National Tournament of Academic Excellence
The Panasonic Academic Challenge (PAC), which was also known as the National Tournament of Academic Excellence (NTAE), was a national competition held in June for high school quizbowl teams in the United States. The tournament was held each year from 1988-2009, but it now seems to be gone.
Run at Disney World in Orlando in June of each year since 1988, it was originally known as the National Tournament of Academic Excellence and co-sponsored by the Florida Department of Education and Disney, and it was known as the Panasonic Academic Challenge since Panasonic became the chief sponsor in 1992. The public school system of Polk County has operated the tournament since its inception, through original tournament director Terry Boehm and the longtime TD Peggy Harrod. The tournament has always been held at Disney World, at various hotels within the complex from year to year.
Prior to the 2008 tournament, Peggy Harrod announced that she would be retiring after the 2008 PAC, and she was replaced by Lisa Rawls. Within a few weeks of the end of the 2008 tournament, the tournament website announced that the tournament would be returning to its original name, the National Tournament of Academic Excellence, indicating that Panasonic had withdrawn as a sponsor.
The format used in the PAC is unique among all other national tournaments, and is based on the format used for the Commissioner's Academic Challenge, which is Florida's quizbowl tournament for school districts (separate from their actual high school championship). This tournament is used to select the team which represents Florida at the PAC.
While most tournaments involve two teams playing in a head-to-head format, the PAC involves matches of between four and six teams playing against each other in the same competition room. Each team starts with 100 points.
Each match is divided into three untimed periods. The first period consists of 20 questions, each worth five points. The second period consists of 20 questions, each worth ten points, and the final round consists of 25 questions, each worth fifteen points. Each question has a one minute time limit in which teams may answer. Teams answering incorrectly are penalized the point value of the question. A team is eliminated from competition if their point total reaches zero (a very rare event).
At the end of each period, each team participates in a written team question which has a variable time limit, and a variable number of questions. The written team question after each of the three periods is worth (respectively) a maximum of ten, twenty, and thirty points. There are no penalties for incorrect answers in this phase of the competition. These written questions are non-competitive, and each team may earn the maximum number of points.
At the end of each match, teams are ranked according to their point totals. A tie-breaker occurs only if a tie results among teams that will be advancing to a future match.
Aside from the written team questions, there are no bonus questions which are prevalent in most other quizbowl formats. There is also the absence of "rebounding" a missed question. That is, once a question is attempted, whether the answer given is correct or incorrect, the question ends, and no other team is given the opportunity to answer.
Adding to the challenge, each team is permitted only one button to indicate they are ready to answer, and to lock out other teams from responding (aka "buzzer"). Most other formats allow each player to have their own buzzer.
Topic and Question Formats
The questions used in the PAC are wholly unique among national tournaments. Unlike most other tournaments there are multiple choice and matching questions, some of which can be deceptively difficult. There are also "fill-in-the-blank style questions," as well as free response questions (standard to high school quizbowl).
While topics range across the academic canon, there is an overall de-emphasis of pop culture questions, and a marked increase in the number of mathematics questions (teams are provided calculators). Foreign language is also utilized often, with teams usually choosing from amongst French or Spanish questions (in the past, German and Latin were options, but these have been discontinued). Much of the promotional material for the PAC uses language such as "not a trivial pursuit contest" and "different from most quizbowl tournaments," which is hopefully a relic of the days when they competed with the very trivial NAC.
There are also visual questions displayed on a television monitor, and audio questions played from recordings. While these two question formats can be used for any question category, audio questions are most often used for music and foreign language questions, while video questions are most often used for art questions.
The tournament is usually held during the second or third week of June, starting on a Sunday, and ending on a Tuesday. The tournament is usually held at the convention center of the Disney's Contemporary Resort Hotel at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
Teams are randomly assigned to a first round match (historically, each first round match has either four or five teams in each competition room). Winning teams automatically advance to the semifinals. Teams not winning in the first round are randomly assigned to a consolation match, and compete on Monday. Winners of each consolation match also advance to the semifinals.
There are usually three semifinal matches played on Tuesday morning. The top two teams from each semifinal advance to the championship round, held on Tuesday afternoon.
Coaches are not permitted to challenge the game officials, though players are permitted to do so. Each match generally has at least one judge who is a specialist in each academic area.
An unusual feature of this tournament is that teams do not necessarily qualify based on performance during the past season, as is the case in most other national quizbowl tournaments. The Board of Education (or equivalent body) of each U.S. state and territory is given the power to select a team in any way they see fit. Some teams come from a single school, and are usually the quizbowl champion of that state. In other cases, the Board of Education gives selection power to a committee who chooses an "all-star" team from among that state's best players. Thus each state or territory can enter only one team, and is referred to at the tournament as (for example) "Team Alabama" or "Team Arizona".
Many teams who participate, especially from less quizbowl-heavy regions, are not quizbowl teams at all but rather top Academic Decathlon performers or high achievers from other non-quizbowl academic competitions.
Since 1990, an All-America Team of six players from the tournament has been named and received additional scholarship prizes and a medal.
Each team is assigned to one of six geographic regions which are announced in advance. Only one player is selected from each region, thus the "All-America" team is not designed to recognize the best six players. Further, selection is based on an individual's performance solely in the preliminary round on the first day of competition, and a pre-tournament ranking by the team's coach. Thus, a player ranked #2 on their team by their own coach may have a very good round, but if another team's #1 player has almost as good a round, that player could conceivably be named to the team ahead of the better performing player.
Further, given the "team" emphasis of the tournament (each team having only a single buzzer until the finals), some teams will have one player answer when in fact two or more players have the same answer. Thus a single player is credited with an answer, when in fact the answer was arrived at mutually.
From 1992 to 1999, participants at the PAC were polled about a variety of current political issues, with the results reported in press releases from 1993 to 1999. See the individual tournament pages for more.
There are a number of criticisms that have come up from past participants (coaches and players), as well as from observers and others in the national quizbowl community.
The questions tend to be non-pyramidal, and as a result can lead to buzzer races which do not differentiate the team with the stronger knowledge base. Some have specifically singled out the matching questions as examples of questions that can be buzzer beaters.
The tournament does not attempt to seed teams. Placement in each round (excluding the championship) is random. Further, the blind draw is not done publicly which, given the presence of a home team in Team Florida, has led some to question the honesty of this process. It is rarely the case that even the most ardent supporters of the tournament acknowledge that the final six teams are truly the six best teams in the tournament.
Every round involves no fewer than four teams, and as many as six teams in a room. Thus, a team that has no chance of advancing, can affect the score by buzzing in and "stealing" the opportunity from teams in competition to advance or place to win points.
The entrance of all-star teams is also controversial, especially given that some states explicitly bar them, giving their state representative a notable disadvantage. Some oppose all-star teams on general principle, while others are upset that their state awards their state's entry to a state champion who may be wholly unfamiliar with the format, and who may not necessarily make the commitment for preparation; instead looking at the trip as a vacation.
While not something that pertains to the questions (see strengths), the presence of the tournament at Walt Disney World has leveled the charge of the tournament becoming too much involved in funn. Teams are encouraged to spend free time in the various theme parks. Many competitive teams strictly limit their time in these areas, and spend a great more time resting or practicing.
The entry fees are the highest of any tournament. This has hampered many states from being represented. Its non-central location can lead to travel difficulties which further cuts down on teams entering. The amount of the entry fee is also an issue given that each team is only guaranteed two matches; the lowest of any national tournament.
Some have criticized the amount of computational math, which is a hindrance to teams more used to NAQT or ACF-like formats. SImilarly, the inclusion of foreign language questions some feel put teams used to formats which exclude this topic at a decided disadvantage.
Some have criticized the use of a single buzzer-per-team (two-per-team in the finals), as this prevents accurately keeping individual statistics.
Some have criticized the restriction of "one team-per-state" rule, which automatically restricts some very talented teams and players from attending. Further, the requirement to go through a respective state's Board of Education often unintentionally introduces red tape that coaches choose not to become involved in. Some State Boards simply dismiss the invitation, and never permit any team to go.
No national tournament has so few questions on trash as the PAC. While early in their run, the tournament did have occasional questions related to sports history, there have been no questions on any pop culture or sports for many years. As with NAQT and PACE, the questions are generally not written as hoses.
Some teams view the inclusion of foreign language and computational math as a strength of the tournament, as it permits teams from states which include these topics to compete nationally in a format that is closer to their home format.
As national tournament sponsors go, PAC can be included with PACE and NAQT as hosts who are concerned with the players, and are not interested in using players and their coaches for entertainment or exploitation.
PAC includes some of the nicest prizes among national tournaments. While the small trophies given to the top six teams often vanish because they are sent to the governor of the respective state, players on top teams earn rather handsome cash awards. Others have dismissed this as a criticism, stating that it does too much to focus on sponsors and not truly on the players.
Some have opined that the use of All-Star teams is a strength of the tournament, as it allows the best and hardest working players of a state to come together and succeed.