A game of quiz bowl being played at the University of Delaware
|Years active||c. 1953–present|
|Age range||School-aged and up|
|Playing time||~30 minutes (can vary widely)|
|Random chance||Very little|
|Skill(s) required||Knowledge, learning|
|Material(s) required||Lockout buzzer system, questions|
Quiz bowl (also known as quizbowl, scholars' bowl, and academic bowl) is a quiz game that tests players on academic subjects. It is commonly played by college and high school students, and sometimes by middle and elementary school students.
The game is typically played with a lockout buzzer system between at least two teams, most commonly consisting of four or five players each. Players are read questions and try to score points for their team by buzzing first and responding with the correct answer.
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The predecessor to most forms of modern quiz bowl was developed during World War II by Don Reid as an USO activity for US service men. After the war, Reid developed the game into a game show, which started on radio in 1953 and aired on national television from 1959 to 1970. In 1977, the format was revived on college campuses by College Bowl Company Inc. (CBCI), which operated until 2008. In September 1990, the Academic Competition Federation (ACF) was incorporated as the first major alternative to College Bowl on university campuses. In 1996, National Academic Quiz Tournaments (NAQT) was founded. Today, most major college-level competitions are run by either ACF or NAQT, with varying formats and governing rules.
In recent years, many former quiz bowl players have gone on to become successful game show contestants. Several of the top dollar winners in the history of Jeopardy! include former players such as Ken Jennings, David Madden, and Brad Rutter.
Two or more teams of up to four or five players each sit at a set of buzzers while a moderator reads them questions. Anyone who buzzes in locks out everyone else from doing so. There are two basic types of questions asked: tossups and bonuses. Tossups are questions that any individual player can attempt to answer. At any point during the reading of one, a player may buzz in and attempt to answer. If the answer given is incorrect, then no other member of that team may attempt to answer, with only players from the other team being able to buzz in. Bonuses are a series of related questions awarded to teams who answer a tossup correctly. Unlike tossups, teams are allowed to confer on bonuses. Some tournaments allow missed bonus parts to be answered by the team that did not originally control the bonus. Some games include a lightning round during which one team attempts to answer multiple questions as fast as possible under a given time limit.
If a tossup is successfully answered, the correctly answering team is given an opportunity to answer a bonus question. The bonus question is usually given in multiple parts, with each part being worth a stated number of points. Team members are generally permitted to confer with each other on these questions. Usually, only the team that answered the tossup question correctly can answer the bonus questions, though some formats allow the opposing team to answer certain parts of the bonus not correctly answered by the team in control of the bonus, a feature known as a "bounceback". In some formats, a team controlling the bonus may choose to decline to answer a bonus part, "passing" it and denying their opponent a chance to answer. In others, often those whose game length is determined by time elapsed, the non-controlling team is given opportunities to answer both incorrect answers and passes, leaving that team to decide whether to expend additional time in an effort to answer the question.
Some regional or local tournaments may dispose of bonus questions altogether. Instead, matches consist of two rounds usually similar in the number of questions but differing in the difficulty and, accordingly, in the number of points awarded for correct answers. In most such formats, questions in the second round are worth twice as much as are questions in the first round.
Overtime occurs if there is a tie at the end of regulation play. Overtime structures vary from format to format and may include extra toss-ups until the tie is broken or one team establishes a lead of a given size, entire toss-up or toss-up-and-bonus sets until one team leads at the end of a set, a multiple-toss-up playoff, or a fixed time period, which is usually one to three minutes.
Quiz bowl tests players in a variety of academic subjects, but most prominently literature, science, and, history. Additionally, some quiz bowl events may feature small amounts of popular culture content like sports, popular music, and other general knowledge subjects, although their inclusion is generally kept to a minimum.
Tossups are so named because each team has an equal opportunity to buzz in, answer the question, and earn points. There are two main types of tossups: pyramidal tossups and buzzer-beaters. Players may interrupt and answer quiz bowl tossups at any time, unlike Trivial Pursuit and Jeopardy!.
Pyramidal or pyramid-style tossup questions include multiple clues, generally written so that each question starts with more difficult clues and moves toward easier clues. This type of toss-up is the standard style written in college and high school tournaments. Pyramidal-style questions are designed to give the player with the most knowledge of the subject being asked about the best opportunity to answer first. Criticisms of pyramidal tossups include longer running times for matches and the difficulty in writing them.
Buzzer-beater, speed check, fast-buzz, or quick-recall questions are relatively shorter, rarely more than two sentences long, and contain fewer clues. This type of question is written specifically to test quick recall skills of players, and does not discriminate the different levels of knowledge that the players possess. They have virtually disappeared at the college level, although remain present almost everywhere else.
In most formats, correct tossup answers earn the team 10 points. Some formats award extra points, usually for a total of 15 or 20 points, if a question is answered prior to a certain clue-providing keyword in the question (an action informally known in these formats as "powering") or penalize teams for answering the question incorrectly after interrupting it with a five-point penalty (an action informally known as "negging." There is usually no penalty for when a player from the team receiving an uncontested opportunity to answer a tossup also buzzes in with a wrong answer before the question is complete.
Bonus questions awarded to a team that has successfully answered a tossup and may or may not be related to corresponding tossups. Bonus questions with multiple parts are often seen in a patterned format, in which the individual parts of a bonus question are often related by some common thread. This common thread is often revealed in the opening part of the bonus question, called the "lead-in". A team is usually rewarded with 10 points upon correctly answering a bonus part.
Some less-used types of bonus questions include list bonuses, which require players to give their answers from a requested list, and "30-20-10" bonuses, which give three or some other number of discrete clues in order of decreasing difficulty, with more points being awarded for giving an answer on an earlier clue. The 30-20-10 bonus was officially banned from ACF in 2008 and NAQT in 2009.
For tournament purposes, a format covers rules of play, question structure, and question content. For questions, this includes topics, difficulty, and writing style. Rules of play include player eligibility, scoring of questions, acceptable answers, and procedures for protesting a question.
In particular, ACF, CBCI, HCASC, NAQT, and UC each have distinctive formats, while certain college tournaments and programs have developed their own distinctive formats. However, the basic ACF format is more or less standard for non-NAQT or pre-2010 PACE tournaments in the US.
The ACF format has a rigorous emphasis on academics. There is no limit on graduate student participation. Toss-ups are typically written in pyramidal style, with more difficult clues coming first. ACF is untimed; questions are generally much longer than CBCI questions. Games are usually played to a total of 20 tossups read.
The now-defunct College Bowl format emphasizes comparatively shorter questions. The limits on participation are 6 years total in CBCI tournaments and only one graduate student per team. Questions tend to be structured so that most of the players know the answers to tossups read in their entirety. It is played in eight-minute halves, to a usual total of 22–24 tossups read, though there's no actual limit and 30-toss-up games, though quite rare, have occurred. Gameplay is relatively quick as a result. The Honda Campus All Star Challenge and University Challenge use a similar format.
NAQT format balances the diversity of subjects found in CB packets with the academic rigor of the ACF format. The limits on participation are complex, but in general, as long as a player is earning a degree, they can play. Gameplay is markedly different from ACF or CB formats. Timeouts and player substitution during timeouts are allowed. The NAQT also uses power marks in tossups, which rewards 15 points instead of 10 for a tossup answered before a certain point. Game length can vary a little, but a standard length for NAQT is nine-minute halves and a total of 24 to 26 tossups. National and regional tournaments follow these formats very closely, while invitationals often modify these formats for their own use. NAQT also writes questions and helps organize tournaments at the high school level.
The National Academic Championship is played in four-quarter format, with gameplay broken up into several phases with differing styles of gameplay in each phase. Individual formats vary but may include worksheets, lightning rounds, and tossups, with or without accompanying bonuses.
Other competitions evolved from these formats include competitions testing knowledge in the Bible, Latin, modern foreign languages, and hundreds of other specialties. DECA runs a quiz bowl competition that tests knowledge on business and market topics.  Many medical schools use quiz bowl-style competitions as part of their "grand rounds" specialty training for students and interns. In the 1990s, "Deaf College Bowl" for university teams with hearing-impaired students emerged. Tournaments designated as "trash" tournaments focus on pop culture and sports trivia.
In addition, other variants on the above quiz bowl formats are used at the high school level, including such formats as those of the Ohio Academic Competition (OAC), Partnership for Academic Competition Excellence (PACE), and the National Tournament of Academic Excellence (NTAE).
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One contentious issue in quiz bowl is what constitutes "good" quiz bowl. Proponents of certain reforms purport to increase the educational value and fairness of quiz bowl while retaining its enjoyment, primarily by using pyramidal questions. Tournaments such as College Bowl were criticized for superfluous clues in their questions and for using repeats from previous years.
Quiz bowl is generally played at tournaments, though high schools will also commonly play single matches against local schools or schools within an athletic conference. During tournaments, teams gather to engage each other in several rounds of games. A tournament winner is determined using some criteria such win-loss record. There are several classes of tournaments, which may use one of several formats. Many schools hold intramural tournaments where any team formed from students on that campus can play. On occasion, such tournaments may be open to graduate students and/or campus faculty.
Invitational tournaments involve teams from various schools and are generally run by the quiz bowl team from the host school. Invitations are sometimes sent to individual programs, though most tournaments give out open invitations for any school to accept. Major variants of invitational tournaments include national, regional, novice, and open tournaments. Such tournaments often have qualification requirements, sometimes including purchase of intramural tournament packets, or participation in regional tournaments (or other tournaments). They have unique rules above their associated formats, usually concerning eligibility and number of teams per school.
As with other interscholastic competition, there are eligibility rules that dictate who may participate in a particular event. Eligibility rules mainly concern collegiate quiz bowl, and often depend on the format. In official College Bowl and NAQT events, among others, there are rigid eligibility rules. Independent events have varying restrictions on participation like allowing only freshman and sophomore players or excluding graduate students from play. College Bowl in particular would allow only one graduate student per team. Non-students are usually excluded from college tournaments, although they may participate in "open" tournaments. Some intramural tournaments allow faculty members to play.
Collegiate national tournaments
At the college level, there exist several academic tournaments run by organizations not affiliated with a given school. These generally have regional competitions followed by a national championship. These organizations include:
- National Academic Quiz Tournaments (NAQT)
- Academic Competition Federation (ACF)
- Honda Campus All-Star Challenge (HCASC) for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, sponsored by the USA subsidiary of Honda Motor Company. This program is administered by the College Bowl Company, Inc. (CBCI) in cooperation with the Association of College Unions International (ACUI) and the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Education (NAFEO).
High-school national tournaments
A number of organizations conduct national competitions for high-school students in the United States. These include:
- High School National Championship Tournament (HSNCT) is sponsored by National Academic Quiz Tournaments since 1999. The tournament has been held in a number of different cities throughout its existence.
- National Scholastics Championship (NSC) has been held since 1998, and is organized by the Partnership for Academic Competition Excellence (PACE). The competition has been held at various sites in the South, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest.
- National Academic Championship (NAC) has been held since 1983, and is sponsored by Questions Unlimited. The tournament is played at three sites throughout the nation every year.
- The National All-Star Academic Tournament (NASAT) is a national tournament hosted by High School Academic Pyramidal Questions (HSAPQ). NASAT is played by all-star teams from each state in an ACF format tournament.
- The National Tournament of Academic Excellence (formerly known as the Panasonic Academic Challenge) traditionally at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. It is sponsored in part by the county and state school boards of the State of Florida, with Panasonic holding title-sponsor status from 1992 to 2008.
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Some elementary and middle schools use quiz bowl as an activity to generate interest in academic subjects among younger students. Participants are thought to benefit from exposure to a broad range of school and cultural subjects, memorization and study skills, and an improved ability to cooperate and work in teams.
No form of quiz bowl at the college level is broadcast regularly in the United States on a national basis. The "College Quiz Bowl" was broadcast on NBC radio from 1953 to 1955; General Electric College Bowl was televised on CBS and later NBC from 1959 to 1970, College Bowl returned to CBS radio 1979-82, and HCASC was broadcast on BET until 1995. The Texaco Star National Academic Championship premiered July 1, 1989 on the Discovery Channel . and was hosted by Chip Beall until 1993. In 1994, it was syndicated as the Star Challenge and hosted by Mark Wahlberg. University Challenge is licensed from CBCI by Granada TV Ltd. and broadcast in the United Kingdom.
There is no relationship between quiz bowl and Jeopardy! or any other TV trivia game shows, other than that many of the contestants may be the same. NAQT maintains a list of current and former quiz bowl players at any level who have appeared on TV game shows.
Televised quiz bowl
Quiz bowl shows have been on television for many years in some areas, featuring both college and high school competitions.
- Academic games
- Knowledge bowl
- National History Bee and Bowl
- Reach for the Top – A long lasting Canadian high school tournament, broadcast on some provincial levels and at the national level
- Quick Recall
- Schools' Challenge – a UK high school tournament
- Science Bowl – a national high school and middle school tournament focused on science
- University Challenge
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