Bracket Boasts and Upset Heartbreaks Shift Online in the Pandemic

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For fans who would not typically attend games sprawled across the country in person, there is a welcome sense of community in once again coordinating over text, Facebook and video calls from afar.

“It’s definitely hard to not be able to put a piece of paper in front of somebody and say, ‘Hey, we’re doing this office pool, it will only take five minutes to fill out,’” Kolby KickingWoman, 29, a reporter and producer based in Pittsburgh, said in an interview on Thursday. Despite the lack of proximity, KickingWoman has encouraged co-workers to fill out online brackets. While he would normally get together to watch games with friends and family, his screens will have to do this year, another pandemic adaptation.

“We can pull up a game on two different laptops, check the score of another on your phone, make your own kind of ‘basketball overload,’ if you will,” he said. “It’s just that camaraderie of hanging out and watching sports.”

For others, that the tournaments are even happening is a sign of normalcy peeking its head around the corner. Miguel Pineda, 25, recalled the cancellation of the events last year as the first big signal that even reliable activities could not be taken for granted. He started a new job in the fall and has never met his co-workers in person, he said; he is hoping to make a good impression with his bracket.

The pandemic has definitely affected his choices.

“People are just a little bit like more risk-averse, and so they’ll probably choose a one or two or three seed, as opposed to an upset,” Pineda said. Considering his own bracket, he added, “Maybe I have gotten a little bit more cautious about my selections following this year.”

Ted Falkenhayn, 22, a senior at the University of Chicago, said he devised his own predictability model in the span of 24 hours to help determine his bracket. His model is based on up to 20 different data points, including a factor to measure the chance of upsets, historical statistics and big momentum plays. His prediction? The tournament will come down to two top seeds, Illinois and Gonzaga.

He is not betting on those odds, he said. But it was a good way to put off final exams.

“After the first few games, it feels like March,” he said Friday morning.

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