Dinos, Step Ladders, and the Big Four’s Seeding Problem

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Photo courtesy of ESPN.

The so-called “step ladder” bracket, utilized by the KBO.

Adam Pohl, Staff Writer

On Tuesday, November 24, the NC Dinos won their first Korean Series Title since playing their first game in 2013.

The Dinos are part of the KBO—the Korean Baseball Organization—which holds 10 teams that battle over a 144 game season before the five best enter the playoffs in the hunt for a championship.

All in all, the KBO looks very similar to America’s MLB, but had never really taken a hold on American audiences until this year for two simple reasons: 

  1. The MLB exists. Americans have had very little incentive to watch the KBO, which has a relatively smaller talent pool and is an ocean away, when Major League Baseball, which attracts the best from all over the world, exists in their backyard.
  2. Korea Standard Time is 14 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. This means that the KBO’s 3:00 and 7:30 PM start times translate to 1:00 and 5:30 AM start times for audiences here on the east coast.

But, as it has with many things, the COVID-19 pandemic brought changes to American viewership of the KBO, as baseball-starved fans turned to the Korean league to scratch their sports itch while the MLB’s labor disputes stretched through the summer.

And so, in early November when the KBO’s postseason began, many Americans were introduced to a wild new playoff format.

The postseason begins with a wild card series, as with many other sports, but even this round looks a bit different. The 4 and 5 seeds play a best-of-3 to decide who will move on to the quarterfinal round, called the semi-playoff. However, the 4 seed starts with a 1-0 advantage in the series, only having to win one game to move on, with the 5 seed needing back-to-back victories. Then, the wild card winner plays another best-of-3 series versus the 3 seed. The winner of this round will move to the best-of-5 semifinal round, and so on, until the final best-of-7 series to decide the Korean Series winner.

This format might be best described as a “step ladder.” The lower seeded teams need to win multiple series as they take steps toward the championship. 

I’ll admit, this bracket seemed a bit crazy at first. But after thinking about its implications, I’ve come to love it. It has one purpose, which is to put more weight on the regular season, and it does this task exceptionally. Simply making the playoffs isn’t enough. To have the best chance of victory, teams need to be the very best not only in November but throughout the regular season’s 144 game grind.

Mathematically, discounting factors such as rest days, the 1 seed has a 50% chance of a Korean Series win. The 2 seed has a 25% chance of victory. The 3 seed has a 12.5% chance, while the 4 seed has an approximately 8.33% chance and the 5 seed only a 4.17% chance of winning the Korean Series.

To me, this actually seems about right. It grants a well earned advantage to the best teams, without guaranteeing their victory, and leaves the possibility for a lower-seeded team to beat the odds and make a “Cinderella” run–a phrase often used to describe a team that outperforms its expectations in the NCAA’s March Madness tournament.

And I think it’s appropriate that the best teams should be rewarded with higher placement in the postseason, which is something that American Sports claim to do but doesn’t really work in practice. At best, in the seeding system utilized by America’s Big Four sports leagues, the number one seed will have the advantage of playing a slightly worse team. That’s it. And with the amount of luck and variance involved in sports, this seeding advantage doesn’t have a great opportunity to show itself in a short series or even a single game in the case of the NFL.

But really, beyond affecting the outcome of the Championship itself, the step ladder bracket has a huge effect on the regular season that might not be immediately apparent to viewers, in that it suddenly adds stakes to the outcome of every regular-season game, leading to more exciting and suspenseful moments for fans.

This isn’t something that every league necessarily needs help with. The NFL’s season is already so short that each game already holds massive weight. But there is one league that immediately comes to mind as having the problem of a regular season that just doesn’t matter: the NBA.

More than half of the teams in the National Basketball Association make the playoffs. It’s hard to even foresee a situation in which a good team would miss out on the playoffs, barring something like a devastating injury. Any given one of the NBA’s 82 regular-season games, especially towards the end of the season in March and April, has little to no stakes. And this leads to the widespread practice of NBA teams benching their star players to keep them rested for the playoffs and minimize their chances of getting injured. This tactic makes sense, considering the current playoff format–but it’s not exciting to watch as a fan.

Do I think that the NBA might soon try something like the step ladder bracket to help alleviate this problem? Absolutely not. Most sports fans hate change, and Americans even more so. Even the smallest rule changes, like Major League Baseball’s introduction of the 3-batter minimum for pitchers prior to the 2020 season, are surrounded by controversy and thoroughly scrutinized. 

That said, I think that the step ladder adds a dynamic to sports that makes each game more enjoyable. And we won’t know for sure until we try it.