Matt Weiner wrote:There is also the lost art of good teams getting questions early at easy tournaments, though. People like to disparage any tournament where a good team is routinely buzzing early as being a "muddy battlefield" or so on, but it used to be the standard sort of tournament, and I think bringing it back would have several positive effects, such as encouraging people to write more questions at lower levels, and creating more tournaments that a wider range of teams can play.
I think that it's interesting to note that, five or more years ago, the standard quizbowl tournament held during the collegiate academic year was something that was pretty easy, that teams of most levels wanted to play, and that featured high-scoring games in which many bonuses were 30ed and many tossups answered on the first few lines when top teams were playing each other.Crazy Andy Watkins wrote:Well, it would have those positive effects. Do you agree that it brings a meaningful degree of decreased resolution in matches between top teams? If, in a simplified model, the top teams at a tournament all know clues k to n, then the tossups might as well only have k clues for them.
Admittedly, the standard quizbowl tournament held during the collegiate academic year also used to be a huge pile of hippo shit, with non-academic distributions, bad, too-short questions on trivial subjects, and crazy rules of various kinds reigning over the land. No one is happier than me that this is no longer the case. But, I think that in our zeal to make all tournaments good, we've conflated "done in the past" with "bad" automatically, when, in fact, only 70 to 90 percent of what was done in the past was bad, and there are a few stray ideas here and there that we should have kept, and that we now can learn from or bring back.
One idea that I think we've nearly lost is the type of tournament I described above. Note that "four-line tossups," "buzzer races," "so-called 'academic' tournaments with 25% trash," "clocks," and "inconsistent difficulty from bonus to bonus" are not mentioned in my definition. While those things were indisputably part of quizbowl in the Bad Old Days, they are in no way necessary in order to have an easy tournament that is popular with teams of all levels and high-scoring for good teams. I think it is possible to write a tournament that conforms to the objectively correct principles of good quizbowl (academic distribution, solid clue selection and ordering, tossups of 5 or more lines, bonuses that are interesting, consistent, and written in complete sentences) but is also written such that it moves the buzz distribution up by a notch or two. By this I mean that instead of writing a 9 to 12 line tossup where you expect the best teams to buzz by line 4 or 5 and the decent teams to buzz by the end, you write a slightly shorter tossup where you expect top teams to buzz in the first 2.5 lines, teams that are going to go around .500 to buzz before FTP consistently, and only the bottom of the field to have to wait for the giveaway.
We still have tournaments that are pretty universally accessible; I think this past January's Terrapin is a good example of a tournament that combined modern principles of good writing with an obvious commitment to being answerable by as much of the field as possible. However, it also had tossups that were usually 8 lines long in 10 point font and had really thick clues for several lines at the start. They made for good games in the playoffs, but when reading to the middle teams in the tournament, questions went to the end most of the time. I think this is a true "muddy battlefield" for a lot of teams, and is failing at the purpose of the pyramidal tossup and good quizbowl in general, which is to smoothly sort out the knowledge curve for all teams, not just the top teams.
On the other side of the coin, we have the increasingly popular hard tournament. Hard tournaments sure are great. I've written a few of them and I both like, and am quite good at, playing them. However, the hard tournament plays no real role in expanding quizbowl, since it's pretty boring for new teams to play questions they will score 40 points on. The hard tournament taking up too many in-season dates that could be occupied by more general-interest events is a problem. Another problem is that the hard tournament, itself, often becomes a poor test of who is better at the skills that quizbowl should, ideally, reward. Tournaments that are very hard often reduce to "have-you-heard-of-this bowl." There's no discriminating between knowledge going on when you ask a tossup on "On the Shoulders of Giants." People either will guess it at the end, will fraud it based on feeling out the tossup and piecing together references to the title, or won't know it. Maybe, if you're lucky, there will be 1 person in the tournament who happens to like Merton, who will get a legitimate buzz and mislead you into thinking you have written an appropriate tossup. To me, this can be a muddy battlefield because it's heavily based on luck and on buzzer speed at the end of a tossup, and not based on carefully sorting teams out by multiple levels of knowledge. Overly hard bonuses suffer the same luck-of-the-draw problem and often produce really inconsistent question-to-question results based on the manner in which the writer chose to be adventurous.
People also skew their studying based on the tournaments they expect to play. Teams who are only concerned about hard tournaments find that it's more valuable to know the surface plot of Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful so they can buzz on a hard Paton tossup or capture 10 bonus points somewhere, than it is to have deep knowledge of Cry, the Beloved Country. This is stupid for several reasons. First, it distorts the higher purpose of quizbowl, which is to encourage people to learn meaningful facts about important things, because it devalues learning about important things (Cry, the Beloved Country) in favor of learning about far less important things (Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful). Reading Cry, the Beloved Country would be a huge waste of time for a team trying to get on top of world literature for NAQT ICT or ACF Nationals right now--you can learn the names of the main characters from A Wild Sheep Chase or the plot of Too Late the Phalarope instead, and do the equivalents dozens of time over in the time it takes to read a truly major book. Second, it leads to people writing tossups on Alan Paton like the one I wrote for Minnesota Open, which I now realize is a handy example of what I've recently come to understand is a poor writing practice. These tossups reward the "quizbowl-playing robot" and the memorizer over the literature scholar, because they either spend too much time talking about secondary works, or put clues from secondary works ahead of what should be comprising the leadin and bulk of author questions, which is new clues rewarding the reading of centrally canonical books.
This is a subpar situation that should be fixed. One way to fix it is to implement the admirable suggestions of people such as Mike Sorice, Evan Adams, Jonathan Magin, and Andrew Hart, who have called for a rejuvenation of questions on the core academic canon in hard tournaments. I strongly urge that you do that, but I also think that you can give teams separate incentive to learn about basic things by writing tournaments with easy answers where being able to buzz early on those answers is rewarded for all teams. This means writing that "Cry, the Beloved Country" tossup for a regular-difficulty event and arranging clues in the following order: 1) new clues that reward people who have read the book rather than just studied old packets; 2) clues that very good teams will get; 3) early middle clues that decent teams that are not in contention for the tournament championship will get; 4) later middle clues that people with some level above minimum competence will get; and a 5) giveaway. Over the past year or two, regular tournaments have become a lot more cognizant of middle clues than they were in the past, and are not writing questions that go straight from 1 to 5. However, we're still seeing a lot of questions that are 1-2-5. #3 and #4 are very important for writers to include, as is learning to play for the difference between #1 and #2 for top teams.
There's no reason we can't have a large tournament where the top teams make a lot of buzzes in the first third of tossups, and I think that constructing such tournaments properly and thoughtfully will do more to avoid the "muddy battlefield" than the tendency to just pile on additional lines of tossups or increase difficulty. It will also take an effort from teams to re-teach themselves how to buzz early on easy questions rather than have a wide but shallow knowledge base that is only suited to making one-to-one associations and/or playing harder material. People tend to find buzzer races and "misplaced clues" where they look for them in tossups on Franklin Roosevelt, because people haven't chosen to learn the hundreds of possible hard clues for answers at that low a level, and are waiting to buzz like they would on a tossup on VS Naipaul, where there's only 10-15 things to know and it's much less likely that any one of them will be known by multiple teams. As always, the tendency for people to complain that anything they know is too easy as a method of showing off, and to spend their study time accumulating esoterica so they can get Chicago Open tossups at the end, is working against the interests of good quizbowl by preventing us from writing the kinds of tournaments we need to here.