|President or CEO||Alex Damisch|
The Academic Competition Federation or ACF is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that produces college quizbowl questions and organizes tournaments for those questions. Founded as the Academic Competition Foundation in 1991, it changed its name to Academic Competition Federation in 1997. ACF runs ACF Fall, ACF Winter, ACF Regionals, and ACF Nationals, and it oversees the Carper Award. For more information on ACF, see their website.
ACF's extensive legacy on the game of quizbowl includes the ACF format (which outlines the general structure of a quizbowl match) and the ACF rules (which govern gameplay), which are widely used beyond the official scope of the organization. The catch-all term mACF refers to quizbowl tournaments and question sets that use the ACF format and rules, perhaps with slight modifications, or especially to make a broad distinction with other formats.
Discontent with College Bowl
In the mid-1980s, several schools began to take their participation in College Bowl seriously and prepare for College Bowl's regional and national tournaments by holding independent invitationals. Players quickly noticed that College Bowl's questions were not tailored to reward even minimal levels of effort at acquiring knowledge, but instead were aimed at entertaining a television audience, tricking good players into giving wrong answers in order to create "excitement," and generally making the spectator feel smarter than the players in order to keep people watching. After College Bowl went off the air for the final time in 1987, the rationale for undermining game fairness in order to reward home viewers evaporated.
Just as the first stirrings of discontent with the questions were being noted, several scandals erupted which understandably upset serious players:
- the 1988 College Bowl Regionals were found to have recycled many of their questions from the 1982 College Bowl Regionals. As unforgivable as this would be in a vacuum, the problem was compounded by one regional director handing out the 1982 Regionals as practice material to attending teams, rendering that region's tournament completely unplayable.
- College Bowl began threatening the independent tournament circuit with lawsuits, claiming that College Bowl held a copyright over the tossup/bonus format with buzzers. The Maryland team was threatened with disqualification from the 1989 College Bowl Regionals if they went ahead with hosting Terrapin that year, so they deaffiliated themselves from College Bowl in protest.
- The 1983 and 1985 College Bowl Nationals were canceled, leaving teams with no opportunity at all to compete for a championship.
In response to all of these concerns, Maryland and Tennessee stopped participating in College Bowl at all, an unheard-of decision when College Bowl was synonymous with the activity. A few years later, Georgia Tech followed. Further "de-affiliations," as the practice was called, continued every year. The difference in rules, participants, and question content became so great that, by 2000 or so, it was inappropriate to consider quizbowl and College Bowl to be the same activity, and they are now usually looked at as two separate games with some common features, played by an increasingly non-overlapping set of players.
The All American Invitational
According to the Georgia Tech website, that team won three "unofficial" quizbowl national championships in the pre-ACF era. It is unknown exactly what that refers to, but there was a "National Invitation Tournament" held at least in the two years when College Bowl Nationals were cancelled, and possibly in other years as well. A summer 1988 newsletter denotes Emory's All American Invitational, which took place on April 15-16, 1988, as "the national championship of academic buzzer competitions." The tournament was written entirely by Carol Guthrie and Don Windham, who went on to play key roles in the original version of ACF. Georgia Tech defeated Emory to win it. This may have been the first-ever national championship outside of College Bowl. It is worth noting that, in a remarkable example of institutional continuity, the third-place scorer from the All American Invitational, Robert Trent, also participated in the 2007 ACF Nationals and many other important tournaments in-between. The AAI was run again in 1989 and 1990, and replaced by ACF Nationals in 1991.
Other proto-ACF events may include the Southeastern Invitational run by Berry College and its coach, Gordon Carper. As students at Berry, both Carol Guthrie and Don Windham were quizbowl players coached by Carper. Guthrie went on to become the most important figure in the first version of ACF, while her husband Windham was also involved in academic competition in the early 1990s as a player.
Academic Competition Foundation (1991-1997)
In the fall of 1990, Guthrie, then the coach of the Tennessee team, joined with Maryland team members John Nam and Ramesh Kannappan to found the Academic Competition Foundation. Presumably, this organization ran regional packet-submission tournaments in the 1991 and 1992 competition seasons, but that's unconfirmed (the tournament labeled 1992 ACF Regionals on the Stanford Archive is actually the 1993 Regionals). The one tournament that was certainly run in those first two years was the 1991 ACF Nationals, the first non-College Bowl event to unambiguously bill itself as a national championship. The tournament was won by the host Tennessee team over Georgia Tech. Departing from College Bowl's structure, the tournament featured untimed 20/20 games, a focus on academic content, an attempt to avoid "hoses" and riddle questions, a field open to multiple teams from each geographic region, and reasonable prices. However, at this early date, ACF still included variable-value bonuses, spelling questions, and other bad College Bowl mainstays.
There were no ACF nationals in 1992, for reasons currently unknown. Beginning in 1993, Regionals and Nationals were run every year, and attracted an increasing amount of legitimacy in the quizbowl world. Starting in 1995, all ACF tournaments used 30-point bonuses exclusively, dumping the last vestige of College Bowl's gimmicky rules.
"ACF versus College Bowl" became the defining argument on the quizbowl Usenet group, as partisans of each format debated the merits of such College Bowl policies as timed matches, variable-value bonuses, single-team-per-region national tournaments, generally bad questions, and so forth. An undercurrent of debate about College Bowl's emphasis on trivia, current events, and popular culture versus the relative unimportance of those topics to ACF packets was also brewing at this time, as were concerns about question length and difficulty in ACF (belied then, as usual, by the high scoring which normally took place at ACF tournaments). Guthrie and Georgia Tech coach Jim Dendy edited most ACF events in the Foundation era, with Nam also editing the 1993 Nationals.
Despite the antipathy between some supporters of the two "formats," the same team won both College Bowl and ACF Nationals two times at the height of the original ACF's popularity--Chicago in 1994 and Harvard in 1995. By 1996, ACF Nationals was attracting 40 teams, and appeared to be healthier than ever. However, after the 1997 Nationals, Guthrie posted this announcement to the Usenet group, announcing that she and Dendy were each resigning to spend more time on personal life, and that ACF would go defunct.
Academic Competition Federation (1997-2001)
In addition to personal concerns, it may be the case that Guthrie saw ACF as superfluous following the first year of NAQT's competition program in the 1997 season. NAQT was more organized than ACF in several respects: it had a formal membership structure, an actually incorporated business rather than ACF's ad-hoc financing, paid writers, and a product to sell other than its regional and national tournaments--specifically, the "invitational sets" which were originally marketed to colleges but became extremely popular (and much more competitively appropriate) with high schools soon afterwards. Most importantly, it was a well-attended, popular event run by former participants in the collegiate quizbowl circuit--in other words, it was what College Bowl never has been, and what ACF wanted to be.
However, NAQT represented a regression to certain College Bowl-like features in its use of a timed game, pop culture- and current events-heavy question content, short tossups, and gimmicks such as the power tossup. In its first year, NAQT also used variable-value bonuses, though this practice was thankfully ended for the 1998 season. Perhaps sensing that NAQT would be a good replacement for College Bowl but a wanting substitute for ACF, Andrew Yaphe organized a "new" group, the Academic Competition Federation (a name often used interchangeably with the Academic Competition Foundation in the previous years), to continue running the Regional and National tournaments. John Sheahan and David Hamilton were also named as leaders of the new ACF.
Matt Colvin edited the 1998 Regionals, the first tournament of the new ACF, while Sheahan edited the 1998 ACF Nationals. In 1999, Regionals was edited by Hamilton, and Nationals by a collective including Brian Rostron, Rick Grimes, Marc Swisdak, Albert Whited, Sheahan, and Alice Chou. In 2000, Yaphe edited Regionals, and Hamilton Nationals. Regionals took place in mid-February of each year, and Nationals at the end of April.
The 1999 Nationals saw the first presentation of the Carper Award.
Into the Modern Era (2001-2007)
Following the meteoric rise to popularity of NAQT, the decline into irrelevance of College Bowl, and longstanding complaints, justified or not, about the difficulty of ACF, a decision was made in 2001 to focus great effort on the accessibility of Academic Competition Federation tournaments. Subash Maddipoti created perhaps the finest tournament to that time, the 2001 Regionals, which unusually ran in January. Nationals that year were also bumped up to March, and were again edited by David Hamilton. Despite the high quality and lower difficulty of the questions, only sixteen teams attended ACF Nationals in 2001, and the future of the format seemed tenuous.
A brilliant way to bring in new teams and permanently dispel the notion that good questions had to be hard questions was conceived by Kelly McKenzie, star player of the Kentucky team, who created and edited the first ACF Fall tournament, held in November 2001. Fall now serves as the kickoff of the serious competition season and is usually the first ACF event that a new quizbowl player encounters. It features difficulty noticeably lower than normal collegiate tournaments, without sacrificing the core aspects that make ACF what it is--academic content, high question-quality standards, packet-submission requirements, and the "gentlemen's agreement" style of eligibility rules. This three-tournament lineup continued through 2008, when the additional ACF Winter tournament was introduced. From 2001 to 2007, ACF's "organization" involved only a website (maintained by David Hamilton from 1997-2001, Jason Paik from 2001-2006, and Jerry Vinokurov 2006-present), and the individual tournament editors coordinating their events after being named by Yaphe at the beginning of the season.
As College Bowl had virtually no supporters left in the quizbowl community by this time, such "format wars" as did occur now focused on the relative merits of NAQT and ACF. As most teams played in both formats, as opposed to choosing between College Bowl or ACF as in the past, there was less at stake in these discussions, and they were rarer and less vitriolic than the Usenet arguments.
ACF continued to exist harmoniously with NAQT as the two organizations, formats, and national championships of collegiate academic quizbowl. Though its Nationals never approached the size of NAQT's, the continued viability of ACF was no longer regularly in doubt, largely thanks to the inherent appeal of ACF's academic content and to the outreach to new teams that ACF Fall represented.
The post-Yaphe Era and circuit standards (2007-2018)
Following the 2007 competition season, Andrew Yaphe announced that he would not be editing any ACF tournaments for the foreseeable future due to law school commitments. His last act before departing as ACF head was to confirm that Mike Sorice, Matt Weiner, and Chris Romero would be in charge of selecting the editing teams for Fall, Regionals, and Nationals respectively in the 2008 season. (Yaphe continued to serve as a prolific editor for NAQT and later played Nationals in 2009 and 2010.)
In the 2007-2008 year, Fall continued to grow in popularity, Regionals dropped to below NAQT SCT in difficulty, and Nationals awarded the first-ever Undergraduate and Division II titles, awards which have continued in the years since. Shortly thereafter, CBI died permanently, leaving Fall and Division II SCT as the main introductory tournaments to the college game. Almost all active teams now play both of those events.
The 2008-2009 season saw the appearance of a fourth tournament, ACF Winter. Though the tournament was meant to be a stepping stone between the difficulties of ACF Fall and ACF Regionals, Winter and Regionals targeted roughly the same "regular difficulty" level in both years that Winter was held  In the 2010-11 season, Winter was discontinued and the three-tournament structure of Fall, Regionals, and Nationals was re-instated.
As time passes, the absence of alternatives led most college circuits to perceive the ACF style and distribution as the norm (NAQT's SCT and ICT being a prominent exception), and complaints about aberrant difficulty dwindled away.
The new ACF rules included language which allows them to be used for any tournament which needs rules for a 20/20 untimed game, including high school tournaments, trash tournaments, or collegiate academic tournaments not affiliated with ACF. As such, a large number of invitationals across the country were and are understood at least implicitly to be using the ACF rules, and untimed 20/20 rounds with substantially academic content have won the day as the main form of quizbowl competition on the standard collegiate circuit.
Structural changes (2018-present)
In 2018, ACF began to move towards regularizing its officers and official structures so as to serve the community better and make best use of resources. For example, from 2012-2018 it instituted a policy of central payment (i.e. all teams attending an ACF tournament, wherever they may go, paid ACF's Treasurer directly, and hosts got their cut paid out to them after running the tournament); however, as ACF Fall grew too large, the policy reverted  in 2018-2019.
ACF instituted a number of structural changes to its constitution after 2019 ACF Nationals. It eliminated the Outreach officer position and created a Mirror Coordinator position to help hosts manage their sites and select correct packet-submission formats, taking those responsibilities away from the Communications officer. The editor-in-chief of ACF had also previously been the presiding head of ACF, in charge of calling ACF meetings; these duties were given to the new President position, which combined the old Meeting Chair position and the logistics duties of the editor-in-chief, both of which were eliminated.
ACF tournament editors, 1998-present
The distribution for the 20/20 of the regulation packet at ACF tournaments is:
- 4/4 literature
- 4/4 history
- 4/4 science
- 3/3 arts
- 2/2 religion, mythology, and philosophy
- 1/1 social science
- 1/1 geography
- 1/1 trash, current events, or miscellaneous
Perception of ACF
Many common points of discussion occur regarding both official ACF tournaments and the ACF format:
Some teams have found ACF tournaments to be difficult in comparison to NAQT or independent collegiate tournaments. This is due to many reasons. Paul Litvak once explained that ACF seems harder without being harder because tossups and time limits are longer and the game is untimed, so that every unanswered question hangs in the air for people to react to with either silence or negative commentary. At NAQT, with its clock, dead tossups sail by and we're on to the next question before you can think about it. Complaints that ACF IS IMPOSSIBLE, once common in the days of CBI, have since become a relic of another era, as most tournaments from the late 2000s on have standardized their difficulty to a common range, ACF's included.
2004 and 2007 comparison
An analysis performed on the 2003-2004 Fall, Regionals, and Sectionals and the 2007 Nationals and ICT showed that ACF Fall is about 125% as easy as NAQT Sectionals; ACF Regionals is about 95% as easy as NAQT Sectionals, and ACF Nationals is about 87% as easy as NAQT ICT. So, ACF is slightly more difficult in two directly comparable tournaments, but not by a large margin. NAQT has no direct equivalent to ACF Fall, but NAQT Sectionals is in fact noticeably harder.
2008 comparison of Sectionals and Regionals
An analysis performed on the 2008 Regionals and Sectionals showed that ACF Regionals is now 103% as easy as NAQT Sectionals for their respective fields, and Regionals is in fact 123% as easy when correcting for field strength by analyzing same-team performance at the two tournaments.
ACF and grad students
In the early 1990s, when College Bowl was still relevant, some people questioned the fact that ACF allows unlimited grad student participation, while College Bowl restricts teams to one grad student each. As both NAQT and the independent circuit have followed the ACF lead on this matter, the grad presence is no longer as much of an issue.
Some people do occasionally claim that ACF is "for grad students" difficulty-wise; however, this is essentially a weird way of phrasing the above general attitude about difficulty. As there is no school currently offering a PhD in quizbowl, and grad students have less free time to prepare for extracurriculars, what they are really addressing is a longtime players' advantage in experience, and a confirmation bias--there are many people who play quizbowl as an undergrad and then go to grad school, but it's a huge hassle to continue playing as a grad, so only the better players tend to bother doing it.
ACF and fun
Some people find ACF less fun because it takes slightly longer to play than NAQT and has less pop culture. Their opinions and emotional reactions are valid, but there are also people who find ACF more fun for the same reasons. In any case, everyone should make sure to actually play ACF and find out if they think it's fun or not, rather than relying on stereotypes or outdated information. ACF does strive to avoid being funn, which cannot always be said of non-ACF tournaments.