon implosion).

I don’t think this is an isolated phenomenon. I think there’s something in us that likes to participate in this type of low-stakes tournament. Here are some guidelines I’d recommend when considering creating a version of March Madness for your project or business:

  • Let people fill out brackets in advance. I didn’t consider the value of this–as far as I can remember, backers didn’t learn about each bracket until I announced it. There are lots of websites for creating custom brackets, and I think people have fun filling them out.
  • “Seed” the competitors. I didn’t do this either, but I think it creates situations where people can pick “upsets.” It’s fun to root for the underdog.
  • The impact should be meaningful. The challenge for you is to pick something for your tournament that has a meaningful impact on the project. That is, backers will walk away feeling like they’re part of the origin story of the product. For the Euphoria tournament, I designed 4 “apocalyptic” recruit cards based on the results. Similarly, in the original Legend of the Five Rings, tournament results had an impact on the overall story arc of the game.
  • The impact shouldn’t be TOO meaningful. Inevitably, in a tournament format like this, there are “winners” and “losers,” concepts that I try to avoid. That’s why I think it helps to keep the tournament light and fun. It’s a tough balance, so please talk to people in advance to make sure you’re on the right track.
  • As always, don’t post too many project updates. Backers know where your project is. If they want to check in on the tournament, they can do that on their own. I tried not to post more than 1 update every 2-3 days.

Have you seen other projects run bracket-style tournaments? I’d love to hear about them. If you’re struggling to think of tournament ideas for your project, feel free to provide some context in the comments and people can chime in.

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16 Comments on “March Madness and Kickstarter

  1. I run a simple poll (or 20) in every campaign I run. From ‘go’ I’ve had backers choose major aspects of our campaigns.
    In The King’s Armory, backers chose the graphic design style of all 4 decks of cards.
    In Halfsies Dice, backers chose the actual color combinations we’ll create!

    It’s an awesome thing. Thus our company motto became “This is your game.”
    I don’t WANT to do it without you. So I involve you at every step of the way.

    1. Your comment made me think that stretch goals could be made even more fun for backers by also including a bracket tournament in each one (if possible).

  2. Such a great idea. So engaging, and so simple! I look forward to seeing how each of you implement this. Currently when I back a game I don’t look again until close to the end of the campaign. This would definitely bring me back to “get into the game” – quote stolen from EA sports :)

  3. We’re thinking of doing a tournament-style thing for our Kickstarter. The game itself has players building teams of competitors and sending them to compete in contests, so we thought it was a natural way of engaging with backers whilst still feeling connected to the theme.

    However, we aren’t sure whether or not it would conflict with Kickstarter’s ‘no contests’ policy. Do you have any advice on this? :D


    1. Dewi: That sounds like fun! I don’t think there will be any problems as long as you’re not actually running a contest that treats some backers differently than others. That’s what Kickstarter seems to care about.

  4. Sounds great.

    “If you’re struggling to think of tournament ideas for your project, feel free to provide some context in the comments and people can chime in.”

    I don’t know what I would do for Banker of the Gods. How would you do a tournament for ancient stock investors? Stocks don’t pull the imagination as much as an apocalypse. I will have to rack my brain for a few weeks.

    What software did you use? Just facebook polls?

    1. Banker of the Gods…hm…well, you could have a tournament to decide a new “god” to add to the game, perhaps among a category the game hasn’t explored (as you’ll need enough options to create the tournament in the first place).

      I used WordPress polls.

      1. That is a “why didn’t I think of that idea”, which means it’s a fantastic idea! I guess I was too close to the project. I have 2 god cards left to do. Already decided on. I will scrap that decision and turn it into a tournament when the time comes. There is 1 Japanese God and 1 Egyptian God remaining (all ukiyo-e style). Thanks!!!! :)

        I thought I had to do everything before KS. This is great. I can leave those 2 un-done. The people can decide. Bonus of 2 less things to do on the gigantic pre-kickstarter list :) Yipeee!!!

        P.S. How’s Lipscomb University doing? :)

        1. Perfect! I look forward to seeing how you do this. My only concern is that it might lead to some religious confrontations between backers, but you can keep an eye on that and adjust accordingly.

          Lipscomb is still alive! Though they haven’t played any games yet. :)

          1. I can see how that might be a problem alright. Especially if it was the Roman Catholic cards. Egypt should be fine, as I don’t think any large groups still worship Ra, Osiris, Anubis. etc…

            But with the Japanese gods and Japanese mythological creatures, I don’t know. I will have to research if voting on that will upset Shintos and Buddhists.

            If Lipscomb hasn’t played, then they still have a chance :)

  5. Jamey,

    Admittedly, there are small children who know more about sports than I do…and I’m okay with that. However, like almost everyone, I too, get caught-up in the madness that is college basketball. Even if my brackets are filled with teams that wear blue uniforms (fun fact…my favorite color) or every college that begins with an “L” (I graduated from LaSalle in Philly), I love filling out the brackets. I can see this being a draw. As a developer for several games which had successful KS runs, the designers also had a polling/bracket type affair, which had the intended effect of mobilizing the masses and it’s great fun.


  6. I have never seen this sort of technique used, but I feel like I’ve seen a version of it. With one of the Kickstarters I backed, the designer told people to leave suggestions for characters in the comments. He provided a list of characters to choose from, and said, depending on the vote, the winner would be added to the game.

    The difference was that there was no easy way to see who was winning, so it was just a ‘ pick an option and wait for the winning announcement’ sort of deal. I really like this idea of a light tournament you brought up.

    When I think about the game I’m making, I can easily see how I’d make a tournament, and for what feature. I had been thinking to make this feature/character choice a stretch goal, but it might work out better if I use it to create a stronger sense of investment in the project. Thanks for the interesting thought to nibble on!

    PS: I finally got to play Scythe at my local con this past weekend, and I really enjoyed it! It’s a beautiful game that I could enjoy, even as a beginner. I love how you can choose different routes to pursue victory. (Maybe this is common in these types of games, but I’m relatively new to the TTG world) :)

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