Five Lessons March Madness Teaches Us About Gamification


March Madness is aptly named, with fans spending an estimated 664 million hours watching the tournament a year. This national dedication (or obsession) with March Madness is fierce. According to the American Gaming Association, 70 million March Madness brackets are filled out a year and an estimated $9 billion is expected to be bet on the tournament. The tournament is so absorbing that it costs employers around $1.9 billion in losses due to employees who are “distracted and unproductive.”

Where does this mass hysteria over the NCAA come from? Its not just about a widespread love of basketball. Its popularity is the result of the tournament’s unique structure and gamified elements that make it highly addictive to watch and wager on. Employers hoping to inspire similar passion and commitment in their own employees can learn a few lessons from March Madness.

Lesson 1: Competition Inspires Action 

People around the world are now scrambling to fill out their brackets and agonizing over their picks in order to perfectly predict the progression of the tournament. While this may seem to require a complicated, multilayered analysis of predictions and statistics, more than half the bracketeers don’t even watch basketball. For every viewer who has watched every game and charted every point differential, there is another who has chosen their teams based on their home court, how cool their name is, or the color of their jersey. So why do they fill out their bracket? Because March Madness is surrounded by an air of competition that drives action in its audience.

The same concept can be applied to gamification in the workplace. People are competitive by nature. In the business world, ambition drives employees to excel, grow, and seek commendation in order to advance in their career. However, it can also be easy for employees to lose that drive if there are not clear milestones to hit or frequent opportunities for promotion. Gamification is a powerful tool for keeping the fires of ambition alive. Leaders can cultivate an environment of friendly competition by setting attainable goals, whether they are sales targets or contests for great new ideas, and offering prizes for achieving them. This will give employees an extra boost of motivation that will also boost engagement. Competition fuels ambition, which inspires action over the short and the long term. 

Lesson 2: Don’t Rush It, Anticipation is your Ally

Engagement is a process and the first step in that process is anticipation. March Madness takes place over the course of a month, but the lead-up to that climactic tournament unfolds in collegiate games that happen throughout the year. How these teams perform in the lead-up to the Madness determines which teams receive bids and where these teams will be seeded. This format allows plenty of time for anticipation to build up, and this sends excitement and thus engagement in the tournament soaring. 

This example teaches us that the preparation and preliminary elements of gamification are just as important as the competition itself. For the best results, gamification efforts in the workplace should unfold in specific events or through a series with a specific endpoint and winner. As one challenge ends, another begins. This strategy causes each new winner to serve as motivation for other employees, who then push themselves harder. Just as an athlete will ramp up their training in anticipation of their next big game, so will your employees ramp up their performance in anticipation of the impending contest.

Lesson 3: Losing Isn’t Really Losing (unless you’re the basketball team)

Image via Shutterstock

In March Madness, missing a prediction breaks your bracket and puts you out of the running. However, interest in the tournament does not stop there. At this point, an interesting transition takes place in the mind of the viewer. While their personal stake in March Madness has ended, those of their friends and fellow competitors has not, and so they transfer the engagement previously directed at their own bracket outwards into their community. Competition is addicting. Viewers do not want to lose that sensation and community keeps the competition alive. 

The same principle applies to gamification. A workforce is both a community and made up of mini-communities. Organizations can ensure their employees remain engaged throughout the gamification period by instituting competition across the organization. Challenges can be for individuals or for teams, either intra or inter-departmental. This creates a sense of collective excitement and gives employees an opportunity to transfer their competitive stake and remain engaged, even when they get knocked out of the running. 

Lesson 4: Competition Compounds Community

As explored above, “mini-communities” are a key part of ensuring ongoing engagement in the competition. In addition, engagement in the competition compounds community, for fantasy sports leagues and actual athletic teams alike. Humans naturally crave communities in which to engage and grow, and March Madness often serves as a powerful bonding experience. Groups come together to drink, watch games, and discuss what happens. The competition creates an opportunity for the relationships between individual competitors to evolve and deepen. 

Gamification can serve the same purpose. Competitions present an opportunity for people to get to know each other better and in new contexts. Together, they are motivated to succeed and drive organizational goals. New relationships will be born as a result. These relationships will translate into a more cohesive shared vision, as well as improved collaboration skills and teamwork. Regardless of what happens during the competition itself, those bonds forged in the process will remain and deepen. Every step in the gamification cycle tightens the bond between employees and creates a stronger, more unified workforce. 

Lesson 5: Bonus, Your Customer Experience is Interactive

One major reason why March Madness is so popular is that it is interactive. Viewers do not passively observe what happens, but interact with what is happening in the tournament via their brackets. Interactivity compounds the engagement of the viewers and draws new viewers in. They become part of the action and have a measurable stake in the outcome, which is why March Madness has emerged as such an explosive phenomenon.

Now, let’s take this back to your workforce. Employees are already motivated by the fact that their performance affects their role within the organization, as well as by the intrinsic desire to do well. Employers can fuel these motivations by creating interactive opportunities that spike employees drive to participate. These short bursts of motivation will elevate the level of motivation overall.

Just as employers wonder how to make their customers happy and improve their customer experience, so too should they ask themselves how to make their employee’s experience better. There are many studies showing that happy employees are productive employees. Gamification makes the workplace environment more fun and allows employees to feel some of the thrill they feel during March Madness in their day-to-day efforts. This added engagement will trickle down throughout an organization and result in a greater customer experience down the line. In this case, everybody wins. 

About the Author: Mo Waja is Marketing Coordinator, SPLICE Software. 

Edited by Dominick Sorrentino

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