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It's officially March, which comes with the beginning of Spring, daylight savings time, and my personal favorite part, the NCAA's March Madness basketball tournament. And this year, I'm back to defend my 2021 friend group bracket championship title. While I'm not an official bracketologist (yet), my competitive selection history dates back farther than just 2021 -- since I was little I've religiously followed my favorite teams and predicted how they would fare each round. Only then, I had to fill out my picks on a sheet of paper and keep tabs on it for the entirety of the tournament – and those brackets either were my most coveted possession or long gone within 24 hours of their creation.
Also: How to watch March Madness 2023: Your streaming options compared
Luckily, brackets have moved from paper to online apps, optimizing bracket-tracking and pooling. Aside from facilitating bracket activity, there is a slew of apps that make it easy to keep track of all things March madness from news, analysis, and radio shows, to live streaming and personalized daily results.
NCAA's official March Madness app, ESPN Tournament Challenge, and the CBS Sports app are the three free powerhouses associated with covering the tournament. If you, like me, are anxious to fill out your bracket before the tournament officially starts, here are the top apps. I break down their features, pros and cons, and which one best fits how you participate in the madness.
As you might expect, the host organization for the entire March Madness production, the NCAA has an app solely dedicated to the tournament. Fittingly, it goes all out. The app's entire UX is an all-encompassing March madness experience from the ability to watch live games, highlight reels, and read relevant articles. The home screen has a more comprehensive view and each tab highlights how you can further your viewing, bracket, or analysis process.
The NCAA app also grants the ability to live stream games, which has come in handy when I'm traveling or running an errand but don't want to miss a game. That streaming also extends to Apple TV.
Also: The best sports streaming services and the different packages they offer
It's also easy to fill and send out a bracket, just make sure that your picks are in by Sunday, March 16th. And while I find the user interface to be crowded at some points, I do like that I can see my bracket picks directly from the Home Tab. I also receive personalized bracket alerts, which can either make or break my day. Speaking of morale boosters, you can also see how your bracket fares against certain celebrities, and not to once again bring up my victory, but in 2021 I may or may not have also beat my fellow Wake Forest alum, Matt James. There's also no limit to how many people can join your bracket pool, but just note that like many bracket apps, there's a 25-per-person bracket limit.
While I've had some buffering issues with the app over the past few days, I hope it returns to its reliable operation speed in time for the first game on March 14th.
Out of all the March Madness apps, I'm the most familiar with ESPN. My friends and I find the user interface to be the most navigable and user-friendly, with each tab being intentionally organized, and the updated game scores being broken down by tournament rounds. I also find that ESPN's featured articles and videos that cover and analyze the tournament made me feel like I was part of a March madness conversation and community that wasn't all about my bracket. The app also offers great insight into teams and their opponents, which is helpful when it comes to watching and crafting your bracket -- especially if you're just starting to get into basketball.
Also: Host your own fantasy football league: 5 apps that make it easy
Speaking of brackets, I find that ESPN's autofill option makes it easy for beginners to easily set up a bracket, gain insight into the general placement of teams, and therefore quickly become invested. ESPN has three different autofill bracket options: chalk, random, and smart bracket.
Chalk takes the higher seed and doesn't account for upsets, a staple of the March Madness fun while the random option is a 50/50 coin toss before every game, which I personally would stray from. Smart Bracket, powered by ESPN's Basketball Power Index(BPI), breaks down the games and generates a bracket for you. As I mentioned, upsets are integral to March Madness and part of the fun, so don't count on Smart Bracket to win you the whole tournament, but it is a good way to get a feel for the playing field game-by-game.
And if you want to increase the odds of taking home a share of the $75,000 prize pool, you can create up to 25 brackets.
The CBS Sports app for March Madness reminds me of when you have to use the filter feature to shop online: There are so many options available that you have to narrow your focus to find what you want. So, while CBS Sports takes a more comprehensive approach, integrating all sports, not just dedicating itself to March Madness activities, it's customizable.
Before filtering the UX can seem a bit clunky, but the set-up process makes it easy to select presets and follow your favorite teams closely, while still benefiting from CBS' 24/7 news cycle about the tournament. Being very type A, I also appreciate that the top menu features a day-by-day schedule, with the ability to look forward and plan accordingly from the minute you log on.
I've primarily used this app when I'm invited to participate in someone's bracket pool, and it's always gone off without any hiccups. Like ESPN's Tournament Challenge app, there are also options to autofill the bracket via user favorite settings, historical fandom percentages, expert picks, or a SportsLine-generated bracket for subscribers.
The CBS partnership with Caesars Sportsbook also grants easy access to bet on games -- responsibly, healthily, and all in good fun, of course. The betting tab shows you the odds and offers articles that can help you in making a more financially reasoned decision.
After years of following the NCAA March Madness tournament myself and consulting with some fellow basketball fanatics, everyone seems to agree that the NCAA March Madness app, ESPN's Tournament Challenge, and CBS Sports all have great apps with built-in bracket challenges.
I'm the most familiar with ESPN's app, but NCAA has the most comprehensive app for news and insights, schedules, live streaming, and of course, a bracket challenge that even lets you see how you fare against your favorite celebs.
March Madness app
Streaming in app
NCAA March Madness Live
Yes; 25 per person limit
iOS and Android
ESPN Tournament Challenge
Yes; 25 per person limit
iOS and Android
Yes; 10 per person limit
iOS and Android
I won't pretend that I'm a sports fanatic, but there is a tradition behind March Madness, especially filling out brackets that I love. Growing up, I filled out a bracket with old-fashioned pencil and paper, which usually resulted in me losing my picks -- quickly followed by my interest in the tournament entirely. Needless to say, when brackets made the switch to an online forum, I was an early adopter.
My cousin introduced me to the ESPN Tournament Challenge first when he sent our family a bracket invite. Still a college basketball novice, I liked using the app not only as a bracket generator but as a resource.
As my love for March Madness has deepened I've since used both CBS Sports and the NCAA app as well. The NCAA app has always been solid for live streaming and I hooked it up to my AppleTV last year just in time to see UNC's historic 2022 win over Duke. The CBS app has been my friend group's dedicated bracket pool platform for the past two years now, and offers a collaborative platform. I also like that even though I have to sign up with my email to make an account, all of these apps are free to use.
Tuesday, March 14, 2023, at 6 p.m. ET is when the first official game kicks off. However, make sure you don't miss "Selection Sunday" on Sunday, March 12 at 6 p.m. ET to see the designated lineup.
Believe it or not, bracketology is a thing. And every year, seasoned bracketologists use their experience, industry knowledge, and stats to predict the tournament's outcome. If you're wanting some of their insight, hoping to perfect your own bracket, here are some notable NCAA bracketologists to follow: Joe Lunardi, Gary Parrish, and Shawn Siegel.
When filling out an NCAA bracket, you are predicting which college basketball team will victor against the other for a total of 63 games. Since there are so many games, it's nearly impossible to curate a perfect bracket, despite how much research you do -- but that's all part of the fun. Therefore, you don't "lose" if you falter on the outcome of a few games, rather you get a certain amount of points based on your accuracy. The points weigh more heavily as the tournament moves into the Sweet 16, Elite 8, Final 4, and of course, the final game.
While these three apps are the most comprehensive apps for March Madness, there's an app that historians of the tournament are sure to love.
If you want a tool to help you curate an impressive bracket, Bracket Master has 80+ championship brackets available and ready for you to examine. If you think history repeats itself, this is a great resource to base your bracket on.