Skill vs. Luck: Variance Among the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL (4 Major Sports Leagues)

Have you ever wondered why underdogs in hockey do better than basketball?

Or why the MLB playoffs are such a “crapshoot”?

Or how variance and matters of skill vs. luck impact outcomes in the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL?

Each league and its respective sport present unique characteristics, dynamics, and a distinct level of variance in terms of outcomes.

This article explores how skill and luck or variance play varying roles in the outcomes of games in these leagues, largely due to the number of players involved, the dynamics of the game, the opportunities each team gets to score, and how many games there are in a season.

Variance in Determining Outcomes in Sports (Regular Season)

The rankings of skill in determining outcomes is ranked the following:

  1. NBA
  2. MLB
  3. NFL
  4. NHL

Variance in Determining Outcomes in Sports (Playoffs)

As for playoffs, the rankings are structured a bit differently:

  1. NBA
  2. NFL
  3. NHL
  4. MLB

In this case, the NBA’s regular season does a good job of predicting the best team as does its playoffs.

The NFL playoffs do a better job of sussing out the best team(s) than the NHL and MLB.

MLB’s variance at the individual game level is made up by having a lot of games in its regular season (162), but it fares poorly in the limited set of playoff games.

Below we explain why.

Importance of Skill in Determining Outcomes Different Sports

The importance of skill in determining outcomes differs greatly among the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL, with it being most apparent in the NBA, followed by the MLB, NFL, and finally the NHL.

Skill in Determining Outcomes in the NBA

In the NBA, the influence of a single player’s skill can be seen most clearly.

With only five players per team on the court at a time – playing both offense and defense – the impact of one player can often sway the outcome of a game, as seen with stars such as Steph Curry, LeBron James, or Kevin Durant.

In addition, basketball provides numerous scoring opportunities, thus individual skill in shooting and scoring can directly translate to success.

Skill in Determining Outcomes in the MLB

In the MLB, the emphasis on individual skill is also significant but slightly less so than in the NBA.

Baseball is a sport that relies heavily on one-on-one matchups between pitcher and batter, where individual skill plays a huge role.

However, one player’s influence tends to be muted.

All nine players have to bat so it’s hard to hide your weaker players and multiple pitchers generally pitch.

And even though the MLB regular season will generally do a better job of finding the best team(s) relative to the NFL, its playoffs are less predictive than the NFL’s.

Baseball’s playoffs have the most variance of the four sports.

Skill in Determining Outcomes in the NFL

The NFL, with its large team sizes and highly specialized positions, tends to dilute the impact of individual skill slightly.

The outcome of a game depends more on the combined efforts of the entire team.

While a skilled quarterback like Patrick Mahomes can significantly influence the game, the outcome also heavily depends on the offensive line’s performance, the receivers, and the defense.

Also, NFL teams only play 17 games per season.

Skill in Determining Outcomes in the NHL

Finally, in the NHL, the individual player’s skill is often less apparent due to the fast-paced, fluid nature of the game.

Ice hockey is a sport that often results in quick transitions between offense and defense, with constant player substitutions.

While star players can shine, the team’s overall performance and some luck elements like puck bounces often determine the game’s outcome.

Stars in hockey often play around only 20 minutes of the 60 minutes and the game is inherently low scoring.

Influence of Game Dynamics, Number of Players, and Scoring Opportunities

The number of players, the dynamics of the game, and the chances you get to score all influence the level of skill vs. luck or variance in the game.

Dynamics in NBA

In basketball, the dynamics of the game allow players to have significant control over the game’s pace and style.

This dynamic, coupled with a relatively small number of players on the court – playing both sides of the ball – and a high number of scoring opportunities, results in a substantial emphasis on skill in determining outcomes.

Dynamics in MLB

In contrast, the dynamics of baseball are more varied, with its game of individual matchups embedded within a team framework.

In baseball your best hitter can take only 1/9th of the at-bats and your best pitcher can only pitch about 15% of the innings. 

And although there are numerous opportunities to score during a game, the success rate is relatively low.

More players are used in baseball and outcomes aren’t as dependent on the most skilled players like they are in NBA.

In the 2023 MLB playoffs, the top four teams (who won 104, 103, 100, and 99 games) won a combined 1 game in the playoffs.

Dynamics in NFL

Football, with its 11 players on the field for each team, limits the influence of any single player’s skill.

Moreover, different players play offense and defense, so contributions are needed from 22 guys + substitutions (especially for skill players, D-linemen, and linebackers, plus injury replacements), plus the different guys on special teams.

The dynamics of the game, with its stop-and-start nature, high injury risk, and generally limited scoring opportunities, combined with the varied roles and responsibilities of the players, adds a greater level of uncertainty or variance.

However, the NFL game is very quarterback-driven. So there’s a lot of emphasis on one player, which does add more of a skill element to it.

Dynamics in NHL

Hockey’s fluid and fast-paced nature, combined with frequent player substitutions and the randomness of puck movement, introduces a high level of variance.

Despite the skill involved, the unpredictability of the game increases the role of chance and lessens the apparent influence of individual skill.

Below is an older video, but it explains the variance between the four major sports leagues:


Q&A – Variance Among the 4 Major Sports Leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL)

1. How does the importance of skill vary across the four major sports leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) in contributing to outcomes?

The importance of skill in contributing to outcomes varies across the four major sports leagues, with the NBA placing the highest emphasis on skill, followed by MLB, NFL, and NHL, when it comes to the regular season.

Here’s a breakdown of how skill influences outcomes in each league:

  • NBA: The NBA is a league where individual skill and athleticism play a significant role. With fewer players on the court compared to other sports, such as five players per team, each player has a greater impact on the game. Skills like shooting, ball-handling, passing, and strategic decision-making are crucial in determining the outcome of games.
  • MLB: Major League Baseball places a significant emphasis on skill, particularly in pitching, hitting, and fielding. Pitchers possess a wide range of techniques and strategies to outwit batters, while hitters need to have excellent hand-eye coordination, timing, and situational awareness. Fielding requires agility, reflexes, and accurate throwing. The game’s slow pace and individual matchups allow for skill to have a substantial impact on the outcome. MLB variance is high at the individual game level, but 162 games gives enough of a sample size to generally determine who the best teams are.
  • NFL: The NFL combines skill with physicality and strategic decision-making. Skills like throwing accuracy, route running, tackling, blocking, and decision-making by quarterbacks, receivers, defensive players, and coaches heavily influence the outcome. The large number of players on the field, complex plays, and physical nature of the game introduce a degree of unpredictability, making skill less apparent compared to other sports.
  • NHL: In the National Hockey League, skill is crucial but can be influenced by factors such as teamwork, physicality, and goaltending. Players need exceptional skating, stickhandling, shooting, and defensive skills. However, the fast-paced nature of the game, combined with the randomness of bouncing pucks and deflections, can introduce more variance compared to sports with larger playing surfaces.

2. How does the number of players, game dynamics, and scoring opportunities influence the level of skill versus luck or variance in the four major sports leagues?

The number of players, game dynamics, and scoring opportunities in each sport significantly impact the balance between skill and luck or variance.

Here’s an overview of how these factors influence each league:

  • NBA: With only five players per team on the court, the NBA allows individual skill to shine. Players have ample opportunities to score, and the game dynamics encourage one-on-one matchups, dribble drives, three-point shooting, and acrobatic finishes at the rim. As a result, skill plays a dominant role, while luck or variance is relatively less influential.
  • MLB: Major League Baseball’s nine-player teams, slower pace, and individual matchups between pitcher and batter allow for a higher level of skill to be showcased. The number of scoring opportunities depends on a combination of hitting skill, base running, and strategic decision-making. While luck can still play a role in outcomes, skill is more apparent due to the nature of the game.
  • NFL: The NFL features eleven players per team on the field, with complex plays, physicality, and limited scoring opportunities. Skill is crucial in executing plays, such as accurate passes, precise route running, and effective tackling. However, the larger number of players and the inherent unpredictability of physical collisions introduce a higher level of luck or variance into the game.
  • NHL: In the NHL, teams typically have six players on the ice, including a goaltender. The game’s fast pace, smaller playing surface, and constant puck movement create a dynamic environment where skill is essential. However, the inherent randomness of deflections, rebounds, and the role of goaltenders can introduce a higher level of luck or variance compared to sports with larger playing surfaces.

Please note that while these general trends exist, each sport contains numerous variables and strategic nuances that can affect the balance between skill and luck in specific situations.

3. What sports have the least variance in general?

Individual sports generally have the least variance because it lacks the team dynamics.

Tennis and chess are two examples of individual sports that have relatively low variance compared to team sports.

Here’s an explanation of why these sports/games have less variance:

  • Tennis: Tennis is an individual sport where the outcome of a match is primarily determined by the skill and performance of the players involved. The game’s structure, with alternating serves and limited interactions between opponents, allows for a more direct display of skill. Factors such as shot selection, technique, agility, mental focus, and stamina play significant roles in determining the outcome. While luck or variance can still come into play with factors like ball bounces or weather conditions, the individual nature of tennis minimizes the influence of external variables and team dynamics, resulting in lower overall variance.
  • Chess: Chess is a game of pure mental skill and strategy. There are no physical variables or elements of chance involved. Each player has complete control over their moves and decisions, and the outcome is solely determined by the players’ skill, experience, and ability to think strategically. While there can be surprises and unexpected moves during a game, the absence of external factors or reliance on teammates minimizes variance, making chess a sport with very low inherent variance.

In both tennis and chess, the outcome is largely dependent on the abilities and decisions of the individual participants, rather than being influenced by factors beyond their control.

In men’s Grand Slam tennis, there is also best-of-five sets, which provides a greater sample size to benefit the elite players.

This characteristic contributes to the relatively low variance observed in these sports.

4. What about variance in soccer?

In soccer, specifically the Premier League, the balance between skill and variance falls somewhere between MLB and the NBA, with a closer resemblance to MLB in terms of skill determining outcomes during the regular season.

Here’s an explanation of the variance in soccer and the Premier League:

Soccer is a team sport where the outcome is influenced by a combination of skill, teamwork, tactics, and some degree of luck.

The large number of players on the field (11 per team) and the fluid nature of the game introduce a level of unpredictability and variance.

Additionally, factors like weather conditions, referee decisions, and injuries can influence match outcomes and introduce elements of luck.

However, compared to the NBA, where individual skill and athleticism play a dominant role, soccer places more emphasis on team dynamics and strategic gameplay.

The nature of soccer requires coordinated efforts among teammates, with the outcome of a match often hinging on the collective performance of the team rather than individual brilliance alone.

Skill in soccer encompasses various aspects, including passing accuracy, dribbling ability, defensive positioning, and tactical awareness.

When considering the Premier League, the regular season is a lengthy competition where teams face each other twice (home and away fixtures), resulting in a substantial number of games played.

This extensive schedule helps mitigate the impact of short-term variance and allows skill differentials between teams to manifest over the course of the season.

While upsets and surprises can occur in any sport, including soccer, the Premier League’s regular season tends to reward teams with higher skill levels consistently over time.

Skillful players and teams are more likely to exhibit a sustained level of performance, resulting in higher rankings and success in the long run.

Therefore, when comparing the Premier League to MLB and the NBA, soccer falls closer to MLB in terms of the regular season’s reliance on skill determining outcomes.

However, it’s important to note that the specific dynamics and unique characteristics of each sport contribute to the overall level of variance observed.


Each of the four major sports leagues in North America presents a unique blend of skill and variance.

While skill is a critical factor across all sports, the nature of the game, the number of players involved, and the opportunities each team gets to score all introduce varying degrees of luck or chance.

As a result, we see different emphases on individual skill in the NBA, MLB, NFL, and NHL.


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