The Rise of a Circuit, Pt. 1: Structural Changes

It was a slightly warm November day, and Phoenixville High school was caked in the glow of morning sunlight. Students collected in the cafeteria, many of them unaware of the exact nature of the tournament before them. Many had traveled from Maryland and New Jersey for the upcoming quizbowl activities, and just as many were representing their school for the first time that day. 36 teams registered, but only 34 appeared, for Downingtown STEM decided not to notify the TD their two teams were not coming. The staff was a mixed lot of inexperienced students, inexperienced coaches, one former coach that had been around the block, and one college player. While the day was fun, a few critical mistakes, particularly trying to do all the stats on one computer, caused several delays throughout the day. Most teams seemed to be enjoying their experience, but struggled with IS-questions at times. Focus and competitive intensity proved hit or miss. The tournament ended with an all Wilmington Charter match, as a spirited B team unseated a lackadaisical A team. Few of the teams bothered to talk to each other between games.

This particular tournament, from 2013, was the first high-school-hosted pyramidal tournament to ever happen in Philadelphia and its four collar counties. It had been proceeded the prior spring by a 24 team tournament at Manheim Township, up from 8 teams in 2012. Outside of these, if one wanted to play pyramidal quizbowl, one had to go to the well established but weak and scattered western circuit, anchored by college-run events, or look outside the state of Pennsylvania. The idea of high quality Pennsylvania quizbowl was a theoretical one, and indeed, many firsthand recollections from the period indicate the PA squads who ventured into other circuits being mocked. It is worth mentioning Phoenixville as a good example of what has changed in Pennsylvania quizbowl since. Delays have become rare, teams are experienced and extremely competitive, scores are high, drops have decreased, and out of state teams don’t win here often. What made this change possible? What might the rest of quizbowl learn from our example? This post will be the first of a two part series covering the rise to prominence of Pennsylvania in the quizbowl world. The first will focus on the structure and quizbowl practices of the circuit, and the second will focus on community building.

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For one, it must be stated upfront that Pennsylvania has not been unique in developing a circuit where a weak one existed five years ago. Florida and Nevada are also excellent examples of other young circuits, though neither has yet had the on the buzzer success of Pennsylvania’s past season or two. Other circuits that were already strong, such as California’s Northern and Southern halves, Ohio, and Illinois, have continued to improve. Counter to this, some circuits, such as the Washington DC area, the Carolinas, and Tennessee, have declined in national prominence while still producing some elite teams. What we can draw from Pennsylvania should not be taken as panacea for outreach woes, as others have been successful and may have done things different. However, we’ve gone from little to a lot in just about five and a half years’ time, so it might be worth analyzing the methods we used to get there.

The first step was simply a survey of what we had to work with in the area. How many academic teams were there, of any sort? What formats did they play? In the lead up to GPQB’s 2014 launch, we put an immense amount of man hours into simply learning all of the local high schools, compiling e-mails, and sending personalized invitations to teams all over the Philadelphia area. The process was often frustrating. Response rates for e-mail blasts are very low yield in quizbowl, as we are selling a little known activity and often going against similar competitions with short seasons and low investment from their schools. This step was important, however, for simply gathering up what we had. There were some great players waiting out there, and some dedicated coaches too. We needed all the help we could get, and having a critical mass of people was important for future steps.

Secondly, we had to galvanize places to start hosting more, and hosting with good practices. In 2012-14, there were events in Pennsylvania, but they were scattered and tended to be poorly run. Formats were non-standard and experimental, using 10 team card systems, odd tiebreakers, and poorly trained staff. A 10 round event often wouldn’t finish until 5 or 6 pm, and at times teams only got 6 or 7 rounds on the day. Even in the 2014-15 season, delays were frequent. However, with invested time, TDs began to improve their directing skills. We gradually saw the wane of “random teachers unaffiliated with quizbowl” as moderators, the impositions of training programs, and a concerted effort to get more alumni to staff. This has helped allow Pennsylvania’s circuit to develop in two key ways. For one, badly run tournaments turn off new to quizbowl schools as much as bad questions do, so eliminating inefficiencies allowed us to keep more teams around. Secondly, uniform standards are easily explainable. First time Pennsylvania hosts can now start their own events with relative ease, knowing what needs to be done and where to get resources. This was not always the case.

With better tournaments and a good grasp on what was already on the ground in Pennsylvania, effective localized outreach could occur. This has been our bread and butter. One consistent thing we’ve encountered in the state is that if you can put a tournament within an hour of a school, the chance they will try out pyramidal increases significantly. Many of our gains have been local teams that will only attend events at nearby schools and not travel; likewise, many of our losses have been from teams near tournaments that no longer occur. While large e-mail blasts were not high yield, directed local outreach by coaches at neighbor schools has proved much more effective at getting new schools on board. Similarly, access to a nearby advocate who can show a team the ropes has been extremely helpful. Chris Chiego’s work starting 7 or 8 teams in the city of Philadelphia by going in and actually visiting shows what an in-person visit and phone call can do.

It may be obvious, but it must be said that the biggest reason Pennsylvania quizbowl became better was dedicated students studying, and wanting to achieve at a high level on tough questions. A good setup helps facilitate teams becoming elite at quizbowl, but those of us working on running tournaments and inviting teams to them are only clearing the fields for others to tend to and harvest. Once we had few established programs, students had clearer standards of what to study and how to do it well (and shared them). Players saw the best and could strive to be it. We inherited State College from the old days. Their success between the late 90s and 2011 was incredible, but it’s hard to really appropriate them for “Pennsylvania Quizbowl” as we define it today. They mostly played far away and their success was at a different time where the idea of state level circuits was much more nebulous. Manheim Township and Winchester Thurston both emerged in the immediate period before circuit building set in, and both got good fast. In the last few years we have had the group of Chester County Teams, LVA, Delaware Valley, Friends Select, and most recently Allderdice take advantage of resources and combine them with competitive drive to have a notable national finish. Having teams to prove the model worked was critical in giving us something to sell to other teams. That being said, we are extremely happy to have teams less interested in performing well at nationals as well. Schools that just show up three or four times a year to learn and have fun provide a backbone for the circuit and provide a fresh perspective on how the game can be written and organized.

Accompanying student drives for success, GPQB and individual teams worked to increase our visibility within wider quizbowl off the buzzer. Pennsylvania acquired a gradual social media presence between 2015 and today, between Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Discord. I think our visibility was limited with the older guard of quizbowl during the first few years, as few Pennsylvanians carved out much of a forum presence. But, our high schoolers have clearly carved out an big niche in what I’ll dub “new quizbowl media,” places like Illinois Quizbowl Memes, Quizpolling Purposes, and off-forum chatrooms. We had good players in 2015 and 2016, but none achieved national attention. This past season, we had bonafide quizbowl celebrities. This, as much as anything, has solidified our place as a region everyone considers when they look at the lay of the land.

A final but crucial step to circuit building is the still ongoing process of what I call  “harmonization.” I define this as getting all tournament hosts, moderators, coaches, and even nearby parties in other states on the same page to produce optimal scheduling and distribution of resources and time. It doesn’t make sense to schedule two events near each other on the same day, or even back to back weekends. This burdens the staffer corps, which has been very generous in helping build Pennsylvania quizbowl up and will be talked about at length in Part 2. Key sets like SCOP and IS sets need to be distributed properly to cater to Pennsylvania’s three circuits.* The founding of a coaches association and the continued involvement of outreach gurus will hopefully help this, but there are still some overlaps to deal with.

Circuit building is a never-ending process. Of the 800 or so high schools in the state, only 80 played a pyramidal invitational in the past season, and of those only 50 did it regularly. The last five years have not made Pennsylvania a pyramidal haven to the level we’d like. However, we have established a base stability that produces top teams regularly and provides hundreds of students every year with the opportunity for fair play on good questions and fun times with friends. We have large national recognition for what our players have done on the buzzer and what our alumni have done to circuit-build. This is the legacy of the first era of Pennsylvania quizbowl, and also the first chapter in a long story of amazing things.

-Ben Herman

* (Pennsylvania essentially has three major groups of teams that play each other frequently and the other two groups infrequently: the “extended Southeast” of the Philadelphia Suburbs and Dutch Country, the Northeast including the Lehigh Valley, and the Western half of Pennsylvania. There are a few teams that shuttle between these regions but they tend to be ones that play a lot.)

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