Thursday, December 05, 2013

Discussion: Competition – Brackets and Power

This is a cross-posting from the NDCA site. I don't want you to think I've been asleep on the job.

(This is the second post in a series begun with

I’m going to make a simple assertion: if debate tournaments didn’t exist, most students wouldn’t debate. Yet from the point of view of education, most of the value derived from debate is in the preparation and not the actual competition. Other competitive activities might make comparable claims, but I’d question them. I absolutely believe in the various benefits of athletics, for instance, but nevertheless I see no great benefit to the practice of pitching baseballs if there isn’t going to be a baseball game this weekend, whereas studying philosophy or geopolitics or economics has value regardless of this week’s debate calendar. This makes debate competition an unusual animal in that, while the competition per se is all about winning, virtually everything else about the activity is not.

Be that as it may, and I could ramble on forever about the inherent values of debate, when it comes to tournaments, it is all about the competition. Once you commit to the idea of having competitions, the competitions have to be real and meaningful. The following is a probably not complete but nonetheless essential list of principles for tournament management:

Debate tournaments need to scrupulously fair.
They need to reward the competitors who do the best at that tournament.
They need to run under rules that are clearly presented and fully understandable.
They need to be inclusive.
They need to be open and transparent.
They need to address the needs and concerns of all who attend—contestants, judges and coaches

The first two principles, that tournaments need to be fair and that competitors who do best at that tournament should be rewarded, are procedurally linked. We want a process that addresses only how you debate at this tournament, so we seldom draw on past performance for placement. One exception to this is the NDCA tournament, which does some power protection in the presets based on the points accumulated over the year, the same points that got people into the tournament in the first place, and that makes sense. We don’t want, say, the top four competitors, which is theoretically already determined by their points, hitting one another in the first couple of rounds and, perhaps, eliminating one another before things even heat up. But for most tournaments, everyone is equal before the rounds start. There is no pre-event seeding. However, we do want to protect power, insofar as we want the debaters who are debating the best to make it through to the end of elimination rounds as befits their performance. So what we do is use the first couple of rounds to create a seeding for the particular tournament at hand. That is, in common practice at most tournaments, the first two rounds are random (and usually preset to start things off quickly, starting friction at tournaments often being an issue). Anyone can hit anyone, and the chips fall where they may. Occasionally the presumed top debaters do hit one another in presets, but over time random pairings are just that, and it is pretty hard to imagine the top debaters being eliminated in presets; it just doesn’t happen, or at least it happens so rarely that no one sits around worrying about it. The NDCA setup is simply a guarantee that it won’t happen.

After the presets, we work from a bracket system, where as much as possible, people with a given win-loss record hit other people with the same record. Within the bracket, we most often pair high-low, i.e., the highest seed hits the lowest seed, usually based on points. So on the one hand, you’re hitting people in the same position as you, but at the same time, an effort is made to protect power, once again so that the top debaters don’t eliminate one another too early. When the numbers in a bracket don’t work, we pull up someone from the bracket below. When we’re doing this by hand (which I do relatively often at one-day events for younger students), we’ll pull up from the middle of the lower bracket into the middle of the bracket we’re trying to pair. This seems fair and random, but of course we try to minimize the number of pullups, and at tournaments with big fields, they are indeed few and far between because the large number in any bracket sorts things out without resorting to breaking the brackets. As for elimination rounds, these are absolutely based on seed, top seed hitting bottom seed, second seed hitting second from bottom, etc., again based on power protection. None of this, by the way, insures that the top seeds always win. Far from it. It is simply the accepted way of handing the need to reward the top debaters at a tournament, challenging them but not putting them into a position of eliminating one another so that lesser debaters outlast them in the competition.

I think that, in terms of the principles of tournament management, what I’ve just described is fair, and that it does reward the competitors who do the best at that tournament. I’ve seen variations on the theme and run some of those variations myself. For instance, I’ve seen geographic barriers set, where in the random rounds at a national tournament, the two schools who happen to be from adjacent school districts back home and who traveled 2000 miles to get here won’t hit one another until they absolutely have to. This geography can also prevent them from being judged by their usual locals, going past the presets. This also seems right to me, although the judging issue gets subsumed in our further discussion of MJP, to come. The cost of traveling to a tournament is high enough that the teams involved are probably happy not to spend the event battling with their next door neighbors.

Whatever system one chooses to use for pairing a tournament, it needs to be clear to the competitors. Since most of what I’ve been saying here is pretty standard, no one questions it much, if at all. But if someone is going to run a variation on the theme, like geography or any sort of interference with the natural one hundred percent randomness of the first two presets, then everyone needs to know about it. If there are 3 presets, or if a round is paired high-high, or if rounds are lagged-paired, everyone needs to know about it. We all have an expectation of how a given tournament works, and we want that expectation to be true. It’s not so much that we might object to a certain variation, but just that, whatever it is, we deserve to know about it.

This takes us to the realm of transparency in tab rooms. In my career, I have seen tab rooms go from totally locked black boxes to (one hopes) totally transparent operations open to all. As a tabber, I honestly do find that there are times when having an audience is distracting, but it is never prohibited (except at CFL events I run, which have their own rules on tabbing that we try to adhere to). At the point where I’m doing something I wouldn’t want someone to see, I probably shouldn’t be in the tab room. This is one of the reasons why a good tab room is run by more than one person from more than one school, not so much because we don’t trust one another, but because we want to present to those not in tab a picture of an operation that will, by its very construction, not be biased. We want to be seen as above suspicion. Of course, anyone who has actually watched my usual tab teammates in action know that, far from trying to cook the books, we never even know who the books are about. We deal so much with data as data that we seldom even notice whose data it is. In the middle of a tournament I’ll turn to someone like Sheryl Kaczmarek and remark that one of her students is doing real well in a division that she’s tabbing, and she’ll be surprised to hear it. In the tab room it is all data as data. Which is the way it ought to be.

So maybe something here is controversial, but I don’t think so. But we’re getting to the controversial stuff soon enough.

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