Like most people, I've been checking my brackets. I don't mean my NCAA tournament brackets; the teams I had penciled into the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, such as Duke, Missouri and UNLV, fell so early that I took a moment of silence to mourn the demise of my chances of winning the office pool. Those brackets are now lying in state, deader than the crowd at an NIT game. May they rest in peace.
No, I'm referring to my favorite brackets, the ones that hold my interest long after my Final Four picks have been eliminated. I'm following the Movie Quoter tournament on Facebook, where "Make My Day" is headed for a showdown with "May the Force Be with You" that could rival Duke-Kentucky in 1992. I'm also tracking the Ultimate Southern Food bracket in Garden & Gun magazine—whose target demographic must be readers with green thumbs and itchy trigger fingers—where I'm picking Pulled Pork to emerge from a weak Barbecue region and reach the Final Four. I am also religiously following lentmadness.org's bracket to determine which saint deserves the Golden Halo. (In their highly anticipated Saintly Sixteen meeting, Joan of Arc couldn't put much heat on Mary Magdalene.)
Maybe you still have enough teams alive in the real tournament to keep track of your NCAA brackets, in which case please shut up about it. Me? I'm obsessed with the virtual tournaments that go on all over the country, all year long. Bracketology is everywhere. I regularly check the bracket that's set up on vulture.com to determine the best TV drama of the past 25 years; the first-round matchup between Breaking Bad and Friday Night Lights was an instant classic. I'm keeping tabs on the voting in huffingtonpost.com's Most Shocking Celebrity Splits bracket (Brad and Jen are in a stacked region with Angelina and Billy Bob) and thevictoryformation.com's top cartoon character tourney (Mickey Mouse is the favorite, but if you're looking for a dark horse, Superman is a dangerous ninth seed). I'm examining the results of brackets past, such as the 2010 Cake versus Pie tournament run by jezebel.com. (Cheesecake was a worthy champion, but the selection committee really screwed lemon meringue pie, which deserved far better than a 13th seed.)
Any issue, question or debate, no matter how serious or frivolous, has been or probably soon will be bracketized and played out until a champion emerges. Some of them, such as that battle of the saints, are decided by public vote. Others, like the TV drama competition, are judged by the bracketmakers themselves. But they all follow the essential NCAA tournament format: matching up pairs of contestants and winnowing the field down until a champion emerges.
Maybe that's the secret of March Madness. Could it be that the real draw is not so much the hoops as the system? There is something appealingly neat and orderly about breaking down a big question into a series of little ones, like eliminating suspects on the way to solving a mystery. There is also a reassuring certainty to a bracket; a debate can go on forever, but feed it into that familiar honeycomb-like format, and though you still may not agree on who's right, at least there will be no question about who won. "People are competitive by nature, and they also like to have their opinions out there, and brackets enable them to do that," says Craig Zingerline, 34, who with his partner Patrick Mahoney founded bracketeers.com, a site that enables users to create their own brackets on any subject. "It's a low-profile way to weigh in on whatever you're interested in or passionate about."
The partners developed Bracketeers three years ago. "We saw the craze around March Madness and how people seemed to be drawn to the whole bracket system," says Zingerline. "We thought there might be an opportunity to bring that into focus in areas other than basketball." One virtual tournament on Bracketeers, to determine the best deli sandwich in Indiana, drew nearly 100,000 votes from the public. A current bracket for best Radiohead song has more than 10,000 votes. If you build a bracket, they will come.
The most common nonsports brackets seem to focus on rating the attractiveness of women, from female sideline reporters to supermodels to actresses. (After all, it was Mark Zuckerberg's Facemash, which encouraged voting on photos of Harvard women, that led to Facebook.) I try to avoid looking at brackets that objectify women, although if I noticed that sort of thing, I would point out, you know, that one site failed to make Halle Berry a No. 1 seed, a travesty of the highest order.
But brackets are meant to settle arguments, not start them, and most are far more predictable than the one that started it all. After 15th-seed Norfolk State upset second-seeded Missouri last week, Spartans center Kyle O'Quinn joked that his team's win had even busted his own bracket. O'Quinn's performance against Mizzou had already linked him with other previously unknown players who had become sudden tournament stars, including West Virginia's Kevin Pittsnogle and Northern Iowa's Ali Farokhmanesh. Which of them, you wonder, should be considered the biggest surprise hero in tournament history?
Just a minute. Let me draw up a bracket.