What is quiz bowl?

Quiz bowl is a team-based academic competition format played by schools at multiple levels, ranging from middle school through graduate-level college. Quiz bowl is designed to test players’ knowledge in a wide range of academic topics, as well as the depth of knowledge of those topics. Generally, tournaments are held on weekends, though some leagues at the high school level play on weeknights as well.

The precise rules can vary a bit between events, but almost all events will follow this general format:

  • Schools will assemble into one or more teams of up to four people (possibly more if a team chooses to have alternate players).
  • Each game will consist of two teams and be presided over by a moderator. Scheduling may be determined in advance for preliminary rounds or dynamic based on performance.
  • Games consist of a tossup/bonus cycle, which works like this:
    • The moderator will read a tossup question to both teams. Generally, this question will be a paragraph or so in length and arranged to be pyramidal with the hardest clues first and the easiest clues at the end. Any player on either team may buzz in and, as an individual, answer the question. Correct answers are worth 10-15 points and incorrect answers are worth -5 points.
    • If a player answers a tossup correctly, that player’s team is given a bonus question consisting of three parts. Unlike on tossups, bonuses allow for consultation between teammates. Bonuses are worth up to 30 points.
    • Once a team has completed its bonus or a tossup is read without either team answering correctly, this process is repeated. Rounds will last for either a pre-determined amount of time or number of questions.
  • After some number of rounds, teams are re-seeded for playoff purposes. Larger tournaments may use single- or double-elimination for this.

High School Quiz Bowl

Q: Who runs high school quiz bowl in Minnesota?
A: At the high school level, there are two entities that comprise the majority of quiz bowl events in Minnesota: the Minnesota Quiz Bowl Alliance, and the Minnesota High School Quiz Bowl League. Though they are technically separate entities, they are closely connected and run by many of the same people. Both utilize questions from National Academic Quiz Tournaments.

Q: What is a typical quiz bowl season in Minnesota like?
A: Many active teams will participate in both MNHSQB League and Saturday events. The former meets on Thursday nights and is split into three sessions, with teams split into four geographical divisions. Those events run from early November until early February. The top teams in each division meet in a final playoff round shortly thereafter. Saturday tournaments occur sporadically throughout the season, beginning in mid-late October and running through mid-March. National championships at the high school level run throughout May.

Q: How can my high school team qualify for a national championship tournament?
A: Every school that reaches the MNHSQB playoffs will earn a berth, as will some number of teams at any given Saturday tournament. This number varies depending on the number of teams in the tournament; in general, reaching the second round of a single-elimination playoff is enough to qualify, but be sure to check with your tournament director for exact details. Some tournaments may also serve as qualifiers for a second prestigious championship, which is run by the Partnership for Academic Competition Excellence.

Collegiate Quiz Bowl

Q: What about at the collegiate level? Who runs those tournaments?
A: Collegiate quiz bowl is largely self-sustaining, and each school organizes its own teams and tournaments. They may also use questions from NAQT, but there will usually be a few tournaments put on by the Academic Competition Federation as well. Minnesota also hosts the Minnesota Undergraduate Tournament, which is independently produced.

Q: Are there entry-level tournaments at the collegiate level?
A: Absolutely! College questions can vary wildly in difficulty, from novice to graduate-level. While questions for the latter are very difficult, easier tournaments are run frequently, and especially at the beginning of any given season. One such tournament is ACF’s annual “Fall” set.

General Quiz Bowl

Q: Why should I play quiz bowl?
A: There a lot of great reasons to play! If you’ve ever enjoyed a trivia board game or an episode of Jeopardy!, you’ll probably enjoy quiz bowl as well. It’s a great way to learn new things, test your knowledge against others, and meet new friends.

Q: What sort of topics do I need to know to play quiz bowl?
A: Most academic topics are very common in quiz bowl. In particular, literature, science, history, math, fine arts, and social sciences are well-represented. Some tournaments also include questions about sports and/or popular culture in small amounts.

Q: Are quiz bowl questions hard?
A: This is rather subjective, but most quiz bowl players would agree that the game gets easier (and more fun!) the more it’s played and practiced. Quiz bowl’s canon of common topics is large, but ultimately finite – there are topics that are asked about all the time, and it pays to know them well. Especially if you’re starting out, it’s best to seek out a tournament at a lower difficulty level to get a feel for the game and the sort of things that come up.

Q: How do I build a competitive team?
A: In general, it’s good to have a balanced team that’s knowledgeable in a lot of subjects. It’s usually not realistic to have one player excel at all of the topics quiz bowl covers, but having a “science player” and a “literature player” that can be counted on to know those topics is a good place to start.

Q: I really only know one field of study. Can I play in a tournament that only covers that topic?
A: Possibly! Some writers create tournaments about specific subjects, though these are usually done for fun and aren’t done as part of a regular circuit. One common form of this type of event is the all-pop culture tournament, sometimes known as “trash.” These sorts of tournaments are generally generally viewed as sort of the “dessert” of quiz bowl – they’re fun, but using them exclusively is academically questionable.

Q: I’ve only played Knowledge Bowl. How is quiz bowl different?
A: Both quiz bowl and knowledge bowl have a lot in common, but there are several important differences. Among the biggest is the tossup/bonus format, which is detailed here. Quiz bowl also differs in when/how teammates can confer, as well as the number of teams to a room. The questions themselves are also different – since quiz bowl questions are longer and pyramidal, knowing the most about a particular topic is just as important as being able to buzz in quickly! The last of these difference is a key reason why Play Quiz Bowl encourages the spread of quiz bowl as an academic competition format over any other type.