You are on the edge of your seat. The clock dwindles toward zero. The game is on the line.
All of it, charged with anxiety and intensity. The last efforts to win or to hold a lead, futile. And then you hear that word that induces excitement and terror:
We watch sports to be entertained. Few phenomena in sports are more entertaining than the life-or-death intensity of a game, undecided in its regulation length, being extended in order to determine a winner.
But not all overtimes are created equal. Some sports alter their rules. some formats produce arbitrary results. Some are more exciting than others. Ideally, a neutral walks away from an overtime game saying, “that was great.” But not all overtimes deserve such a compliment.
The following is an attempt to rank the most satisfying overtimes and tie-breaking procedures. I judge the satisfaction of an overtime to be based upon three criteria: Excitement, integrity, and fairness.
Excitement – The edge-of-the-seat factor. is the format exciting? How does the excitement compare to regular time in the sport? If you hear that two teams you don’t care about are in overtime, how likely are you to have your attention arrested?
Integrity – The format’s faithfulness to the sport it is deciding. Tie-breakers often alter the conditions the teams play under. How well does the format maintain the essence of the sport? How many conditions are altered by the rules or the circumstances?
Fairness – The best team doesn’t always win. How arbitrary is victory in the format? Does the best team win, or are victories the consequence of random chance? Can a team lose due to a factor that would not be present in regulation? If your team loses a game in overtime, are you mad that you lost, or mad that you got jobbed by the rules?
Where a sport includes different leagues with multiple formats, I evaluate different formats. However, I decline to evaluate the overtime formats of games that will, in the frequent event of post-overtime ties, result in shootouts, evaluating the shootout only. All sports included here are team sports. Except where necessary, I assume that the reader has a general familiarity with the format discussed.
Excitement – 7
Sudden death guarantees that the excitement level for the partisan and for the neutral is high.
Integrity – 6
The rules of the game are identical, but the integrity score is reduced because the goal for offense is usually to achieve field goal range, at which point a kick would be attempted.
Fairness – 2
The sudden death nature of the format and the ease with which modern kickers kick field goals places an inordinate emphasis on winning the coin toss. One need only note that the most memorable aspect of Marty Morninweg’s head coaching career was choosing to defer on a coin toss in a game that he lost in overtime to see how crucial this is.
Total score: 15 out of 30
Sudden death overtime was an exciting development that made the 1958 NFL championship famous. However, the format made a coin flip the single most important event in determining the winner. Similarly, a fluky penalty, like a marginal pass interference call (ask Minnesota Vikings fans about this), could decide the game. And field goals were usually the deciding factor. It had to go.
kicking team is guaranteed a possession unless the receiving team scores a touchdown
Excitement – 5
The game can still end at any time, and the receiving team is encouraged to score a touchdown, but as seen in the 2018 season, overtimes can become boring punt-fests and ties are more likely to occur, particularly if the Cleveland Browns are involved.
Integrity – 7
The weirdness of a system that allows the game to continue if the receiving team kicks a field goal is overcome by the emphasis on scoring a touchdown. Field position becomes relevant, and red zone offense and defense still matter, at least for the first possession.
Fairness – 5
The criteria are somewhat arbitrary, and there is still a possibility of a team losing without ever having the ball, but the requirement that the receiving team score a touchdown to end the game means that this system is much more fair than the previous NFL system.
Total score: 19 out of 30
This is a modest improvement. One can argue that scoring a touchdown is important enough to merit the reward of winning without the other team touching the ball, and it gives defenses reason to keep playing even when the offense enters the red zone. However, the weirdness of a field goal not winning the game sometimes and not winning other times, and the increased frequency of boring overtimes with the new system, are handicaps. Better than before, but still not great.
Excitement – 10
Every down matters in football anyway, but much more so in overtime. Touchdowns are regular features; field goals are tense; turnovers are gigantic.
Integrity – 6
Field position and punting are completely eliminated in overtime, and positioning the football within field goal range changes the way games are played. Low-scoring games that end in a tie can and do become high-scoring shootouts in overtime.
Fairness – 9
In the first possession in particular there is an unfair advantage to the team that goes second, because they know whether or not they use four downs to attempt to gain a first down or a touchdown. This advantage still exists in later rounds, but since the order of possessions alternates, each team gets an opportunity to have that advantage and it becomes fairer on aggregate over time.
Total score: 25 out of 30
College football can be a bit random, and the sport changes somewhat when the clock goes away and teams start their possessions in field goal range. But it is thrilling and fair.
Excitement – 3
The end of the OT period has the same potential to be exciting as the end of regulation time, but the length of the period ensures that there will be several minutes of routine basketball, generally a let-down after an end to regulation that was almost surely riveting. This is the rare overtime format where the gameplay becomes noticeably less exciting for some time after regulation.
Integrity – 10
The game played in overtime is exactly the same as the game played in regulation.
Fairness – 10
There is no fairer overtime in sports. Five minutes of the same thing that was being played before, every team with an equal chance. One might argue that it is harsh that a player that fouls out for, say, 30 seconds of regulation is then unavailable for the entirety of overtime, but each team is subject to the same challenges.
Total score: 23 out of 30
I ding basketball quite a bit for excitement, because you go from a final possession that either tied the game or could have won it to roughly four minutes of very conventional basketball. This is the tradeoff for having such exciting end-game scenarios. However, this format is impeccable in its integrity and fairness.
Penalty shootout following extra time.
Excitement – 8
Every kick matters. For partisans, utter terror. This procedure is used, by definition, to eliminate one team from competition, so the stakes are always massive. However, the actual aesthetics involve guys kicking a ball into a goal, diminishing the excitement level a bit.
Integrity – 0
Penalty kicks bear no resemblance whatsoever to the rest of the sport.
Fairness – 0
Wins and losses (including in the very biggest of games) are decided by something that is essentially a coin flip; in the rare moments a goalkeeper saves a kick, it is literally a consequence of a lucky guess.
Total score: 8 out of 30
At least it’s exciting. Soccer’s ultimate tie-breaking procedure is so bad that it fails the most basic of tests for a tie-breaker: Is it better than just finishing in a tie? In soccer’s case, the answer is no. The tie-breaker occurs because television and time limitations demand that games produce a result, even though the results are by definition unjust.
Regular Season / Olympic Medal Round
Shootout following various versions of a short overtime.
Shootouts are reasonably exciting and feature attractive demonstrations of skill. The score is not perfect because this only occurs in the regular season and in the Olympics, so the stakes are almost never high.
Integrity – 2
Unlike soccer, shootouts at least simulate a breakaway, an event that occasionally happens in actual gameplay. Both the goalie and the shooter use real game skills. However, there is still little to do with the regular sport.
Fairness – 1
There is some skill involved; better goaltenders may have an advantage, and teams can choose skaters with better skills. However, the result is still essentially arbitrary.
Total score: 10 out of 30
Excitement – 10
Pure terror. Every bounce, every pass, every shot. The game can end in seconds. Or it could take hours. Since this is used in the postseason only, the stakes are always incredibly high. The winning goal is a shocking moment that will never be forgotten by any player or fan, win or lose.
Integrity – 10
Exactly the same game is played in overtime as is played in regulation. The same goalies, the same skaters, the same rules.
Fairness – 9
This score is not perfect because hockey can by, by its nature, a little bit arbitrary. One fluky bounce can end a game and a season.
And Michigan got jobbed in Fort Wayne.
Total score: 29 out of 30
Playoff overtime hockey is one of the crown jewels of all of sport. Thrilling and terrifying from the faceoff to winning goal. Even the unknown element of game length is a real positive, and the occasional game that descends into three or more overtimes is an epic journey. It simply does not get better.
Excitement – 7
Not bad. All home team wins are walk-offs. Each at-bat brings, with a home run, the possibility of a game-changing or game-ending moment, and in any event every pitch is charged with meaning and danger. The games can be short or they can be amazingly long. But the natural ebb and flow of baseball results in down time, pitching changes, and frequent empty innings that can be boring to watch, limiting the format from a higher score.
Integrity – 10
Baseball plays by the same rules and wins games in the same way in extra innings. Every rule and every strategy is the same.
Fairness – 7
Each team gets an equal opportunity to win in each inning. However, baseball fails to attain a perfect score because of the sport’s reliance on pitching, and the fact that baseball teams are built, with starters and relievers, to win games in nine innings. Games that go beyond 10 or 11 innings often turn on at-bats pitched by guys from the back of the bullpen, or even position players. Additionally, substitutions often result in lineups that bear little resemblance to the ones that started the game.
Total score: 24 out of 30
Sensible, simple, and efficient: Baseball’s use of extra innings has stood the test of time. It offers a fair test for each team, it can end on a single swing, and it can last for deliciously unpredictable lengths of time. Overall, an excellent way to break ties.
1. Postseason hockey, 29
2. College Football, 25
3. Baseball, 24
4. Basketball, 23
5. Current NFL, 19
6. Old NFL, 15
7. Hockey regular season/Olympics, 10
8. Soccer, 8
At last, numerical verification of what sports fans already know:
Hockey playoff overtime is great. Soccer penalties stink. Overtime is fun.