A Comprehensive Ranking of Overtime Formats in Major Team Sports

Submitted by stephenrjking on March 5th, 2019 at 3:50 AM

You are on the edge of your seat. The clock dwindles toward zero. The game is on the line.

Every play

Every pitch

Every shot

Every moment

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:

“Overtime”

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.

Football

NFL

Old system:

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.

New system

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.

College football

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. 

Basketball

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.

Soccer

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. 

Hockey

Regular Season / Olympic Medal Round

Shootout following various versions of a short overtime.

Excitement-7 
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
Meh. 

Postseason

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.

Baseball

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.

Ranking:

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. 

Comments

xtramelanin

March 5th, 2019 at 5:52 AM ^

1 Insomnia 1:1-5   And there came a king, SRJKing, who could not sleep but instead pondered his kingdom during the night and the games they played in the arena.  he devised a system where he would grade the efforts of his subjects and see who was worthy of extra time in their endeavors.  his fairness was touted in all the nations and no one could dispute his findings:  that hockey and football overtimes were thrillers and that soccer, held in contempt by a fair percentage of his kingdom, had the lamest of overtime procedures.  and the king's system was hailed by the people as right and true, and the people celebrated and the king was finally able to get some sleep.

 

grumbler

March 6th, 2019 at 10:40 AM ^

No, it's the one thst starts "And Saint Attila raised the hand grenade up on high, saying, "O Lord, bless this Thy hand grenade that with it Thou mayest blow Thine enemies to tiny bits, in Thy mercy." And the Lord did grin and the people did feast upon the lambs and sloths and carp and anchovies and orangutans and breakfast cereals..."

Harbaugh's Lef…

March 5th, 2019 at 9:06 AM ^

Overtime postseason hockey has caused me to yell out in joy in my apartment, waking all of my neighbors up at 1am and it has also caused me to launch a full beer, can of course, at the ground in front of me in a packed bar... god, overtime postseason hockey really is the best!

smwilliams

March 5th, 2019 at 4:37 PM ^

I will always remember watching the Hawks going to Game 7 against the Kings. The game goes to OT. Back and forth for 10 straight minutes without a stoppage, every shot carrying the potential for pure joy or crippling depression. And, then, an innocuous slapper from the blue line caroms off a defender's shoulder into the back of the net. Kings celebrate. I sit on my couch wondering how a sport can be so cruel.

It is the most terror-inducing experience you can have as a sports fan. 

 

viachicago

March 5th, 2019 at 5:49 PM ^

The 10 minutes without a stoppage was in the first OT of Game 5. The Hawks won in 2OT.  I believe Q called that the best OT playoff hockey he had seen.  It certainly was the best (and as you said, most terrifying) playoff OT I've seen.  I watched it on my phone in a hotel in Ireland at 4am. 

theintegral

March 5th, 2019 at 10:21 AM ^

This was fun.  The categories are well thought out.

I am always angered by shootouts and (3 on 3)s.  Did you consider weighting the 3 variables?  Obviously, I am an integrity, fairness supporter.  Hate too much anxiety and thrill.

Thanks.

teamteamteam

March 5th, 2019 at 10:43 AM ^

Like the idea.  Not really fair to judge soccer solely on penalties though.  They do play an extra 30 minutes (which is an extra 1/3 of a game) before resorting to that.

iforaneye

March 5th, 2019 at 11:21 AM ^

I have a problem with him suggesting that penalty kicks bear no resemblance to the rest of the sport when they are, in fact, an actual part of the game. They can happen in regular time. They aren't just some made up thing only to be used in the event of a tie.

Also saying so unequivocally that saves are solely the result of luck and guesswork. GK's train for penalties. They scout penalty takers just like every other player in every other sport scouts their opponents.

stephenrjking

March 5th, 2019 at 11:52 AM ^

In World Cup play, 60% of matches that go to extra time progress to penalties. Extra time is, in this case, simply extra time; it is not often decisive, and is not sudden death. I think it’s the right format, but it is not soccer’s ultimate tie-breaker. 

Regarding iforeneye, it’s true that penalties take place in the game; in fact, the ease with which they are made (70% in World Cup penalty shootouts) means that the awarding of one is invariably pivotal and controversial. However, its inclusion as an element of a sport does not make it a fair test. Soccer is not called “the beautiful game” without reason, but none of that beauty is present in penalties. It is like breaking a tie in baseball with a home run derby, or a football game with field goals, or basketball with a game of HORSE. 

It should not be seen as a reflection upon the entire sport; it just happens that soccer’s low-scoring nature makes draws more probable, and resolving those draws is a challenge on a television schedule. 

J.

March 5th, 2019 at 12:30 PM ^

Golden goal is a much better format than simple extra time. I don't really know why they dropped it.

The key to figuring out when sudden-death makes sense is the percentage of possessions that result in points.  The older NFL rule was terrible because it's relatively easy to score; nobody has ever suggested sudden-death basketball for obvious reasons. :) Overtime playoff hockey is the best because goals do eventually happen, but not so frequently that there's a huge advantage to winning the opening face-off.  The same format would work in soccer, except that fatigue would be an even bigger problem than it is in hockey.

The Maizer

March 6th, 2019 at 3:10 PM ^

Sudden death OT in basketball would be so intense, if very brief. Maybe you could have a kind of "win by five" rule where whichever team gets up by 5 or more wins instantly. That would be close to a sudden death feel and would also eliminate the incentive to foul to stop the clock for the team that was behind.

Sleepy

March 5th, 2019 at 11:42 AM ^

Any ranking system that has college football's (absolutely awful) overtime ranked above anything other than soccer PK's is busted.

Then again, I'm of the mind that no regular season games in any sport should have overtime, so what do I know.

sirnack

March 5th, 2019 at 5:59 PM ^

I think you overrate the fairness of college football overtime. The team that wins the toss wins the game at about the same rate as they do in the NFL.

markh100

March 5th, 2019 at 10:29 PM ^

Severely underrating the 5 minutes of 3-on-3 overtime they've added to the NHL.  I wish they'd can the shootout, and just go 3-on-3 until someone scores (or re-institute ties).  There's no way it would last more than about 10 minutes.

Eberwhite82

March 7th, 2019 at 10:44 AM ^

I don't disagree that PKs are absolutely the worst of all the sports, HOWEVAH...

As a guy that played goalie at a pretty high level and coached the position, as well, you are drastically devaluing the role a seasoned netminder can play in that situation. The angle of approach, the type of player (finesse vs. power), his/her tendencies, and at the highest levels scouting reports all play a factor in increasing save percentages. 

It's VERY similar to your description of a hockey shootout. The coach picks the shooters who have proven over time that they can deal with the pressure and have the ability to put the ball in the back of the net. As mentioned up thread, this is something that they train for, it's not just some random skill test they drop at the end of a tied game.

It's not a coin flip. Guys have to step up to the spot and convert. Goalies have an opportunity to shade to one side or the other, and to flinch and flex and jump around in an effort to get in the kicker's head. The crowd is going nuts, the pressure is unbearable. 

And if you've ever had a rooting interest in a team going through PKs, to put the excitement score anywhere under 10 is pretty ridiculous. (Though, pants shitting anxiety is probably a more accurate descriptor.)

snowcrash

March 8th, 2019 at 5:17 PM ^

I hate to see any game go to penalty kicks, but I don't know what the solution is. Maybe sudden death but with bigger active rosters (say, 25 players for a game that would potentially go to overtime) and more substitutions after regulation is over could work, but some games would still go really long.

Another suggestion I found interesting would be to do penalty kicks right after the end of regulation, then play 30 minutes of sudden death. If neither team scores, the shootout winner wins the game. At least that way the team that won the shootout would need to play actual soccer to then win the game.

Reggie Dunlop

March 7th, 2019 at 11:14 AM ^

Well done. Unexpectedly entertaining. I don't have much to disagree with. Unlimited sudden-death playoff overtime hockey is pure terror and unrivaled. Some random thoughts:

I will always beat the drum that regular season hockey overtime needs to go back to simple 5v5 for 5:00 minutes and then a tie. I will never understand what the American sporting public has against a tie. The teams just played for 65 minutes and the score is even. Why do we have to manufacture a winner? The teams were even. Call it even! 

Using your method, I'd re-rank the old 5-minute 5v5 with ties as such:

Excitement - 3

It's just regular hockey + sudden death. I'll deduct a couple of points because even I will admit that a tie is anticlimactic.

Integrity - 8

Regular hockey rules - true to the game. The only integrity issue is that teams used to go conservative and mail in the last minute or so of OT as not to screw up and give away the 1 point for a tie.

Fairness - 10

The game's outcome is the outcome. There is no 3v3 bastardizing of the game to artificially find a desirable result.

I give it a 21 out of 30, compared to the current circus you've got at 10.  But at least there are no ties! The 3v3 stuff is like crack. It's intense and wild and brief (is crack brief?). But I can't remember the last time I saw a regulation 3v3 occur. It's a completely different sport. So is the shootout. Just go back to the old way. If you don't like ties, don't watch a low-scoring sport. And we get the bonus of not having to gnash our teeth over the current NHL points system which is mind-numbingly stupid.

The prosecution rests.

Good post.

Hab

March 14th, 2019 at 9:11 AM ^

I agree that the old 5v5 for five minutes in the regular season is preferable.  I would propose to tweak it, however, by awarding the team that scores in OT an additional point so that both teams don't just close down shop (which was the norm). 

All that does for me is add 1 point to excitement though, so not much of a difference.

Trebor

March 14th, 2019 at 6:14 PM ^

I'd actually prefer to see the NHL go to a totally revamped point structure:

5 points for a win in regulation or during a 5v5 OT, 4 for a win during a 4v4/3v3 OT, 3 for a shootout win, and then 2-1-0 for losers. That will tend to heavily incentivize trying to win earlier to maximize your points, and it keeps the point value of each game equal. I think the shootout is cool for new/casual fans, but I'd like to see the teams actually try to score during the course of normal (or close to it, in the case of the 4v4/3v3 OTs) play.

Late Bluemer

March 8th, 2019 at 6:14 PM ^

It's been said that the inability to deal with ties is a shortcoming in America's character.  I actually prefer the way that European soccer leagues approach it - you have to earn a victory in regulation and there are consequences for failing to do so.  Even if competitions like the FA cup they replay ties instead of resorting to penalty kicks.  There are plenty of cases in CFB where teams have played like crap and wound up lucking out in OT to salvage a win.  I'd rather see those teams fall by the wayside being dragged down by ties.

Of all the sports' OT rules, I probably dislike college football's the most.  Special teams are a huge part of football and to award teams the ball in scoring position doesn't make sense.  I also find it ridiculous when a tight defensive game that is at something like 17-17 after regulation can end up at something like 50-44.

Baseball's is probably the best from a logic perspective, except that it drags out an already long game even longer.

Carcajou

March 9th, 2019 at 11:19 PM ^

Post-season baseball extra innings suck if you are the away team. If you can't score in your half, all you can hope for in the next fifteen minutes is not to lose.

BuckeyeChuck

March 10th, 2019 at 9:53 PM ^

Am I too late to chime in?

...overtime playoff hockey is THE BOMB!!!

I don't think I've ever had to urinate as frequently because of nerves as I did when the Wings were scoreless in double OT Game 7 vs the Blues in 1996 until the Captain finally put one past (I think?) Fuhr.

Hab

March 14th, 2019 at 9:06 AM ^

Enjoyable read.  Thank you for putting it together.  I agree that nothing is better than playoff hockey overtime--in particular, Game 7, overtime hockey.  The only potential downside is when it is early in the series and you've got a marathon game going, it's 2 am, and you need to be up in 3 hours to go to work.  

As for soccer, I think the real problem is the ease with which less talented teams can adjust their approach so that they can get to penalties.  As long as they deny the other team a goal, they can get five free shots to win it.  This is mostly because soccer lacks what hockey has--speed in [a small] space.