The overly abused and rarely understood world of leaderboards

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Leaderboards as a game mechanic is synonymous with Gamification as a practice. It’s one of the mechanics of gamification/game design that has the highest reach amongst people, Points & Badges being the other two mechanics from this star-studded lot. Unfortunately, with its popularity came the uses of leaderboards that can potentially relegate this mechanic as something that doesn’t work and something that isn’t exciting when the novelty wears off, and believe me when I say this, it will.

I believe that if you want to know more about something, you have to understand its origin stories and its history. The roots may reveal a lot about a subject that you’re trying to explore. I discovered that the popularity of digital leaderboards in games traces back to the age of arcade machines. The new Netflix series, ‘High Score’, points out that gamers in the 80s experienced the flow state while they were attempting to reach/fulfill a game mechanic of making a high score. The best players were the ones that made a high score that nobody could beat. In order to increase the engagement time on the machine and involve more individuals to go after the ‘high score’, the arcade games were modified to include a and their respective score next to that name. This changed the game for all the companies in the business of arcade games as gamers started playing with an agenda of beating the high score or reaching the top 5 or top 10. Gamers were playing more Pacman, Space Invaders, Tetris, Pinball, etc. Gamers went crazy, the playing time of gamers as a community increased, the mechanic went viral and has been trending since. Here’s a scene from friends that will illustrate the impact of leaderboards in four pictures.

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I’m certain that there’s something about evolutionary biology that states that we as humans either hate to be in the last place because of the fear of elimination or we love being on top because more chances of procreation.

If I could borrow from Richard Bartle’s player types, there’s a killer, achiever, socializer, and explorer in each of us. We play every game through these archetypes and leaderboards as this mechanic serves the killers, achievers, and socializers quite well.

While, according to my research leaderboards in digital games came in vogue since the 80s, leaderboards have existed in the world of sports since eternity. In sports, leaderboards exist to reward the excellence of the players or the teams. However, in the world of digital games, leaderboards not only reward excellence but also help achieve the objectives of the business.

With the internet, the concept of leaderboards underwent several iterations. There were varied leaderboards in racing games; I remember Need for Speed using the narrative of going up the leaderboard to design its games. On the other hand, games like chess use rating systems. Social media gave a boost to the leaderboard mechanic as it’s inherently a mechanic that thrives on participation and players focusing on the social aspect of the game. Fantasy Leagues for multiple sports use a league leaderboard format to their advantage. FIFA FUT (Ultimate Team) uses tiered leaderboards to add dynamism to the game of FIFA. PUB-G/Fortnite have team leaderboard and ranking to boost its team gameplay. Duolingo uses tiered leaderboards that function as a great support mechanic. Leaderboards are everywhere.

Leaderboards have existed in the sales departments of many organizations as well. So, the sales teams are quite aware of the concept of leaderboards and its implications.

However, every example that I’ve referred to above has used leaderboards to solve a very specific problem. And thus, we should ask ourselves these two questions while deciding to include a leaderboard in our designs.

Q1. Does it serve any purpose? (Ex: Purpose of leaderboard in sports is to reward excellence.)

Q2. Is it being presented in the right context? (Ex: Duolingo wants you to learn and practice a new language every day and it also wants you to do more lessons every day, so to support streaks it introduced tiered leaderboards.)

Leaderboards as a motivator
According to me, leaderboards as a mechanic is a very strong but nasty motivator. Podium finishes have motivated many sportspersons to beat world records and gamers to achieve high scores that are unbeatable. On the surface, leaderboards seem to be a mechanic that affects our intrinsic motivator of social influence. The fiero achieved through topping the leaderboard is something that is celebrated, so that clearly affects the social influence, which is a key critical motivator. But creating world records and unsurmountable high scores is not something that can just be motivated by social influence. The leaderboard mechanic is also supported by loss avoidance, the fear of being at the bottom. This supporting motivator is what makes leaderboards a strong mechanic.

Leaderboards in Learning
I’ve seen a few uses of leaderboards in learning and I’m yet to come across the feeling that the leaderboard has been designed by keeping the context in mind and to fulfill a purpose. It could mean two things, either I haven’t seen a lot of leaderboards in learning or the leaderboards in learning lack quality when it comes to designing them.

So how does a game mechanic like leaderboards fit into the world of learning? Well, obviously through the serious games and gamified courses/interventions. That becomes a clear first way in which leaderboards fit.

My mentor once told me that any concept in this world can be fit into a 2×2. I cannot thank him anymore. Because a 2×2 would help me explain the second way in which leaderboards fit into the world of learning.

Do note that the polar ends on these 2×2 do not necessarily represent opposite values.

The X axis represents the learning that is developed for fun/non-skill functions and for excellence/skill development functions. The Y axis represents learning that is more strategic/long-term in nature to tactical/short-term in nature. There are many possibilities in which leaderboards can be used to design interventions in these quadrants. Let me just give a few examples to illustrate this.

Quadrant 1 Ex: For Fun & Strategic:

Reviews, Audits, Team Cohesion Campaigns, Knowledge Checks, etc.

Quadrant 2 Ex: For Fun & Tactical:

Team Building Activities, Ice Breakers, Stress Busters, Celebratory, etc.

Quadrant 3 Ex: For Excellence & Tactical:

Assessments, Workshops, etc.

Quadrant 4 Ex: For Excellence & Strategic:

High Performance & Potential Individual Identification, Skill/Competency Mapping/Building, Individual & Company Building Activities, etc.

If you think about it, you can easily use the mechanic of leaderboards to influence/design learning interventions in these spaces. All you need to do is define the purpose of the leaderboard and design it in the right context for it to work.

I’ve identified four key types of leaderboards that can be built in the space of learning.

  1. Basic Leaderboard
    1. Relative Leaderboard Variation
  2. Tiered Leaderboard
    1. Promotion & Relegation Variation
  3. Multiple Variable Leaderboard/Quant Leaderboard
    1. Time-based Variation
  4. Multiple Leaderboards

Let’s get into the details.

  1. Basic Leaderboard

The Basic Leaderboard is the leaderboard that you see almost everywhere. It consists of the position details, the name, and the single variable that determines that position. This version of the leaderboard gives very little insight but gives a quick broad idea.

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This design has a slight drawback, it’s just that if you’re the person at position 173, you might feel like competing with the best just impossible and you might lose the motivation to continue working towards being in the standings. So we have a slight variation called the relative leaderboard that addresses those moments when the number of people are too many and climbing over them seems a herculean or even an impossible task.

Image Courtesy: Medium

The relative leaderboards only showcase the participants and their scores near you or relative to a variable so that you don’t feel totally lost and start hunting for meaning and purpose of life after witnessing and assessing your position. It’s a simple hack that doesn’t overwhelm the players.

Both options are great tactical options; however, their lack of depth doesn’t make them versatile and purposeful.

  1. Tiered Leaderboard

The more we get into the types of leaderboards the more complex the leaderboards get. Tiered leaderboards essentially are a better way to manage a large number of participants. The participants usually have to earn their way to the top tier by scoring desired goals. The basic tiered leaderboard is a linear journey towards the top tiers, where the top tiers can be never ending or could have a finite end. Tiered leaderboards can be supported with ranking and one key variable. I haven’t seen a lot of examples of a linear journey where the only way to go is towards the top of the tier.

However, on the other hand I have two interesting examples on the Promotion & Relegation Variation. Duolingo and FUT (FIFA Ultimate Team). Duolingo has multiple leagues that you can get promoted/relegated to depending on your score for the week. FUT has divisions and sub-tiers within the division that you can be a part of. The subdivisions of tiered league are also possible if you want to limit/control the number of players per league/division/tier.

Image Courtesy: Duolingo

The weekly scores determine the status of promotion/relegation. However, that can be customized depending on the context/purpose.

Image Courtesy: RedBull
  1. Quant Leaderboards/Multi-Variable/Multivariate Leaderboards

This is where the leaderboards start getting interesting. With the amount of data we’re generating daily, there is another way in which the motivators of a leaderboard can be triggered – it’s through the Quant/Multi-Variable/Multivariate Leaderboards. I’ll explain this with an example of football, since it’s something that is close to me.

Image Courtesy: Wyscout

This looks like a normal table with some match stats, but if you look at it from the point of view of a leaderboard, this style of leaderboards will start making sense to you. This table shows the goal opportunities created by Everton & Southampton, two premier league football clubs in their league encounter.

Here the main variable is xG – goal opportunities, which is listed under total. However, you can see the breakdown of that variable into two halves, like how the sport is played. The team xG & players xG is mentioned as well.

Multi-Variable/Multivariate Leaderboards will have multiple data points that make a key variable tick. It could be an index of sorts, but leaderboards will have coefficient-based calculations that will add dynamism that is sorely missing in the basic and tiered versions.

The depth that is offered in these leaderboards will be full of insights. It might get difficult to read at first, but once you get a hang of it, this will explode.

You could also add a time-based variation to these and evaluate variables on a granular level.

  1. Multiple Leaderboards

Sometimes, there are multiple broad variables that need their own mastery paths. For those situations, there’s always a system of multiple leaderboards that can be adopted. Ex: Kaggle has ranking-based leaderboards for mastery of different competitions, datasets, and discussion and python notebooks. Four varied paths under the same website have their own leaderboard eco-system brewing with ranks ranging from novice to grandmaster.

Image Courtesy: Kaggle

Although these are the four types of leaderboards that I could identify, I’m certain there would be more.

Key Considerations to look at while designing a leaderboard

  1. Context & Purpose: Make sure that the leaderboard has a clear purpose that it’s serving and is relevant to the context.
  2. Player Type Match: Only add a leaderboard if there are achiever, killer, and socializer types of participants. If the players (or context) are pure explorer type who just want to explore and satisfy their curiosity, it won’t be a pleasant experience for them.
  3. Gatekeep Competitiveness: Leaderboards as a mechanic usually makes the competitive side of people jump out and express itself. The design should be a reflection of how competitive you want your players to get; always consider the potential of competitiveness the leaderboard might breed.


Leaderboards are an extremely versatile, powerful, and tricky mechanic to master but seem quite easy to apply. My suggestion would be to use leaderboards as a support mechanic with levels, ranks, campaigns, tiers, streaks, etc. as primary mechanics. A few more pointers that might help you design better leaderboards:

  1. Basic Leaderboard applied everywhere isn’t cool.
  2. Mix and match different styles of leaderboard to different areas of learning to keep the designs fresh.
  3. Use Leaderboards scarcely – they usually deplete curiosity and replace it with competitiveness.

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