One sometimes-confusing aspect of quizbowl is the presence of multiple tournaments that claim to be the “national championship” of quizbowl and similarly named academic competitions (Scholars Bowl, Brain Bowl, Knowledge Bowl, Academic Challenge, etc.). For teams and coaches relatively new to the world of good quizbowl, getting multiple emails throughout the year telling you that you qualified for different national championship tournaments can be a bit of a baffling experience.
This is a brief guide to explaining what these tournaments are, which ones have fair questions and formats (and which ones do not), and how your team can qualify to attend the ones that will provide the best experience for your team and players.
The Quizbowl National Championships:
NAQT’s High School National Championship Tournament (HSNCT)
Sponsor: National Academic Quiz Tournaments (NAQT)
Location (2016): The Hilton Anatole, Dallas TX
Location (2017): Marriott Marquis, Atlanta GA
Field Size: Approximately 272 teams (based on the 2016 field)
Questions: Written by NAQT and follows the NAQT HSNCT distribution. The difficulty is significantly harder than regular IS-sets and the questions are slightly longer than regular IS questions.
Format: 10 power-matched games (against opponents with similar records) over 16 rounds on Saturday. All teams with a winning record (i.e. 6-4 or better) make the playoffs on Sunday; other teams can come back for consolation games. Playoffs are double-elimination for all 7-3 or better teams; 6-4 teams start off in the loser’s bracket and are eliminated with one loss.
How to Qualify: Finish in the top 15% of any tournament that uses NAQT questions. NAQT highlights those teams in the results when statistics from a tournament are published on their website (see here for an example). Wildcards are also available for teams who did not qualify normally to apply for in hopes of getting a spot; for teams that got close to qualifying in a strong field or did not have a chance to play often, this is a good option to pursue.
Previous Results: Available from NAQT’s website from 1999 onward. Click on each year to see more statistics.
Comments: HSNCT has rapidly grown into the largest national championship, with over a thousand players taking over a hotel each year to play quizbowl. The power-matching format used in the preliminaries usually ensures that each match pits you against a team more and more similar to your team’s skill level, so the matches tend to be close. The double-elimination format of the playoffs also can be exciting to participate in or watch, though making the playoffs can involve a little bit of luck of the draw for many teams close to the middle of the pack.
PACE’s National Scholastic Championship (NSC)
Sponsor: Partnership for Academic Competition Excellence (PACE)
Location (in 2016 and 2017): Hyatt Regency O’Hare in Rosemont, IL (a suburb of Chicago next to O’Hare International Airport)
Field Size: Approximately 96 teams (based on the 2015 field)
Questions: Written by PACE members. The distribution is similar to the college ACF distribution and tossups are often 6-8 lines, with 20 point (instead of the usual 15 point) powers and no negs for incorrect answers. Bonuses are bouncebacks, meaning that if one team misses a bonus part the other team gets a chance to answer that part for points. Similar to HSNCT, the difficulty level for the NSC is significantly higher compared to most regular season high school tournaments.
Format: Seeded preliminary pools initially, then rebracketed playoff pools, then another rebracket to superplayoff and final placement pools. Basically, every team continues playing games that help determine final placement throughout the tournament. This also means that all teams play at least 18 games over the two days of the tournament.
How to Qualify: Qualification depends on finishing highly at various PACE-affiliated tournaments. Almost every quizbowl tournament on good questions is PACE-affiliated, but the exact percentage of teams that qualify from each tournament depends on what level of certification PACE awards. See this page for a more detailed explanation, but in general the top 20-25% of the field qualifies. Wildcards are also available like with NAQT by emailing with a record.
Previous Results: Available on PACE’s website here.
Comments: PACE’s field tends to have more of the top teams as a percentage of the field than NAQT, so a team that finishes 5-5 in the middle of the pack at NAQT may finish in the lower tiers of NSC. Don’t be discouraged by that–if you want lots and lots of quizbowl, the NSC gives you the most matches out of any of these tournaments. Some teams also prefer the bounce-back bonuses since it keeps all teams listening on the bonus regardless of which team got it.
NAQT’s Small School National Championship Tournament (SSNCT)
Sponsor: National Academic Quiz Tournaments (NAQT)
Location (2016 and 2017): The Hyatt Regency O’Hare, Rosemont (Chicago Area) IL
Field Size: Approximately 80 teams (based on the 2016 field)
Questions: Written by NAQT and follows the standard NAQT distribution. The difficulty is approximately the same, if slightly tougher, than regular IS-sets.
Format: 9 power-matched games (against opponents with similar records) over 11 rounds on Saturday. All teams with a winning record (i.e. 5-4 or better) make the playoffs on Sunday; other teams can come back for consolation games. Playoffs are double-elimination for all schools with records of 6-3 or better and single-elimination for those at 5-4.
What NAQT defines as a “Small School”: [Via NAQT’s website] “A public high school with 500 or fewer students in grades 10-12 that has a non-selective admissions policy. This excludes all private schools, magnet schools, and home school collectives; it also excludes some charter schools.”
How to Qualify: [Via NAQT’s website] “Finishing in the top 30% of the small schools at a high school varsity tournament that uses NAQT questions and includes teams from at least three schools (of any size). This includes traditional one-day tournaments, leagues, televised tournaments, and all other events that use questions provided by NAQT whether or not they use NAQT’s official format and rules. NAQT highlights those teams qualifying for the SSNCT separately in the results when statistics from a tournament are published on their website (see here for an example). Wildcards are also available for teams who did not qualify normally to apply for in hopes of getting a spot; for teams that got close to qualifying in a strong field or did not have a chance to play often, this is a good option to pursue.
Previous Results: Available from NAQT’s website from 2014 onward. Click on each year to see more statistics.
Comments: SSNCT is a great option for smaller schools, from open-admission urban charter schools to rural schools that might not have the resources and student base as some of the larger schools. You can listen to some previous matches to get an idea of the level of competition here.
HSAPQ’s National All-Star Academic Tournament (NASAT)
Sponsor: High School Academic Pyramid Questions (HSAPQ)
Location (2016): The University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY
Field Size: 12 (although maximum is as many states that register)
Questions: Written by HSAPQ at a very high level comparable to a normal-difficulty college tournament. Distribution is here.
Format: A round-robin followed by rebracketed playoffs
How to Qualify: Since this is an All-Star tournament, all states are eligible to send a team. Pennsylvania’s team last year was selected by tryouts and looking at individual statistics from tournaments. If you are interested in competing against the best high school players of each state on very challenging questions, this is your tournament. The 2015-2016 PA NASAT teams can be seen here.
Previous Results: See here.
A few frequently-asked questions about the national championships:
Which national championship should my team attend?
Besides their different locations (which usually rotate every year), the biggest differences between the national championships are the timed rounds at HSNCT vs. the untimed rounds at the NSC and the different question distributions at each. The use of timed rounds at HSNCT adds new strategic elements and means that readers tend to go a lot faster, making games a little bit more frantic. You can see video of the finals of HSNCT from 2016 here to get an idea of what it’s like. Small schools should definitely consider attending SSNCT, but can also attend HSNCT as well if they’re up for the challenge.
The distribution of the question subjects for each tournament also varies in small but important ways: the HSNCT question distribution has more current events, geography, and pop culture/sports; the NSC has more fine arts, more religion, myth, and philosophy, and no pop culture. The formats of each tournament also differ slightly as outlined above. One nice thing about having two national championships is that if you can’t make one due to graduation or prom, the other is still a possibility. Either of these are a good option for teams looking for a challenge and a fun end-of-season trip.
When can/should you register for a national championship?
You should register as soon as possible after you qualify and work quickly to firm up travel and payment plans. The HSNCT and NSC fields historically get close to filling up by late February. While you can get a spot on a waitlist and hope slots open up later (which tends to happen at the HSNCT in particular), by late March both fields are likely completely filled. Note that both tournaments are now requiring that schools pay a deposit by some point to reserve spots in the field due to high demand, so it’s crucial that you start making arrangements to attend as soon as possible and perhaps budget for nationals attendance at the start of the year if you think you’ll be likely to qualify.
How do we get a wild card into these tournaments?
At a certain date, the HSNCT, SSNCT, and the NSC will open up applications for wild card teams. You should have a good reason explaining why you were not able to normally qualify, such as a lack of tournaments nearby to attend or consistently finishing just out of the qualification level at many tournaments against good teams. Just applying for a wild card does not mean you will be accepted–you need a good reason and must demonstrate strong results to get a wild card to either national.
Can multiple teams from the same school qualify for nationals?
Yes, but generally they must qualify at the same tournament. If Franklin High wants both its A and B teams to qualify for nationals, both teams must finish in the top percentage of the field at the same tournament. If Franklin A qualifies at one tournament (but not Franklin B) and then at the next tournament Franklin B qualifies (but not Franklin A), Franklin can still only send 1 team from Franklin to the national championship. Some schools have sent A, B, C, D, and even E teams to nationals (and done quite well).
Are there special divisions for schools of different sizes?
NAQT runs a separate Small School National Championship Tournament. If you are a non-selective, public high school with fewer than 500 students in grades 10-12, definitely take a look into the SSNCT, which runs on a separate set of NAQT questions at a different location than the HSNCT, usually sometime in April. PACE awards a top small-school title at the NSC, but small schools compete normally alongside other schools. Otherwise, all schools compete together.
Should we attend a national championship even if we know that we won’t win?
Even if you’re not in the running to win, you get to play the best teams from around the country and see just how well you measure up to teams outside of your local region. Knocking off a “name-brand” team or getting revenge on a rival local team can be great fun and just getting a few questions against the best teams in the country can be a rewarding experience. There’s also something about being in the same building as thousands of others involved in quizbowl and getting to meet people from all around the country. You’ll also have the best readers in the country flown in to read some of the toughest yet still well-written questions of the year. The final matches at these tournaments are always open to the public and are often thrilling to watch.
That said, quizbowl nationals are expensive, with a minimum of $800 or so for hotel and registration fees plus the cost of travel. You can attend a lot of other quizbowl tournaments with that funding, so consider your team’s interests and goals early on in the year so that if you do qualify for nationals, you can make sure you can secure the funding (hosting a tournament or two can really help with the cost too). Many teams enjoy the chance to travel and give seniors an appropriate send-off on the best competition quizbowl has to offer.
Other Competitions that claim to be “National Championships”
An organization known as Questions Unlimited runs a competition they call the National Academic Championship (NAC). At one time, decades ago, the NAC was the only game in town. Today, however, the NAC has four major issues that make it the quizbowl equivalent of college basketball’s NIT and not an actual national championship in the eyes of GPQB. In fact, we strongly advise schools to stay as far away from the NAC as possible based on the following issues:
Poorly Written Questions
A defining feature of the NAC is a lack of commitment to good quizbowl practices in question-writing, as documented rather extensively here. While there are some quasi-pyramidal questions, the vast majority appear to be non-pyramidal and appear to focus on trivial details. Others also have swerves, hoses, and other aspects of bad quizbowl. One infamous “audio” question asked teams to identify the sound of a blender; more recent audio questions asked about the sounds of barnyard animals. Widely varying difficulty and distributions contribute to the unevenness of the outcomes.
A History of Plagiarism and Question Recycling
Last year, a team at the NAC actually stopped a match because it had heard the exact questions before in a practice packet. This is unthinkable at any other national quizbowl tournament and exemplifies the history of plagiarism and question-recycling in the NAC. No tournament should have verbatim question repeats, much less a tournament that claims to be a national championship.
An Unwieldy and Unfair Format
The preliminary matches at NAC seem to be quasi-seeded, but NAC competitions are often lacking the statistics from previous tournaments useful for seeding (like points-per-bonus), which can lead to very lopsided preliminary schedules of widely varying difficulty for different teams. Unlike other national championships that all guarantee at least 9 games and additional scrimmages, only 6 games are guaranteed at NAC and those are read in an odd game-show-like environment with the focus on the “host” rather than the players. The playoffs at each tournament site also are single elimination and the winners of each of the three sites come together to play weeks after some of them last played. This, suffice to say, does not seem like a fair format for determining a national champion.
The Best Teams–and the vast majority of quizbowl teams from most areas–Do Not Play NAC
The repudiation of NAC from former players, coaches, and even former NAC moderators has been nothing short of extraordinary in the past decade. As this graph shows, over time NAC’s field has been surpassed in number by the HSNCT field and the vast majority of the top teams on the Morlan HSQBRank poll choose PACE or NAQT over NAC. Additionally, more and more teams at the NAC come from a smaller number of states like Arkansas, Oklahoma, and New York that lack access to good quizbowl.
Few teams play both the NAC and the other nationals, but when they have played in good quizbowl tournaments the NAC attendees have not come off well. For instance, the national NAC runner-up in 2015, Lusher Charter, finished 59th at the NSC; a year before, the NAC runner-up in 2014, Pingry, finished 63rd at the NSC.
Put all these together and there is no good reason to attend the NAC. Going there only supports a bad quizbowl organization and will deprive your team of a more rewarding national championship experience. If your team does not qualify for a good quizbowl national during the year but you still would like to travel, we recommend attending a regular-season tournament in April or May out-of-state. You can also just save your money for next year.
Some other competitions also claim to be “national championships” of buzzer-based competitions of various sorts. We at GPQB would strongly recommend sticking to the HSNCT, the NSC, the SSNCT, and the NASAT.