Paul Nelson, a former MOQBA president and moderator at over 20 national tournaments, provides details on high school national tournaments, how to qualify, and what to expect. This article was most recently edited in summer 2019 to provide updated information for these tournaments.
One of the most exciting aspects of playing a MOQBA tournament is the possibility of qualifying and attending a national-level tournament against teams from all over the country. MOQBA strongly recommends any team serious about improvement to consider pursuing a nattrip. These tournaments can be very enjoyable and instructive if you approach them correctly, so we want to take this opportunity to help you figure out what to look for. We wish to apologize to the reader in advance if this seems like a large amount of information to digest, but we feel it is important to be clear up front about what a nationals experience is like.
There are three high school quizbowl national tournaments that are highly recommended. The first is the High School National Championship Tournament (HSNCT), run by National Academic Quiz Tournaments (NAQT), the MSHSAA State question provider. HSNCT is usually on Memorial Day weekend. NAQT also coordinates a Small School National Championship Tournament (SSNCT) for smaller schools, usually held in late April or early May. The third is the National Scholastic Championship (NSC), organized by the Partnership for Academic Competition Excellence (PACE). The NSC is usually held in early June, a week or two after HSNCT.
These tournaments are desirable because they use pyramidal questions and ensure a high level of competition. The organizers of these tournaments make great efforts to ensure that you can play teams of your own skill level, and they show a high degree of professionalism in all aspects of their respective tournaments. While other national tournaments exist, MOQBA strongly advises participation only in SSNCT, HSNCT, and PACE NSC.
A team can qualify for one of these tournaments by attending an NAQT and/or PACE sanctioned tournament. All MOQBA tournaments without eligibility restrictions are NSC qualifiers, and those that use NAQT questions (including conferences and MSHSAA State) are HSNCT-eligible. Schools can qualify more than one team at any given event. Schools do not need to accept any or all bids earned for any national tournament.
There are also standby lists and wildcard bids. Note that Missouri teams are expressly forbidden to pursue either of these options under MSHSAA rules. The only exception to this would be if a previously qualified team is not in the field, in which case, it could go on a standby list.
More details on qualification and logistics for each tournament are below.
I always strongly advise teams to keep realistic expectations for national tournaments, especially if it’s your first time. A team’s first time is always a bit of a culture shock. You will see a style of play you’ve probably never seen before and it can be intimidating. Take a deep breath and enjoy. Always take the opportunity to see the city where the tournament is held.
One of the best reasons to attend a national tournament is to give your team a sharper edge. Any team with nationals experience will have an edge in the future over a similar team that does not. This is especially important if you think one or more of your players have real star potential. This should always be a goal if you’re committed to team improvement.
Don’t sweat if you take several losses at either tournament, especially if this was your first nationals. You and your team still learned a lot and will be able to make your team better for years to come.
Over the last decade, HSNCT has become a massive well-organized spectacle at conference hotels near major hub airports in cities like Chicago, Atlanta, and Dallas. In 2018, HSNCT featured 352 teams, believed to be the largest quizbowl tournament ever held. HSNCT was scheduled to be in Atlanta in 2020 but was canceled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
HSNCT consists of timed rounds, which is rarely seen in Missouri high school play. Rounds consist of two nine-minute halves or until all 24 tossups in the packet are exhausted, whichever comes first. NAQT expects moderators to finish a minimum of 20 tossups on average, so moderators will read considerably faster than anything most teams are used to. Do not ask the moderator to slow down except in extreme circumstances. Most moderators will ignore that request out of necessity.
HSNCT questions are slightly longer and more difficult than NAQT questions seen in Missouri play. Tossups have 15-point powers for early buzzes and five-point penalties for incorrect answers before the end of the tossup, mirroring NAQT rules in regular tournaments. Bonuses are always three parts worth ten points each that do not rebound. HSNCT questions reflect the varied content of regular NAQT questions, including history, literature, science, fine arts, current events, pop culture, and sports. HSNCT packets no longer have computational math tossups, although computational math bonuses are found every second round or so.
Timing is very quick partially because of the timed rounds. Note that recognition is not required after buzzing in, as opposed to the more formal regimen of official MSHSAA play. Verbal recognition is not used under any circumstances. Any player can answer a bonus part.
NAQT offers scrimmages on Friday evening for anyone who wants to participate. MOQBA recommends playing scrimmage matches if you can as a warmup for official play on Saturday. In 2019, each team played ten preliminary rounds, with seven games in either the morning or afternoon on Saturday, and three more games on Sunday morning. Matchups are decided through a card system. At the start of the tournament, NAQT provides each team with a card containing a number ranging from 1 to the number of teams in the tournament (so for 2018, cards ranged from 1 to 352). The card will tell you where to go and what number you’re playing in your first match.
Teams hand their cards to the moderator at the beginning of each round. The outcome of the match determines which team receives which card, with the winning team given the card number closer to one. You will follow the instructions on your new card for the next round, which may include a bye. Note that your card number does not hold any specific meaning or ranking at any point in time. However, if you continue receiving numbers closer to 1, you will face increasingly stronger teams, especially in the final preliminary rounds on Sunday morning. Always double check your card number before and after each match, as an error could cause tournament chaos. Moderators at HSNCT are drilled on how to double check cards as well, but it is always your responsibility to be in the right room at the right time.
Teams that finish 6-4 or better in the preliminary rounds advance to a double-elimination playoff after lunch on Sunday and are seeded according to win-loss record. All but the top handful of teams are eliminated from contention by dinner, with the finals held in the evening on Sunday. In recent years, HSNCT finals have been fiercely competitive affairs.
Consolation games are available Sunday afternoon whether you are eliminated from the playoffs or did not qualify. We always advise taking any opportunity to play such matches if possible.
Teams wanting to play HSNCT must qualify through performance at a tournament that uses NAQT questions. At such an event, the top 15% of the field automatically qualifies, rounded up. For example, if a 24-team tournament used NAQT questions, four teams would automatically qualify (24 teams x 15% = 3.6, rounded up to 4). If teams are tied for the final qualifying spot, NAQT usually (but not always) awards bids to all tied teams. This includes conferences that use NAQT questions.
If a tournament splits the field based on school type (for example, a small-school division and a larger-school division), 15% of each division would qualify. If a tournament divides the field into varsity and JV teams (or a similar makeup), 15% of the combined field would qualify, but teams in the upper division would receive priority for bids.
In addition to HSNCT, NAQT runs the Small School National Championship Tournament (SSNCT), which runs separately from HSNCT. NAQT started running this as a separate event in 2014; prior to this, small schools played in a special playoff bracket at HSNCT. SSNCT also rotates between major hub airports; the tournament was scheduled to be in Chicago in 2020 but has been canceled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. All of the above information about HSNCT will generally apply to SSNCT with a few diverging points that I want to mention here.
This tournament now involves public schools as well as private and charter schools that meet certain criteria. Traditional Public small schools are those with 500 or fewer students in grades 10-12 without any selective admission policy. As of 2017, NAQT also awards a title to the top very small school, which are public schools in this category with 300 or fewer students in those grades. The second category consists of high schools with 350 or fewer students in their top three grades that are not eligible for the traditional public division, such as private schools or lottery-based charter schools.
Small school teams can qualify for SSNCT by finishing in the top 30% of eligible small schools at a tournament using NAQT questions. Under this rubric, a team must win at least one match, not counting forfeits.
PACE’s NSC has always been a smaller tournament than HSNCT, with a field of 96 teams each year since 2014. Despite this, NSC has become a de facto players’ championship due to the more challenging nature of the tournament and question content. NSC was traditionally run on large college campuses, though in recent years, the tournament has switched to HSNCT’s hotel model. With one exception, NSC has been held in either Washington, D.C., or Chicago since 2008, and was set to return to Chicago in 2020 until it was canceled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
NSC questions are longer and more difficult than HSNCT questions. Tossups have 20-point powers with no negs. Bonuses are always three parts worth ten points each, and bonuses do rebound. NSC questions stick strictly to the core academic subjects seen in quizbowl: history, literature, science, and fine arts. Computational math is non-existent.
Timing is slightly more relaxed at NSC because the rounds are untimed. As with HSNCT, note that recognition is not required after buzzing in, as opposed to the more formal regimen of official MSHSAA play. Verbal recognition is not used under any circumstances. Any player can answer a bonus part.
The field at NSC is seeded into pools of an equal number of teams for Saturday morning based on field size and perceived team strength, with an eye to keeping each pool geographically diverse. For Saturday afternoon, the field is realigned into new pools of teams with similar records. For Sunday, the field is bracketed once again based on similar records. This is how MOQBA tournaments generally operate but on a larger scale.
Teams qualify to NSC at tournaments approved as qualifiers by PACE. PACE’s approval criteria include pyramidal questions, a minimum number of games offered, and tournament reputation, among others. PACE approves tournaments into one of three categories; the categories determine the percentage (rounded up) of teams that qualify. Those categories are Platinum (25% of the field), Gold (20%), and Regular (10%). NSC does not provide any sort of special qualification for small schools.
Both tournaments charge entry fees in the $650 to $800 range, with discounts provided for buzzers, staffers, etc. Teams can book hotels on their own, but for the sake of cost and expediency, we strongly encourage teams to take the opportunities the tournament directors provide for lodgings. Meals at both tournaments are on your own. Both tournaments will provide details on available lunch options on competition days.
Note that teams must bear all costs associated with traveling to a national event. Those costs can run up to several thousand dollars, depending on how many teams you qualify, whether you drive or fly, etc. Fundraising for such a trip is vital. The first option to pursue should be your school’s administration. School administrators can be surprisingly generous when you mention that your team qualified for a national competition.
School stipends frequently don’t cover the entire cost of a nationals trip, so many teams find creative options to finance the rest of the trip. A good way to raise money for this is to host a quizbowl tournament of your own, especially if you sell lunch on-site. Some teams host trivia nights as fundraisers, some use other traditional fundraisers like candy sales, car washes, etc. Cold calling local businesses has been done, but this approach can induce great anxiety. If players' families are willing to chip in and shoulder some of the cost or help to transport students to the airport (for example), that is helpful, but teams should work to fundraise so that all members of the team can attend regardless of their family's financial situation.