How Quizbowl Works

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Introduction to Quizbowl

Playing Quizbowl

  • Quizbowl matches, which are often called rounds, are played between two teams of 1-5 players each, with 4 players being the most common number. In most matches, players on a team all attend the same school, though open tournaments do not have this requirement.
  • Almost all versions of quizbowl use the tossup/bonus format—that is, both teams have a chance to compete for a tossup using a buzzer system, and then the team that successfully answers the tossup has a bonus read to them, which the other team can not answer. Values for tossups and bonuses can vary, but usually are 10 points for correctly answering a tossup and up to 30 points possible on a bonus. Some formats, including NAQT, reward 15 points for correctly answering a tossup sufficiently early. Incorrect answers given while the question is being read lose a team 5 points and that team is not allowed to answer on that question.
  • Quizbowl matches usually contain 20 tossups and a bonus for each answered tossup. There are some variations to that, including timed rounds in which a moderator reads as many questions as possible within the time constraints.
  • Teams that attend a quizbowl tournament usually play eight or more matches in a single day.

Sample Game

“Quizbowl, to me, is what makes coming to school worth it. Quizbowl drives me to learn more in the classroom, and it has helped me become a more well-cultured person.” –Brett Hogan, Fairview High School (AL) ‘17

Links to several videos of 2013 ACF Nationals are available here, but here is a transcript of a fictional game, with explanatory commentary.

  • Moderator: This range’s highest point was originally named Fisherman’s Peak but was renamed to honor a governor. Formed as a series of massive granite batholiths during the Jurassic but uplifted later during the Tertiary, it features the ski resort of Mammoth—

[Player 1 buzzes in]

  • Player 1: The Rockies?
  • Moderator: Incorrect, neg 5.

[Player 1’s team loses 5 points and cannot ring again during the question]

  • Moderator: Continuing... Mammoth Lakes just south of Lake Mono in the Long Valley Caldera while Kings Canyon National park is near its southern end. Famously crossed by John C. Frémont in the winter of 1843, for 10 points, name this mountain range traversed by the Donner Pass and home to Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks.

[Player 2 buzzes in]

  • Player 2: The Sierra Nevada?
  • Moderator: Correct, 10 points, now your bonus.

[Player 2’s team is awarded 10 points and gets a bonus question with the possibility of earning 30 extra points. The bonus is composed of 3 parts, each worth 10 points]

  • Moderator: Answer the following about various declarations and demands around the turn of the 20th century, for ten points each. First, the Omaha Platform was the political platform of this party who ran James Weaver for President in 1892 and won over a million popular votes.

[Player 2’s Team now has 5 seconds to discuss and come up with a possible answer.]

  • Player 2: Populists?
  • Moderator: Correct. Earlier, the Farmer’s Alliance made these 1890 demands, which were named for a city in Florida, advocating many populist principles such as free silver and abolishing national banks.
  • Player 2: Umm... I don’t know.
  • Moderator: That’s the Ocala Demands... The Osawatomie Declaration by this man in 1910 echoed many of the populists demands and combined them with the tenets of his own Progressive party.
  • Player 2: Oh yeah, that’s Roosevelt.
  • Moderator: I need more. [Since there are several famous Roosevelts, players need to provide more specific information]
  • Player 2: Teddy.
  • Moderator: Correct, 20 points on the bonus.

[Player 2’s team earns 20 points for their correct answers of Populists and Teddy Roosevelt out of a possible 30 points]

  • Moderator: Next tossup... [This cycle of Tossups and Bonuses continues until the end of the match is reached, either after a certain number of tossups or if a time limit expires, depending on the format]

Question Sources and Formats

National Tournaments/Titles

Quizbowl has a number of different organizations that host tournaments billed as “national championships.” However, not all of these tournaments are created equally. For high school, the premiere tournaments are PACE’s National Scholastics Championship, NAQT’s heavily-attended High School National Championship Tournament, and NAQT’s Small School National Championship Tournament. Another tournament, NASAT, is a national tournament for state all-star teams. NAQT's Middle School National Championship has been held since 2011 for middle school teams. The National History Bee and Bowl runs high school and middle school division national championships as well. NAQT’s national championship for individuals is the Individual Player National Championship Tournament, which has high school and middle school divisions.

Additionally, Chip Beall and his company Questions Unlimited run the National Academic Championship, but this tournament and the format it uses are experiencing a decline in popularity and fields limited to ever-smaller areas. Please see the articles on NAC Popularity and Legitimacy and Reasons for NAC's Continued Existence.

On the college circuit, Academic Competition Federation runs a national championship tournament in ACF format and NAQT also runs an Intercollegiate Championship Tournament, with both usually held in April each year. As of 2020, teams usually qualify for the ICT and ACF Nationals based upon how well they perform at NAQT’s Sectional Championship Tournaments and ACF's ACF Regionals, respectively, which are usually held in February.

College Bowl used to run a National Championship Tournament, but that championship was widely not regarded as a legitimate national title and is now defunct. See this article for more details and criticisms of College Bowl.

Online Quizbowl Community

Quizbowl players have formed an active online community, centered around the HSQB Forums. Many of those discussions are now moving to various quizbowl Discords that now exist at the team, state, region, and national level. Some teams or organizations may also have Twitter accounts as well.

Common Misconceptions about Quizbowl

“When you love something, you generally want to share it with people. I can’t remember the last time I met someone and didn’t talk about Quizbowl.” –Emily Dickson, Downington East High School (PA) ‘17

Quizbowl is similar to Jeopardy! in that both involve questions and answers with some mix of academic knowledge and buzzer skills. Quizbowl differs by allowing players to ring in before the end of a question (indeed, this is how most quizbowl questions are answered); not having categories announced before questions (although some local formats may do so); featuring longer, clue-dense questions and avoiding brainteasers; and containing usually more difficult academic topics than might be common on Jeopardy! Nevertheless, a number of quizbowl players have appeared on Jeopardy! and done quite well. See the article on Jeopardy!.

  • All events involving questions and answers are equally good versions of “quizbowl”:

Some tournaments use schedules designed to give teams lots of matches and to make it more likely that the champion is the best team rather than allowing one or two upsets to have a major impact on the standings. Also, some questions are well-written, which means that more knowledgeable teams have an advantage over teams that have good buzzer speed or just get lucky. See the comparison between the practices prevalent in good quizbowl vs. bad quizbowl.

  • Quizbowl questions can be about any random fact or piece of trivia:

Questions in quizbowl are generally written about topics that are important (significa, not trivia) and that the participants have varying levels of knowledge about (see the discussion of pyramidal questions). If you choose a random book from a large library or a random fact, they might very well be too unimportant and too unknown to be asked about in quizbowl. Put another way, you are unlikely to be asked about the exact height of Mt. Everest in quizbowl; knowing the exact height of Mt. Everest, however, may well come up as a clue in a question Mt. Everest alongside many other clues that focus on other aspects of Mt. Everest.

  • It is impossible to study for quizbowl:

Many, many players get better at quizbowl by studying old questions and by studying the academic concepts that the questions ask about. Resources like www.quizbowlpackets.com and other study tools can be quite helpful. Of course, paying attention in school and reading books will help as well, but targeted study of old quizbowl questions may pay off faster.

  • A player who finishes at the top of the individual statistical standings is the best player at the tournament:

This may or may not be true depending on circumstances. Playing alone or with weaker teammates may allow players to rack up high individual scores without winning many games. For instance, player A on a weak team may average 60 PPG and finish near-last at a tournament, while player B may average only 40 PPG but finish on the winning team where his/her teammates also average around 30-40 PPG. In that case, though player A finishes higher in the individual statistics, player B is likely a superior player. Thus, interpret individual statistics with caution.