Sudden death (sport)

For the actual death of players in sport, see Sudden death of athletes.

In a sport or game, sudden death (also sudden-death overtime or a sudden-death round) is a form of competition where play ends as soon as one competitor is ahead of the others, with that competitor becoming the winner. Sudden death is typically used as a tiebreaker when a contest is tied at the end of the normal playing time or the completion of the normal playing task.

An alternative tiebreaker method is to play a reduced version of the original; for example, in association football 30 minutes of extra time (overtime) after 90 minutes of normal time, or in golf one playoff round (18 holes) after four standard rounds (72 holes). Sudden-death playoffs typically end more quickly than these reduced replays. Reducing the variability of the event's duration assists those scheduling television time and team travel. Fans may see sudden death as exciting and suspenseful, or they may view the format as insufficiently related to the sport played during regulation time; for example, prior to 2012, the National Football League (American football) rules, used to have a sudden-death rule for overtime play. In those situations, a team possessing the ball need only kick a field goal to end the game in their favor, negating the additional benefit that typically comes with scoring a touchdown.

Sudden death provides a victor for the contest without a specific amount of time being required. It may be called "next score wins" or similar, although in some games, the winner may result from penalization of the other competitor for a mistake. Sudden death may instead be called sudden victory to avoid the mention of death, particularly in sports with a high risk of physical injury. This variant became one of announcer Curt Gowdy's idiosyncrasies in 1971 when the AFC divisional championship game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins went into overtime.

North American professional sports using a sudden-death method of settling a tied game include the modified version now employed by the National Football League, the National Hockey League and, also in a modified sense, the PGA Tour (golf). Baseball uses a unique method of tie-breaking that incorporates elements of sudden death. In some goal-scoring games sudden-death extra time may be given in which the first goal scored wins; in association football it is called the golden goal. In baseball, a winning run scored by the home team in an extra inning is often referred to as a walk-off, as the players can immediately walk off the field.

Ice hockey

Sudden-death overtime has traditionally been used in playoff and championship games in hockey. It has been used in the National Hockey League throughout the league's history. The first NHL game with sudden-death overtime was game four of the 1919 Stanley Cup Finals. Currently, the NHL, American Hockey League, and ECHL also use the sudden-death system in their regular seasons, playing a five-minute overtime period when the score is tied at the end of regulation time.

In 2000, the AHL reduced the teams to four players each during the five-minute overtime. (But any two-man advantage is administered with five-on-three play rather than four-on-two.) The ECHL and NHL both changed to the four-on-four overtime format in 2001, with the International Olympic Committee following by no later than 2010. By 2015 the NHL went to the three-on-three format. In the SPHL, a class A minor league, the overtime is three-on-three, with the team that would be on the power play given a fourth, and a fifth attacker respectively instead, and any penalty in the final two minutes results in a penalty shot instead of a power play.

If neither team scores during this period, the teams use a penalty-shot shootout, consisting of three players in the NHL or five players in the minor leagues, to determine the winner. In the NHL, if no team wins this shootout, a 1-by-1, sudden-death shootout ensues. No player may shoot twice until every non-goaltender on the bench has taken a shot.

During championship playoffs, however, all games are played to a conclusion resulting in a victory for one team and a loss for the other. These are true sudden-death games, which have gone on into as many as six additional full 20-minute periods with five players, instead of the five-minute period with at least three players.

International hockey uses a penalty-shot shootout for gold/bronze medal games if neither team scores after one 20-minute, sudden-death overtime period. The shootout is decided in best-of-3 rounds, then round by round (in other words, if one team scores in the 4th round or beyond and the other does not, the game is over, unlike most professional leagues), and players can shoot as many times as the team desires (first three rounds are done in order, then reversely thereafter; may use new or same players). (There is a 5-minute overtime in round-robin games [10 minutes in elimination games], plus the above shootout procedure.)

American football

Sudden death has been perceived as a particularly poor fit for gridiron football because the process gives an inherent advantage to the team who gains possession of the ball: they can score and end the game immediately (even by driving a relatively short distance into field goal range and then kicking a field goal), but the team on defense cannot (other than through far rarer scoring strategies such as the pick-six or the safety) score immediately.

All organized forms of American football have abolished pure sudden death for overtime as of the 2011 season. Most levels of the game, including high school football and college football, never used it, instead either allowing ties to stand or using alternatives like the Kansas Playoff. The National Football League was an exception; the league used pure sudden death in its playoffs beginning in 1940 and in regular season matchups starting in 1974, finally modifying its process for playoffs in 2010 and then regular season games in 2011.

National Football League

Originally, all National Football League games tied at the end of regulation time ended as a tie. Late in the 1940 season, NFL President Carl Storck announced that sudden death periods would be authorized for any playoff game needed to decide either division title. It was emphasized that this did not apply to the final championship game, which would crown co-champions in the event of a tie.[1] Commissioner Elmer Layden approved a similar arrangement for the 1941 season, with the same limitation. In the years when it was within the rules, the NFL Championship Game never ended in a tie.

Sudden death overtime was finally approved for the NFL championship game in 1946[2] and remains in effect now.[3][4] The first playoff game requiring overtime was the 1958 NFL Championship Game.[5]

In 1974, the NFL adopted a 15-minute sudden-death overtime period for regular-season games. The game ended as a tie if neither team scores in overtime. When a team gets near the end zone, it typically tried to kick a field goal. An overtime game can also be won by scoring a touchdown (in such an event, the extra point is not attempted). This usually happened on a play that began with field position far enough away from the end zone to make a field goal difficult if not impossible, but it can also result from a team choosing not to attempt a field goal until reaching fourth down, even if the team enters an easy field goal range; this strategy only works if the team can maintain possession of the ball and does not fumble the ball away, throw an interception or lose enough yardage to back out of field goal range. Only thrice has an overtime game been won by a safety. In recent years, sportscasters have referred to such scoring plays as "walk-offs," as both teams can walk off the field after the play.

Since the 2010-11 playoffs, in the post-season each team was to get one possession to score in overtime, unless the team receiving the kickoff scored a touchdown or if the defensive team scored a touchdown or safety on the same possession. True sudden death rules applied if both teams have had their initial possession and the game remains tied. This rule did not actually come into use during the 2010 playoffs, with the first overtime game under the new rules not occurring until 2011, with the Denver Broncos scoring a long touchdown on their first play from scrimmage against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but nonetheless the rule was adopted for the start of the 2012 regular season shortly afterwards. It was adopted to counter the criticism that the outcome of overtime games was very frequently decided by the coin toss, as the team which won it usually attempted only enough offensive action to maneuver into field goal range and seldom made a real effort to score a touchdown. This means that the only remaining difference between regular season and post-season overtime rules is that in the post-season play will continue indefinitely for a team to score and win the game, whereas in the regular season games still tied after one full quarter of overtime will continue to be allowed to end in a tie.

For information on games that have taken a long time under sudden death, see Overtime.

Arena football

In arena football, each team is allowed one overtime possession in the first overtime, after which whoever is ahead is the winner. If the score is still tied, however, true sudden death rules apply thereafter. (A similar, modified sudden death format, with a 10-minute limit, was used in the NFL Europa League.) This rule was implemented in the 2007 season; prior to this, the league used extra time, a fixed seven and one-half minute extra period; if the game was still tied at this point, it was recorded as a tied game. This was later changed to a fifteen-minute maximum modified sudden death as above, but with a definite conclusion after one overtime period, again a tied game being recorded if the score was still equal. (Only one tied game was recorded under each of the two prior overtime rules.) Since the beginning of the 2007 season, all Arena football games, both regular season and playoff, have been played to a victorious conclusion. Any succeeding overtime periods are true sudden death periods.


In individual match play, players level after the regulation 18 or 36 holes will play extra holes in sudden death. In team tournaments, players may gain half a point each for a tie rather than play sudden death; this is the case in the Ryder Cup, for example. In the Presidents Cup, there was provision for a single-player sudden death shootout if the entire competition ended in a tie. When this came to pass in 2003, the tiebreak was unfinished at dusk. There was no provision for an extra day's play, and both team captains agreed to declare the match tied and share the trophy.[6]

Traditionally, professional stroke play golf tournaments ending in a tie were played off the next day with an eighteen-hole match. Modern considerations such as television coverage and the tight travel schedule of most leading golfers have led to this practice being almost entirely abandoned, and in all but the most important tournaments, the champion is determined by sudden death. All players tied after the completion of regulation play are taken to a predetermined hole, and then play it and others in order as needed. If at least two players are tied, player(s) who score higher on a hole than the other competitors is/are immediately eliminated, and those still tied continue play until one remaining player has a lower score for a hole than any of the others remaining, who is declared the winner.

Of the four men's major championships, only The Masters uses a sudden-death playoff format, first used in 1979. The U.S. Open still uses an 18-hole playoff at stroke play on the day after the main tournament, with sudden-death if two (or more) contestants remain tied after 18 holes. First used in 1989, The Open Championship uses a four-hole total-stroke playoff, while the PGA Championship uses a three-hole total-stroke playoff, first used in 2000. The PGA Championship introduced the sudden-death playoff to the majors in 1977[7] and used it seven times through 1996. Sudden death is used if a tie exists at the end of the scheduled playoff.

Baseball and softball

Baseball and softball are not true sudden-death sports, but they have one comparable situation.

Baseball and softball games cannot end until both teams have had an equal number of turns at bat, unless further play (by the home team if they lead after 8 12 innings) cannot affect the outcome. In the final scheduled inning (typically, in professional and advanced amateur leagues the ninth inning, but usually the seventh for youth leagues and softball, and the sixth for leagues for subteens such as Little League), if the visitors complete their turn at bat and still trail the hosts, the game ends. If the visitors lead or the game is tied, the hosts take their "last ups" at bat. If the hosts should exceed the visitors' score, the game ends at the conclusion of the play on which the hosts take this insurmountable lead. (If the final scheduled inning ends in a tie, multiple extra innings are played with the same implications as the final scheduled inning.)

The ability to bat last is an advantage of being the home team. It is said that "visitors must play to win; hosts need only play to tie" because tying forces an extra inning.

A tied game in the bottom of the final scheduled inning puts pressure on the visitors. For example, with a runner on third base and fewer than two outs, the visitors cannot afford even to get certain types of out that would let the game-ending run score after the out.

A scoring play that ends the game is called a walk-off, because after the runner scores the winning run everyone can walk off the field. A walk-off home run is an exception to the rule stated above; the game does not end when the winning run scores, but continues until the batter and all runners score (provided they run the bases correctly).


Basketball does not traditionally employ sudden death to decide games; it instead uses multiple five-minute overtime periods to determine the result of games tied after regulation play. The entire overtime is played; if the game remains tied, this procedure is repeated.

The NBA Summer League, a developmental summer league, employs sudden death basketball after the first overtime. The rules state The second overtime period (or any overtime period thereafter) is sudden death (first team to score a point wins). In the first sudden death professional basketball game, Devin Ebanks hit a game winner with 45 seconds elapsed for the D-League Select team, beating the summer league Atlanta Hawks.[8]

Another form of basketball does employ a sudden-death overtime. 3x3, a formalized version of the half-court three-on-three game, uses an untimed overtime period that ends by rule once either team has scored 2 points. In this form of the sport, shots taken from behind the "three-point" arc are worth 2 points and all other shots are worth 1 point.[9]

Association football

Main article: Golden goal

Sudden death has a controversial history in association football. Important matches were traditionally resolved by replaying the entire match, however in the era of television and tight travel schedules this is often impracticable. Replays are still used in some major competitions (like the FA Cup).

In many matches, if the score is tied after the full 90 minutes, a draw results; however, if one team must be eliminated, some form of tie-breaking must occur. Originally, two 15-minute halves of extra time were held and if the teams remained equal at the end of the halves, kicks from the penalty mark were held.

To try to decrease the chances of requiring kicks from the penalty mark, the IFAB, the world law making body of the sport, experimented with new rules. The golden goal rule transformed the overtime periods into sudden death until the periods were over, where shootouts would occur. As this became unpopular, the silver goal rule was instituted, causing the game to end if the scores were not equal after the first 15-minute period as well as the second. The silver goal has also fallen into disrepute so Euro 2004 was the last event to use it; after which the original tie-breaking methods were restored.

The main criticism of golden goal is the quickness of ending the game, and the pressure on coaches and players. Once a goal is scored, the game is over and the opponent cannot attempt to answer the goal within the remaining time. Therefore, teams would place more emphasis on not conceding a goal rather than scoring a goal, and many golden goal extra time periods remained scoreless.

In NCAA collegiate play in the United States, however, sudden death, adopted in 1999 for all championship play in addition to regular season play, remains. In 2005, the Division II Women's Championship game ended in sudden death as a goal was scored three minutes into the overtime to end the championship match. Sudden death is also prevalent in youth play, for the safety of players.

If the teams are still tied after the initial allocated number in a penalty shootout, the game goes to sudden-death penalties, where each team takes a further one penalty each, repeated until only one team scores, resulting in the winning of the game.

Rugby league

Drawn National Rugby League premiership and State of Origin series games are subject to sudden death extra time after 80 minutes of play, called the golden point. Golden point consists of two five-minute halves, with the teams swapping ends at the end of the first half.

Any score (try, penalty goal, or field goal) in golden point wins the game for the scoring team - no conversion is attempted if a try is the winning score.

In the NRL, the victor in golden point receives two competition points, the loser none. In the event that no further scoring occurs, the game is drawn, and each team receives one point each.

Rugby union

In the knockout stages of rugby competitions, most notably the Rugby World Cup, a match drawn after 80 minutes does not proceed immediately to sudden death conditions. Two 10-minute extra time periods are played first, if scores are level after 100 minutes then the rules call for a single sudden-death period of 10 minutes to be played.[10] If the sudden-death extra time period results in no scoring a kicking competition is used to determine the winner.

However, no match in the history of the Rugby World Cup has ever gone past 100 minutes into a sudden-death extra time period.

Tennis and volleyball

In contrast with the usual sudden-death procedure of awarding the victory to the next side to score, tennis and volleyball require that the margin of victory be two. A volleyball game tied at the target score continues until one team's score exceeds the other's by two points.

The traditional requirement that a tennis set be won by two games sometimes resulted in men's five-set matches lasting six hours or longer (including an 8-hour 11-minute set at Wimbledon) or, in women's three-set matches, lasting over three hours, which is a major disruption to a television schedule. To shorten matches, sets tied at six games each can now be broken by a single tiebreaker game. This is awarded to the first player to score seven points. The winner must lead the loser by two points, so tiebreaker games can become lengthy in their own right.

Tiebreakers are not used in major tournaments in the final set, except at the US Open & the Olympics.


An individual fencing bout lasts for five touches in a poule match, or 15 touches in a direct elimination (DE) match in all three weapons (épée, foil, and sabre. Although sabre bouts rarely go to full-time, the same time frames apply) Matches are also timed (three minutes for a poule match, and three periods of three minutes for a DE). If neither fencer has reached five or 15 points within the time limit, the leading fencer is deemed the winner. However, if the fencers are tied after the allotted time, one minute of extra time is added.

Before resuming the bout, one fencer is randomly awarded "priority". The first fencer to score a valid hit within extra time wins the match; if no valid hits are scored within the time, that fencer with priority is declared the victor.

In the normal course of a match, there is a de facto sudden death situation if both fencers are tied at four (or 14) touches each. The final hit is called "la belle". The fencers may salute each other before playing for the final point.

Computer gaming

Sudden death also occurs in computer gaming when both teams have the same score and a method of breaking a tie is needed. For example, in a Capture the Flag area for Quake III Arena, when neither team has scored, or if no team leads, a sudden death match will decide who will be the victor. All the teams have to do is get the flag and deliver it to the base one time only in order to win automatically. Sometimes, players share a handicap in order to end the game faster; for example, in a Super Smash Bros. sudden death match, players fight beginning at 300% damage, amplifying how much they are knocked back to the extent that most attacks will KO them in a single blow. In games where the players normally would respawn, like Team Fortress 2, sudden death often means that respawning is disabled and the last team standing wins.

Board games

In board games such as chess where there is a time limit, "sudden death" refers to a requirement that all the remaining moves, rather than a fixed number of moves, be played within the remaining time allotted. This ensures an upper limit for how long games can last. Some games are played with an immediate sudden death time control, others have one or more regular time controls before the sudden death control.

Game shows

In most international versions of the game show Duel, if two contestants do not cover the correct answer to a regular question when the duel is in process, the duel goes to a sudden death question called a "Shootout". For this sudden death question, the contestants who are participating get 4 new chips each, and there are no accelerators or presses available. If only one contestant answers correctly, the contestant who has the answer wins. If both contestants get the answer correct, the contestant who covered fewer choices wins, but if both contestants do not cover the correct answer to the shootout question, they are both eliminated (that happens automatically if both contestants are wrong during the duel in international versions that do not have sudden death). In a situation in which both contestants covered the same amount of choices during sudden death, both contestants win the duel, and one of the contestants, picked at random, must leave the show. In some instances, if a winner cannot be determined on the question (regardless if both contestants tie or would be eliminated), multiple Shootouts may occur until a winner is determined. In that case, the tie-breakers that do not determine a winner may be edited out of the final broadcast.

In the game show BrainSurge, the last two players standing will match pictures. When someone gets one wrong, host Jeff Sutphen declares the game to be in "sudden death territory". At that point, the next person to make a valid match wins the game.

In The Weakest Link, if the final round of questions ends in a tie (usually after three or five questions), the players will go into a sudden death round. If a player successfully answers a question and the opponent does not in the round, the player answering correctly wins. If both miss or are successful in a round, they go to another question. Again, tie-breakers that do not produce a winner may be edited out of the final broadcast.

On Wheel of Fortune, in the relatively rare event of a tie, the tied contestants square off in a Toss-Up round. The player solving the puzzle correctly goes on to the bonus round. Previously, in the event of a tie, initially the game was declared a draw and the bonus round was not played with the two players returning for a second episode. In later years before the Toss-Up was installed, a second speed-up round between the two players was played.

On Jeopardy!, the players who are tied for the lead with a score of at least $1 after "Final Jeopardy!" participate in a final sudden-death answer. Whoever gives the correct question is the champion; if all three contestants answer incorrectly, the procedure is repeated. The contestants cannot win by "default" when the opponent gives an incorrect question, thereby having to give the correct question. This has only happened in tournament play; since the 2014 rule change in regular play, it has never occurred. Prior to 2014, regular play tied games stayed tied, with all contestants involved in the tie returning the next day. The rule was abolished after an increasing number of drawn games in Season 30 and 31. If all three players have a zero score, it is a triple loss and three new contestants play the next episode. Note that the loser of a tied game in tournament play is still eligible for a wild card in either the second round or the final round (if a triple loss occurs in the second round, a wild card is added) with the score at the end of Final Jeopardy!

On The Price Is Right, if a Showcase Showdown is tied, the players will spin the wheel once; the higher score wins. If the spin is a tie, the procedure is repeated until a winner is found. In case of a Bonus Spin spinoff, only the first spin is a bonus spin. No bonuses are awarded for subsequent rounds.

On Match Game (since 1990), should a tie occur after two rounds, the two contestants engage in a fill-in question. Whoever matched first off a celebrity won the chance to play the Super Match. Match Game PM also had this tie-breaker format should a tie occur after three rounds were played.

Since the current US version began in 1999, Family Feud has used a single sudden question in certain situations. The 1999-2003 four-round format matches that end tied after four rounds are sent to a sudden-death playoff. The two families send the fifth member for a face-off. Since the 2003-2004 season, if neither family scores 300 after four rounds (three in 2009-10), the same playoff is implemented. The family must give the correct answer to win.

Many other game shows feature a sudden-death playoff; usually, the next player to answer a question correctly wins. Often, the rules of sudden death provide that in the event a wrong answer is given, the opposing team wins, even though wrong answers may otherwise not be penalized. Occasionally, the format is a numeric question, with the player making the closer guess winning.

Professional wrestling

Sudden death in wrestling is most commonly seen in Real Canadian Wrestling tournament matches, in which a victor must be decided. This happens in the case of a double knockout or double countout. In the United States, Sudden Death rules occurs mainly in an Iron Man match when there is a tie after the time limit have expired. (Most notably at Wrestlemania XII when the match between Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart ended 0-0 after the 60 minute limit)

An example that invoked sudden death occurred in the 2005 Royal Rumble. John Cena and Batista were left, and both men's feet touched the ground at the same time. A comparable draw leading to sudden death might happen if the shoulders of a wrestler applying a submission move are on the mat.


In the case of a tie in competition judo, the match proceeds to Golden Score, another form of Sudden Death. Sudden Death in competition Judo consists of a 5 minute long match, during which the first competitor to achieve a score is awarded the match. Penalties in Judo award points to the other competitor, making fair-play of absolute importance. If no victor is decided in Golden Score, the match is decided based on a Referee's Decision. A Referee's Decision is a vote amongst the Referee and both Judges of the match.

Mixed martial arts

In mixed martial arts competitions that consist of an even number of rounds, a type of sudden death is sometimes used in the event that each competitor wins an equal number of points. This is not a true sudden death that ends on the first point scored, since MMA competitions do not generally score individual points. Rather, it is a final round of combat, the winner of which is declared the winner of the match. This particular rule, known as "Sudden Victory", has been commonly seen in previous seasons of the reality television show The Ultimate Fighter when the competition has consisted of two rounds. A sudden victory round rule was also implemented in the tournament to decide Ultimate Fighting Championship's first Flyweight Champion.[11]


  1. New York Times, November 19, 1940. Novel Plan Adopted to Decide Play-Offs, p. 22
  2. New York Times, April 30, 1946. Danzig, Allison, Pro Giants To Play Seven Home Games, p. 27.
  3. New York Times, December 18, 1948, Cards And Eagles Evenly Matched, p. 17.
  4. New York Times, December 11, 1950, Sudden Death Overtime For Play-Off Contests, p. 33
  5. Gifford and Richmond, pg. 210
  6. Brennan, Christine (2003-11-25). "Els-Woods playoff unable to settle Presidents Cup". USA Today. Retrieved 2009-01-29.
  7. "PGA Championship: history". PGA of America. Retrieved June 30, 2012.
  9. "3x3: Rules of the game". FIBA. Retrieved March 17, 2013.
  10. "Rugby World Cup". Retrieved 2016-02-09.
  11. Handricks, Maggie (February 24, 2012). "Sudden death round on tap for UFC's flyweight tournament". Yahoo Sports. Retrieved March 18, 2012.


See also

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