Anti-NAQT sentiment

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Since its founding in 1996, anti-NAQT sentiment has existed against National Academic Quiz Tournaments.

While this article will feature several legitimate issues with NAQT from both past and present, it will attempt to also include the less evidence-based criticisms that have been leveled against it over the years - for a detailed discussion of just the former, see criticisms of NAQT.

Overview

NAQT has long distinguished itself from its competitors in quiz bowl with a 24 tossup/24 bonus format which incorporates a large amount of pop culture, misc, and a unique flavor that can verge into the extreme. In comparison to ACF, its questions are shorter and have powermarks, and its rounds at various levels of competition were timed. These major differences, as well as minor points like per-set rather than per-packet distributions and a propensity for mixed academic questions, have long been sticking points for those who prefer a different sort of quizbowl experience.

Some of these differences are due to NAQT positioning itself as the "good quizbowl" replacement for College Bowl, retaining some of the quirks that made CB so popular in an effort to absorb more of the audience[dubious - discuss]. Founded to represent a vision of the game which emphasized tests of knowledge over any gimmicks, ACF adopted a distribution which featured 20 tossups and 20 bonuses with no pop culture and no powermarks. The two competitions have maintained these differences since their founding, and though not everyone likes it ACF has become the standard for much of modern quizbowl: housewrites almost exclusively use the modified ACF format rather than any approximation of NAQT's, few feature pop culture, and most difficulty scales are pinned to the flagship ACF events of Fall, Regionals, and Nationals.

Despite this, NAQT is a much larger organization. The popularity of its Invitational Series and its collaborations with regional organizations like VHSL mean that majority of all quizbowl players play primarily NAQT questions, with a significant fraction not playing questions from any other provider (or even being aware of any alternatives). As another data point, as of 2021 the top ten largest tournaments ever have all been High School National Championship Tournaments run by NAQT; ACF does not run any high school events. The size of NAQT means that it is important whether or not they are doing a good job. An incremental improvement in the quality of NAQT questions would affect literally thousands of people, so it is in everyone's benefit that they are kept accountable.

Historically, there has been anti-NAQT sentiment. Some of it was fueled by criticisms of the organization that have been largely taken to heart and used to improve the organization and the tournaments that it runs. Some of it is has been fueled by simple dislike: of NAQT, of its tournaments, of the institutions it represents. Some of it has legitimacy and addresses community concerns that have yet to be resolved. This article is a summary of some of the causes and reasons for this mainstay of quizbowl discourse.

FAQ

Is NAQT "good quizbowl"?

Yes.

"Good quizbowl" is a catch-all term coined during the transition away from College Bowl and related formats which encompasses a number of axioms which are held to be essential to a fair and meaningful game. Core among these are that questions should abhor trivia, fairly reward knowledge, and incorporate pyramidality.

In NAQT's early history, there was considerable debate over whether NAQT had distanced itself enough from college quizbowl's predecessors. During this time period, the invested portion of the community, including those who were dictating the direction of the game, was heavily invested in a vision of the game exemplified by ACF. In this same era NAQT questions and tournaments were frequently below the quality of the equivalent ACF products, with various ICTs of the early 2000's marred by controversies. Since then, however, NAQT's hiring of members of the community like Jeff Hoppes and continued efforts for improvement mean that it is now widely considered to be of commensurate quality with its competitors.

In the modern era, almost every NAQT question is written to meet the standards of "good quizbowl". There exist exceptions in the form of television-format questions, which are often written as speedchecks which are not strictly pyramidal. In these situations NAQT has been limited by existing formats which prevent the use of pyramidal questions, but their work with these contracts continues to satisfy other standards of quality (e.g. an emphasis on straight-forward academic questions instead of hoses, swerves, or other banal content) and has the added benefit of forcing out other providers, which do not have similar standards.

Along with ACF, NAQT has been upholding these tenets of "good quizbowl" across the nation (and as of 2018, worldwide) since their founding.

Is NAQT pyramidal?

Yes.

Setting aside the TV sets presented as an exception in the previous section, every NAQT question at every difficulty level is written to be pyramidal. This is a key observation to make: it is not possible for every question written to be perfectly pyramidal (i.e. to have every clue in strictly descending difficulty order) but having knowledge of an writer's good intentions is typically sufficient to forgive mistakes in this regard, provided they are infrequent enough to indicate good faith attempts. At this point in time, there is no reason to suspect that NAQT is systematically failing to maintain pyramidality in its questions.

A common reason for this charge to be leveled is that, with the short length of NAQT questions, even a single pair of inverted clues can produce a significant difference in how a question plays. Nevertheless, such anecdotal evidence should be carefully considered.

Does NAQT produce high quality questions?

Generally.

Question quality is a subjective assessment - people can and do disagree about what constitutes a "good" question. There are some objective measures by which NAQT excels - their copy-editing, inclusion of pronunciation guides, and use of standard answerlines is well above average. Generally speaking, their feng shui is good and repeats are minimized; however, the large number of sets they produce means that there are often non-trivial repeats from tournament to tournament and occasionally round to round.

NAQT questions are, at minimum, popular. They are, additionally, open to criticism to about question quality (though historically this has not been a super productive avenue, it has gotten better in recent years). One major strength of NAQT is that anyone can apply to be a writer, and thus anyone can materially change the way that questions are written. Subject editors are replaced infrequently, but they are replaced. These may not seem worthy of praise, but consider that almost every low quality question provider (e.g. Avery Enterprises) is written by a very small set of incredibly senior writers who do not take feedback of any kind (or at least, do not take it well).

Opposite these broad-sense defenses of NAQT is the fact that there are definitely low quality NAQT questions, some particularly egregious, and that these questions have materially degraded the experience of players. As NAQT is currently the largest single question provider, it is even possible that they have (numerically) more low quality questions than anyone else. When trying to make an overall assessment of the quality of NAQT questions, it is hard to know how to weigh the subjective experience of an individual.

Are IS sets better than housewrites?

For many years, NAQT Invitational Series sets have been used to define the standard high school difficulty. They are all intended to be the same difficulty, which should be more or less appropriate for an average high school team.

Many of the players who are aware enough to compare the quality of housewrites versus IS sets are members of above average teams. It is difficult for one to meaningfully judge the quality of a set that is below one's skill level, as their only available tool is a subjective experience which will not align with the intended audience. Teams which can power the majority of questions in a packet will bristle at a single question that they fail to convert in a manner disproportionate to how an average team might; they will enjoy a rewarding first line more than a well-written giveaway. This does not invalidate their experiences, but it betrays a set of expectations that may not be an accurate gauge for "quality".

By most objective standards, teams perform similarly on housewrites and IS sets. Though some players have said that they've never met anyone who enjoys NAQT sets, there is certainly some selection bias in that statement considering there are thousands of players of IS sets every year.

Do NAQT sets have too much difficulty variation?

There are no two questions in a set which can meaningfully be called "equally hard", but they can both be put under a single umbrella of difficulty which defines their tournament; for this reason, difficulties are bell-curves and their exact dimensions are subject to vigorous debate. The best controlled housewrites are written with narrower concept of a difficulty than an IS set, meaning that there will be NAQT questions which its editors considered appropriate that a player might consider "too hard" in a vacuum - nevertheless, it may still fit under the "regular difficulty" umbrella. Poorly controlled housewrites may take a wide tack or even overshoot entirely in a way that is almost categorically impossible for IS sets.

There is an obvious reason why difficulty control is important, as a set which fails to control difficulty plays much like a train wreck between two tournaments. Nevertheless, one must consider whether questions meaningfully meet this criteria to use this argument. How many questions per round must be too hard, or too easy, and by how much? Evidence is rarely provided and when it is, it is sparse and not particularly convincing. Some sympathy must be afforded for complaints of this nature: it is not typically possible for objective measures of difficulty variation to be obtained for sets, which are often not clear for months after a given tournament. Additionally, there are often legitimate claims to made about the variation from packet to packet. Nevertheless, the fact is that the bulk of these arguments come from individuals with self-avowed biases against NAQT sets providing brief personal accounts.

Is HSNCT too expensive?

This is ultimately a question that can only be decided by individual teams. The 2021 HSNCT was held online and cost $650 per team before discounts; the 2020 HSNCT started at $695. For many teams, this is a very large number and undoubtedly there are schools which either do not attend or do not send every team they qualify because they view this as too much money.

There are few other tournaments which can purport to substitute for HSNCT in any meaningful way - these alternatives are typically at the same price point, if not more expensive. A noted exception to this was in 2021, when the NSC dipped in price to $450. Nevertheless, the NSC is roughly a quarter the size of the HSNCT and is a very different tournament experience, with 20 point powers, bouncebacks, and no negs.

HSNCT is the largest single tournament in the country every year. Hundreds of teams opt to pay the entrance fee every year because they feel the prestige and the experience of attending the premier high school national is sufficient compensation for the cost. If a player, team, or coach decides that they disagree, they can vote with their wallet and not attend; that is their choice.

Ultimately, this decision must come down to the team, because NAQT has no financial incentive to decrease tournament fees considering the popularity of their national tournaments, and even if they could it is not obvious how much they could decrease their fees anyways.

Specific examples

2004 ICT DII Eligibity Scandal

Main page: 2004 ICT DII Eligibility Scandal

This section is incomplete.

Arminius scandal

Main page: Arminius scandal

During the mid-2000s, standard protest procedure was woefully inadequate. While the rules regarding what situations can be protested have been in place for many years,[citation needed] the advent of codified procedures for how they're resolved is much more recent.

In round 5 of the 2006 ICT, a VCU team of Andrew Alexander, Vinod Kondragunta, and Matt Weiner played against a Stanford team of Kristiaan De Greve, Brian Lindquist, and Eric Smith. At the end of the game Stanford was leading in points, but VCU had lodged a protest which would have swung the result: they had given an answer of "Herman" for a tossup on "Arminius" and been ruled incorrect. Their protest was ultimately rejected, but discussion after the tournament revealed that "Herman" fit many criteria for being acceptable (in particular being a translation of the name "Arminius" in several contexts mentioned in the question)[1] and that the protest had been resolved quickly and without any consultation of outside sources.[2] It also became clear that at least one other player had made the same of "Herman" for "Arminius"[3] and that several other protests had been handled suboptimally as well. In particular, the round 4 game between Michigan and Vanderbilt had both teams make multiple protests before the half which were resolved before the game's conclusion, leaving both teams satisfied that Michigan had won. However, the protest committee met up again later and reversed their decision, flipping the result of the game; this was not communicated to the teams.[4][5]

Issues with protests were only one of the numerous complaints that teams had about the 2006 ICT. The quality and distribution of NAQT questions remained a major complaint, as computational math remained a possibility and the clock-killing neg remained viable. Though many considered that year's ICT the best thus far, there was pessimism that NAQT would be able to address all these criticisms, especially as they were hardly new - there was doubt that even signing up as a writer would be sufficient to change the direction that questions were going.

Aftermath

VCU ultimately placed 4th after losing a tiebreaker to Chicago A. Matt Weiner insisted that they should have been an undisputed 3rd, as the tiebreaker was only needed due to the protest resolution giving them a tied record with Chicago. Despite public outcry, NAQT never revisited their protest decision and VCU remains 4th in the official stats. At the next year's ICT VCU again placed 4th after again losing a tiebreaker for third. Matt Weiner created the :arminius: emoticon on the forums to reference the incident which sees extremely infrequent use.

The Arminius scandal was one of the incidents that shaped modern protest procedure, alongside others like Bellarmine's experience at the 2011 NSC. In modern quizbowl, it is the norm for a tournament to have either a dedicated or ad hoc protest committee which is responsible for adjudicating protests and communicating them to involved teams. Decisions are researched, they are typically given a justification, and are consistently communicated to involved teams.

In the time since the 2006 ICT, NAQT has seen a marked uptick in quality. The hiring of community members Jeff Hoppes and Seth Teitler and the gradual replacement of many old-guard editors has meant that the company has drastically improved its engagement with the community and has largely kept abreast of advancements in the game. Many of the particularly onerous aspects of the game of that era have been removed, like computation questions at the collegiate level.

"HSNCT and its Problems"

Main page: HSNCT and its Problems

Starting in 2018, Discord quickly outstripped the IRC in popularity as the standard quizbowl messaging client. The forums also experienced low adoption rates among the younger generation, with the number of active users quickly being dwarfed by the combination of the main, hsquizbowl, and regional Discords. A consequence of more players entering these centralized and informal quizbowl spaces was that in-groups were being formed faster, and inside each was every friend group's favorite activity: mutual complaining. While previous years of high schoolers had spent time on the social dynamics between "olds" and "youngs", in 2020 one of the conversations was whether housewrites were superior to NAQT IS sets.

Popular opinion within a large group of online high schoolers ultimately settled on housewrites being significantly better, a sentiment exacerbated by the fact that many were top players who would frequently promote housewrites that they were affiliated with. With COVID-19 forcing all of quizbowl online, this combination of joking and serious thoughts would be passed back and forth ad infinitum until many were willing to unironically say that NAQT was not "good quizbowl", not worth the money, and not worth playing.

In the lead-up to the 2021 HSNCT, the thread "HSNCT and its Problems"[6] was posted to highlight these sentiments, which it claimed were "not at all unique to [its poster]". Though several of its points were well-received, especially those regarding NAQT's non-existent-at-the-time online cheating policy and its strict answer timing rules (which were not changed for online play), the post was roundly criticized for its inflammatory tone and weak argumentation. In particular, many of those who disagreed (predominantly collegiate and older players) focused on its arguments for decreasing the cost of HSNCT based off the pricing of that year's NSC and ONCT, and its claims about NAQT's quality and distribution, which concluded with the statements that "it's hard to call NAQT 'pyramidal good quizbowl' anymore" and that players should consider not attending HSNCT.

Aftermath

The post was the first time that this recent streak of anti-NAQT sentiment entered the spheres which older members of the community frequented, but it was not its end. Even after the original poster apologized for their tone after the 2021 HSNCT (which they attended), there was no rescinding of any of the points. Excerpts of Discord conversations in the aftermath of the post revealed that many high schoolers held even more radical stances than were expressed on the forums.

References

  1. ICT discussion: Alternate answers & protest procedure by Matt Weiner » Sat Apr 08, 2006 6:26 pm
  2. My two cents by matt979 » Mon Apr 10, 2006 6:31 pm
  3. [1] by MikeWormdog » Tue Apr 11, 2006 7:21 pm
  4. [2] by vandyhawk » Mon Apr 10, 2006 10:54 pm
  5. Re: Underwhelmed by rhentzel » Thu Apr 20, 2006 11:52 am
  6. HSNCT and its Problems by etotheipi » Thu Mar 04, 2021 3:27 pm