The Big Vision: [8] National Contenders and Local/State Wins

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Adventure Temple Trail
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The Big Vision: [8] National Contenders and Local/State Wins

Post by Adventure Temple Trail »

This thread is part of the "The Big Vision" series. Click here to go back to index/introduction.

Nationally-Competitive Teams
and their bulging ranks at the national, regional, and state levels

Supporting 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.
Matt J.
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Re: The Big Vision: [8] National Contenders and Local/State

Post by Lighthouse Expert Elinor DeWire »

Matthew Jackson wrote: 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.
Does NAQT have historical data of the best teams at nationals? Could any meaningful inferences or extrapolations be made from past HSNCT data regarding when a difficulty creep would plateau?
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Re: The Big Vision: [8] National Contenders and Local/State

Post by Important Bird Area »

I don't think we have any data that would be meaningful for that question (given the setup that even very high power numbers wouldn't indicate the existence of a problem).
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Re: The Big Vision: [8] National Contenders and Local/State

Post by cvdwightw »

pandabear555 wrote:Could any meaningful inferences or extrapolations be made from past HSNCT data regarding when a difficulty creep would plateau?
There isn't enough historical data to make any sort of inference. In 2003 Dunbar led the field with 35 powers in the prelims (out of 226 TUH for a 15.5% power rate). In 2005 only TJ (at 32.8%) exceeded a 15% power rate. In 2010, 10 teams (5% of the field) powered at least 15% of tossups heard, and 5 teams powered at least 20% of tossups heard. Contrast that with 2014 when 14 teams (roughly 5% of the field) powered at least 20% of tossups heard.

I did an equivalent analysis for bonus conversion a few years ago, although I haven't updated it since.

(And anyway, HSNCT is so much harder than IS sets that any meaningful speed-check issues would be seen in the IS sets first)

Anyway, more pertinent to Matt's points, I think a well-structured stratified qualification system would work passably well. I have some passing familiarity with high school club volleyball. For their main national tournament, the boys are divided into two divisions and the girls are divided into five divisions. Each division qualifies through performance at a regional tournament, although sometimes stronger teams from weaker regions will come out to play a regional tournament in a stronger region. Basically, think of these regional tournaments as SCTs. (I understand that something similar works in several other high school club sports, although I am nowhere near as familiar)

The main difference is that the local tournaments are also stratified by team choice - as far as I can tell, each team selects which division they are attempting to earn a bid in. Open (the highest level) bids can only be obtained by placing highly (usually winning) in the Open division of a qualifying regional tournament, while lower-division bids are earned by placing highly in lower divisions. Generally (at least it used to be, I'm not sure anymore), a team that earns bids in multiple divisions is obligated to take the bid in the higher division.

I don't see why a system like this wouldn't work in quizbowl. Perhaps the only changes that would really be needed to make this work are (1) continuing to have many nationals-qualifying tournaments and (2) mandating that any teams that want to earn a nationals bid in any division have to play in the highest division.

In practice, it might work something like this: I announce a NAQT IS tournament with two divisions (for the sake of easiness I'll use the "Competitive"/"Standard" split). The Competitive Division tournament winner earns a bid to the Competitive Division of HSNCT, as would any other teams in the top 5%, say, of the Competitive Division field. Any other teams in the top 15% of the Competitive Division would earn a bid to the Standard Division of HSNCT. The top team in the Standard Division would win a nice trophy but not qualify anywhere.

Note that this isn't the exact same as Varsity/JV because I'm not placing any restrictions on what teams play where. LASA A could go play in the Standard Division if they really wanted to, but there's no real reason for them to. Basically, the Competitive Division is for teams that want to try to earn a bid (or play against those teams), and the Standard Division is for the casual teams that don't really have any interest in qualifying for a national tournament.

I think this hits a number of Matt's points:
1) Although ideally the best and worst teams would potentially compete against each other, this type of qualification system would still allow all teams to compete against the same questions.
2) In theory, it provides a process for self-directed mobility as top finishers in Standard Division at local tournaments would be encouraged to move up the Competitive Division at the next tournament, while Competitive Division teams that found the questions overwhelming might drop down (potentially, something like this could be mandated: a team that wins the Standard Division of a tournament could be required to compete in the Competitive Division of all subsequent local tournaments for the rest of the year, barring a major roster change)
3) Although it doesn't quite diminish the problem of ever-expanding HSNCT fields, it does reduce the problem of ever-expanding HSNCT playoffs into something manageable. Furthermore, it does still bring the best teams together at the end, while providing more meaningful games for teams that have no real shot at a competitive national title. We could even run HSNCT Competitive and HSNCT Standard on two different weekends if we had some way of ensuring packet security and ensuring that coaches at schools where different teams qualified in different divisions were committed to going both weekends (or, alternatively, allowing that any B/C/etc. team that qualified for HSNCT Standard Division could play in the Competitive Division if the A team qualified at the higher level)
4) By varying the qualification percentages of events, we could potentially induce larger field sizes at major events (e.g., only 5% of the field qualifies for the top HSNCT division at a normal event, but 10% of the field qualifies for the top HSNCT division at a state championship; teams would have a better qualification shot at the latter and in theory would make more of an effort to attend it)

Furthermore, there are some added benefits that go maybe in one of the other topics:
5) It emphasizes that the main activity of competitive quizbowl is weekend tournaments on questions appropriate for all levels of competition (by not allowing anyone to qualify on super-hard sets or college sets)
6) It provides all teams with clear and reachable objectives (for instance, a Standard Division team might set a goal to win the Standard Division at a local tournament and thus move up to the Competitive Division)
7) If could potentially provide concrete functions for local quizbowl alliances (for instance, ensuring that teams are in the proper division, or determining which local tournaments get the coveted extra qualification bonus based on recent field size and quality)
8) More teams can win legitimate-sounding trophies (2nd place in the Standard Division sounds a lot better than 2nd place in JV) and potentially get more local exposure

The only major potential drawback I see is what happened locally with Academic Decathlon back when I was competing. Essentially, the bottom teams in Division 1 moved down to Division 2 the next year and the top teams in Division 2 moved up to Division 1. In general, that meant that the same teams kept changing divisions on a two-year cycle, so a team would win a ton of medals one year and nothing the next. This inevitably became frustrating and I suspect is one of the reasons why many schools quit.

A stratified qualification system for quizbowl wouldn't really have that issue, since we have more than one regional tournament per year and we wouldn't be arbitrarily defining divisions by last year's performance (we'd let teams self-select, at least initially).

I'm sure there are other drawbacks, but it's late and I can't really think of them right now. What do people think of implementing something along these lines?
Dwight Wynne
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