Online quizbowl is the practice of playing quizbowl over a computer, as opposed to attending the school, college, or convention center hosting the event in-person.
Though online quiz competitions like Quiznet have occurred as far back as 1995, the online "good quizbowl" scene only emerged in the early 2010s with practices and tournaments held on Skype. It was generally treated as a novelty and was largely reserved for scrimmages, playtesting, and informal open events. Around 2018, online quizbowl abandoned Skype in favor of Discord, driven by Discord's superior quality and the rise of quizbowl Discord servers.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a huge uptick in online scrimmages and tournaments as a substitute for in-person competition. The first online tournaments to be held on Zoom and Google Meet occurred during that period, as hosts experimented with various platforms.
Since an actual physical buzzer system cannot be used, buzzing must be done is another manner. The website buzzin.live mimics a lockout buzzer system by converting either a phone or computer into a buzzer. Another common practice involves players simply typing "buzz" into a text channel and moderators recognizing the first buzz to appear on their screen.
Since there is no online platform dedicated solely to quizbowl, platforms used for tournaments vary. Discord is frequently used for tournaments and can combine a control room, announcements, discussion, and video calls into a single platform. Zoom and Google Meet have also been used for many tournaments. School policies that ban certain platforms have led some tournaments to compromise and hold multiple divisions on separate platforms.
Fewer online tournaments have used bouncebacks due to the increased length and the inability to confer in confidence. Many tournaments require players to use a webcam and always keep their hands visible in order to prevent cheating.
Pros and cons
Playing online has created a completely new way to play quizbowl, with several new challenges as well. Online tournaments have generally experienced increased diversity when it comes to field size, allowing teams to play more with other teams outside their area as well as reducing the time and money long trips generally require. Geographically isolated teams have been able to compete with the larger community, such as teams from Colorado, Singapore, or even Mumbai attending both regular and national tournaments. Regional mirrors have become much more popular and feasible than in previous years, often garnering fields nearly impossible to accomplish for an in-person competition. Lodging fees at national tournaments have similarly become a non-issue, as teams can enjoy nationals from the comfort of their home without having to spend nights in cities often several states away.
Of course, an online tournament comes with disadvantages as well. While internet has expanded exponentially in the past decade, many rural areas still struggle with obtaining playable internet, which can make outreach to rural areas or underdeveloped states even more difficult than before. Online tournaments have also been marred with cheating due to how much easier it is to mask, with players and teams as prestigious as Eric Mukherjee and Princeton confessing to or being heavily accused of cheating in some instances.
Issues like these have caused some players and teams to forgo playing online quizbowl. Even worse, some high-school activities associations like ASCA and MSHSAA have either considered dropping, or (in MSHSAA's case) decided to drop NAQT questions in order to stay in-person, instead using (lower-quality) Academic Hallmarks questions at their district and state championships.
- Staffers need to be extensively trained on the tournament platform that is being used
- Ideally, each moderator will have gone through at least a partial simulated game so they understand how the online platform works and you can resolve questions before the tournament begins. Staffers need to be aware of what could go wrong and what the best procedure is to do in the many new scenarios that online quizbowl offers, such as a player disconnecting, major lag issues, video problems, audio problems, etc. Any commands that are being used or procedures for moving teams from room to room need to be clearly explicated. The same consideration applies to scorekeeping as well, though there are a number of useful spreadsheet systems available now to help facilitate that (but still, readers/scorekeepers need to be trained on them).
- Teams need to be familiar with online platforms and procedures
- Ideally each player should have tested out their video and audio extensively beforehand, with potential backup procedures in place. They need to be able to listen to the audio stream while maintaining a video stream and access to the buzzer that's being used. This may require some testing opportunities before the event as well as clear guides and videos.
- Everything takes longer online
- Reading questions takes longer, resolving issues takes longer, getting the attention of the TD when needed takes longer, responding to inquiries from teams takes longer... basically everything will take a little bit longer. Quizbowl also seems to be a bit more exhausting when it's done online compared to in-person. Tournament directors may want to try modifications such as tossup-only prelim rounds and shortened schedules to account for this.
- Know your audience
- If you are running an event with many schools that are trying online quizbowl for the first time, you should be very aware of the challenges that they might face; this is less of a concern if all of your teams have some online quizbowl experience, but even then keep in mind that tournaments run on Zoom are very different than those run on Discord (and even within those there are many different types of tournament setups). Also, it is very easy if you advertise a tournament online to get a lot of sign-ups from teams that you might not be familiar with. Keep in mind the relative experience of the teams that usually attend events in your area.
Computer-based quizbowl-adjacent tournaments go back as far as the first KMO in 1983 and have included Stars 2000 and other events. Questions Unlimited began running real-time text-based competitions via IRC in 1995 as QuizNet. Voice and video-based technologies such as Skype and Paltalk were used for informal pickup practices and semi-organized scrimmages from at least 2009 onward.
The first paid-entry online video-conference tournament with formal teams designed to simulate the experience of an in-person quizbowl tournament as much as possible was the April 2012 mirror of MUT run by Mike Bentley and the Washington team over Skype.