Debate tournaments are complicated! If you have ever wondered how a debate tournament works, and what your child is doing all weekend, we have the answers for you!
Tournament Structure: Tournaments begin with 5-7 “prelim” rounds. During prelims, every student will debate on both the affirmative and negative sides of the given resolution. At tournaments with odd numbers of prelims debaters will alternate sides and randomly debate one more side more than the other, i.e. about half the debaters will have one more round as the affirmative and about half will have one more round as the negative. The first two rounds are called “presets” and are paired by the computer so with every debater debates one aff round and one neg round each in the first two rounds against randomly selected opponents.
How do judges vote for a debater? After every round, the judge will either write their decision on a physical ballot or will enter their decision on balloting websites like Tabroom.com or the Joy of Tournaments. In addition to including which debater won or lost, these ballots will often times include written critiques of each debate (though nowadays on the circuit, most judges simply give their critiques orally) as well as “Speaker points”. Speaker points are a score from 20-30 given to each debater at the end of the round which are a measure not of who won the round but the speaking skill, strategy, and speaker style of each debater.
After a judge casts their ballot, the ballot will either be digitally or physically taken to the “tab room”, where the tournament staff will take each ballot and feed them into a computer which will sort all the debaters into a series of brackets based on their records and determine the pairings for the next round. This is where the practical purpose of speaker points becomes clear – after any given round, there will be many debaters in each bracket, i.e. after round 2, every debater will be either 2-0, 1-1 or 0-2, and speaker points give tournaments a way to non-arbitrarily rank each debater within a bracket. For example, If I win rounds 1 and 2 with high speaker points, my ballots will be sent to the tab room computer which will find an 2-0 draw with low speaker points to have me debate in round 3.
After each round is “paired” (after every debater is paired with another debater to hit in the next round), the tab room has to assign each debate a judge and a room. The processes to assign debaters into pairings and to assign each round a judge can be very complicated and stressful. Tab rooms do the best they can to fairly assign debates and distribute judges, but given the finite pool and varying preferences of different debaters at a tournament, this process becomes can be stressful and time consuming. These processes usually account for all the time between each debate and why it can take so long for each round to be released.
What food is available at debate tournaments? Between rounds, debaters will usually hang out with their friends, parents and/or coaches, prepare for arguments others are reading at the tournament, or grab food. As a general rule, if a tournament is being run by a high school – there will be a concession standard for snacks/water/soda between rounds in the major gathering area (usually the cafeteria) and they will provide lunch and dinner. At tournaments on college campuses, colleges generally do not provide food for students and expect students to find food/drinks at nearby restaurants (but there are plenty of exceptions to this rule).
Do tournaments run quickly? The logistics of debate tournaments vary widely, with some tournaments running very quickly and smoothly, with helpful staff and easy to locate spots to come between round, food, judge/coach hospitality, etc. That being said, all too often, it can feel like tournaments are inefficient in some regard, with many tournaments running behind, operating on confusing campuses, run by seemingly unhelpful staff, etc. At any and every tournament, there is almost always discussion over individual decisions that are being made and how other tournaments would respond in a similar situation.
How are elimination rounds decided? After the prelims, each debater will have a record of their wins and losses usually abbreviated in the format of “4-3” (which would indicate a debater with 4 wins and 3 losses. Debaters who lose two or fewer rounds will be sorted into a bracket, in the style of NCAA March Madness, according to their record and their speaker points. The rounds are called “elims” because they For example, many tournaments start elimination rounds with to double octa-finals, which means that they sort the top 32 debaters in order of their records, and within records by their speaker points, into a bracket where the number #1 seed would debate the #32 seed, and the number #13 seed will debate the number #20 seed, etc. If a debater makes it into the elim round, it is called “breaking”.
My child said they got a "4-2 Screw." What does that mean? Sometimes there will be more debaters who have two losses or fewer, i.e. 4-2 or better, than there are spots in the first elimination round. For example, there may be 38 debaters who are 4-2 or better, but only 32 spots in the double octa-final bracket. In these situations, tournaments have to make an important call. Some tournaments would choose to advance only the top 32 entries, creating a “screw” where 4-2 debaters with the lowest speaker points are left out of the elimination rounds. This is usually chosen because it helps a tournament run more quickly and can help make sure every school is able to leave on-time to make flights, drive home at a reasonable hour, etc. Other tournaments will respond to this situation by having a “partial” elim round, which is a “play-in” round, where the lowest seeded debaters compete for a spot in the elim bracket, and the seeds that are high enough simply advance through.
How do elimination rounds work? In elimination rounds, debaters will face opponents from other schools in front of a panel of 3-5 judges. Even more so than with prelim rounds, distributing judges to each elim round is complicated and time consuming because each round will have multiple judges. Tournaments go to this trouble because by having multiple judges in each elim round, it reduces the possibility of an incorrect decision being made because there are multiple people evaluating the round. In order to win an elimination round, a debater needs a simple majority of the judges to vote for them. Debaters determine which side they will debate on through the flip of a coin. There are no speaker points in elimination rounds, because each debater is already sorted into a fixed spot on the bracket. This is why it is important for debaters to receive high speaker points, which will sort them into a favorable position on the bracket.
After each elimination round the bracket gets smaller and smaller, i.e. it moves from double-octafinals (32) to octafinals (16), quarterfinals (8), semifinals (4) all the way to the final round featuring 2 debaters. At the end of the final round, a champion will be declared and the tournament will conclude!