This thread is part of the "The Big Vision" series. Click here to go back to index/introduction.Nationally-Competitive Teamsand their bulging ranks at the national, regional, and state levelsSupporting the bulging number of competent and good teams without runaway difficulty or balkanizing into a “national circuit” and “everyone else”
As more teams start to care about quizbowl, more teams will get good at quizbowl. This is empirically borne out by the trends in how good a team has to be to, say, go 6-4 and survive a round of HSNCT playoffs now compared to 2009, or 2004. And it’s good for the long-term health of quizbowl when teams see that it’s possible to get competent in a short time and start battling it out on the early and middle clues of tossups with only a few months of familiarization and serious play.
But we need to be aware of the pressures that will be placed on our conception of regular high school difficulty when there are 200, 300, or even 500 teams in the “top 100.” Because quizbowl is all about distinguishing levels of knowledge across an entire field, from its best team to its worst, we have to continue to be able to produce sets for local/regional use without breaking them. If we reach a point where regular 5-line high school tossups are effectively speed-checks on the first clue only, for all 20 tossups of a match between the best teams, then something is amiss (to be clear: this is NOT true now; nowhere close, even in games where 18-19 tossups get powered). Similarly, if we feel like we have to keep stacking more hard clues on tossups for the sake of the best teams, the game will get less bearable for the teams who are still mediocre and down.
In general, I think that many high school sets are toeing this line well, and even if the average team gets way better a few years down the line, the high school difficulty we have now should still work well -- just with more teams buzzing in on middle clues more of the time. Writers may need to stay smart about how they pick leadins and early clues -- reaching deeper into untrodden portions of “core works” to get new clues on large rich texts like Moby-Dick
each tournament rather than reaching to recycle clues from past packets, and trying to avoid direct creep of collegiate topics into high school sets without reason.
It’s also worth it to note here that we are starting to see the beginning of a balkanization effect, whereby the top echelons of teams can decide primarily to play each other on sets intended for (or used only for) very good teams. There’s been some hand-wringing recently about whether it’s a good idea to move more (or all) tournaments to a Varsity/JV split done largely by age, or to a “Competitive/Standard” split in which teams self-determine where they go by skill. While my answer was once a hard “no,” I’m now more in the “if it happens sometimes, it doesn’t hurt” camp -- it depends on whether a combined field is manageable, and on a few other factors. However, I’m still certain of this: If it becomes a norm that certain teams compete only against each other on harder sets, and everybody else competes on easier sets, a central tenet of good quizbowl (that the whole point is to allow teams of all levels to play on the same questions) is weakened. It would be bad to lock in two castes of teams -- it’d be even worse if the “Standard” teams felt like they could never cross the barrier into “Competitive” status, or if the question-writing populace felt like different levels of sets had to be used in different divisions forever. It’s very important, both philosophically and in actual terms, to ensure that, while novice tournaments and more challenging sets keep existing, the bulk of events use sets designed for every team, from the bottom the bottom to the top of the pops. What's more, teams in lower divisions should be encouraged to work at it and move up to the upper division if they can.Think through the future status of nationals before a crisis point hits
The number of serious quizbowl teams is growing. The size of national championships has also grown to accommodate interest. Especially if the growth of good (i.e. playoff-caliber in today’s world) teams is supralinear, in keeping with past trends, we will eventually reach a point a few years down the line where every team at a future NSC will have enough knowledge and skill to have been able to make this year’s top 24. (Or perhaps, even more optimistically, every team at a future HSNCT will have enough skill to have been able to go 5-5 at this year’s). There will, if other stuff goes well, just be that many teams at that high skill level. These tournaments can’t continue to expand forever, and, as the more radical options in NAQT’s latest poll hinted, perhaps they shouldn’t. We’re not there yet -- we’re talking about a world at least 4 or 5 years away, and assuming our other goals progress well -- but it’s time to start thinking about what to do when that point arrives.
I don’t think it’s time yet to break up HSNCT into 4-16 smaller regional competitions with a much smaller uber-national at the top (as I posted elsewhere!), because there’s not yet enough infrastructure or money to make that work. But that could
, down the line, be a feasible way to go about things (if and only if
each of those sites could draw significant teams, there’s enough staff to be reimbursed for driving/flying out to such sites, etc.) The point is that we should start thinking now about what to do when there are earnestly two dozen title contender teams, or when the top 500 teams of the future all look like today’s top 100 and there’s simply no way to expand a single field large enough to accommodate all of them (even after the very weak teams in today’s field are crowded out). We don’t want to be unprepared when that day creeps up on us.
So, some tough questions, thinking not about today when things are working fine, but about a distant future with far more good teams: What needs to change first? Should there be higher standards for qualification? (i.e. should either or both nationals require teams to qualify at at least two tournaments?) Will there be a need to increase question difficulty, or should we just prepare for higher-scoring, closer games all the way down the field? Is there a numerical cutoff point at which it will become appropriate to start thinking about regional qualifiers rather than maximally-sized national events? How does the circuit view the differences in focus between HSNCT and NSC -- should one of those events chart a radically different course even as the other stays largely the same? At some point, will there be so many good teams that a national title becomes completely infeasible, leading regional/state titles to pick up the slack as the thing to win? Or should we always try to bring the very best teams together at the end of the year?Increasing the size, prominence, and value of state championships and keystone local tournaments
Part of the reason why so much emphasis within quizbowl is placed on national finishes today is that local finishes, in many areas, basically don’t matter much. Because (quite thankfully) quizbowl teams get to play so many games at so many tournaments a year, there aren’t many non-national tournaments that rise above others in terms of importance. Statements like “Well, we won BATE but were only runner-ups at IMSANITY…” are worthless to outsiders, and while it might be helpful to point to results a tournament hosted by a prominent school in one’s local area (“The City High School team finished 2nd at Columbia University this past Saturday”) it’s hard to do that when multiple universities and prominent high schools host every year. How can local results be made to matter more, given that there are so many of seemingly equal value, and that there is so much flux in who hosts from year to year?
State championships seem to be a revivable lost opportunity on this front. They can be easily explained to other people (everyone knows what “We were the best team in the state this year” means). But many people in several states today get the feeling that state championships, particularly the single-day NAQT invitationals, are Just Another Tournament -- rather perfunctory, and not any more competitive or special than a usual Saturday. Part of the reason is that the number of teams contending for a championship in any given state is (in states with one division) rarely higher than 3. Part of the reason is that state championships often don’t have the sort of qualifying structure or long historical track record that makes them more prominent in other activities, since their host often rotates or is chosen pretty late.
Now if we play our cards right elsewhere, one of those things will change -- there will be 20 or 30 teams contending for the top spot in many states, rather than 2 or 3. That change alone -- the impending non-obviousness of determining which team will emerge as the best in any given state -- could do a lot to give titles like “state champion” more weight, and will also make it more important to ensure that all the requisite structures get in place for state-wide involvement (and development of several strong regions in large states). When there are 20 or 30 elite teams in each of three or four dozen states, it will stop being feasible for every team to set a mid-playoff finish at nationals as its top goal, making local wins matter more. As such, more states should have something that looks more like VHSL -- now on thoroughly good questions, and played by 90+ percent of all teams in the state. I don’t speak for HSAPQ, but it seems like their end-state goal with the state championships series dovetails with what I present here: more states like Virginia where that title is hard-fought and matters (to administrators, potential sponsors, etc. in addition to just the players. (This includes taking over bad ‘official’ state championships to make them an ally, and/or replacing them with competitor titles that can be developed until they hold as much weight.)
There isn’t much that needs to change, in my opinion, about the basic setup we have with multiple Saturday tournaments per year. The designation of some tournaments as particularly important within a given region, coast, or time zone is an organic one, which hosts have the power to turn in their favor by hosting multiple years in a row (with consistent names and numerals -- rotating, unfunny GIANTACRONYMS hamper this process, people!) and doing a good job for many years in a row.
I would like to raise one more point. We should seriously consider the number
of tournaments that it’s feasible to expect a given circuit to host, or to expect a given semi-serious team to play each year. I do think there is a saturation point, past which we’re overstretching our resources. I understand that there are teams and players now who take quizbowl seriously enough that they would play a tournament on every single weekend from the start of the school year through nationals if the opportunities presented themselves. But when we set that as the paradigm, Beyond a certain point, adding on additional tournaments actually hampers
the effort to convince teams (and coaches!) on the margins that getting involved is doable. It seems to me like very few teams lose out when there are 8-12 local tournaments available (about one every 2.5 weeks in which actual school is held), plus nationals, as opposed to an ever-accelerating number such as 15 or 20.