Monash Association of Debaters

R. Eric Barnes, Andrew Hume & Steven Johnson

Expanding the Break: A Comparison of Three Proposals

Worlds Council has endorsed in principle the expansion of the break beyond 32
teams at the WUDC. We propose to first set out the strongest arguments for
each of the three main proposals for how to expand the break and then critically
analyze their strengths and weaknesses. Briefly, those proposals are: breaking
64 teams, breaking 48 teams and a system whereby all teams on 18 or more
break. This essay makes no serious attempt to respond to arguments against any
expansion of the break beyond 32 teams. Such a discussion is surely worthwhile,
but much has already been said about this, a thorough treatment would need to
be more extensive than we have space for, and it is simply not our focus here.

In addressing the specific merits of each of the proposals for expanding the break,
there is a central question that needs to be considered: what is the purpose of the
break and elimination rounds at Worlds? That is, what is it that makes them
different from, say, round 9, and so sought-after by competitors? Understanding
the reasons why elimination rounds are valuable to the WUDC format is a
necessary prerequisite to any discussion of how to change it.

Historical Context

In its early years Worlds was held in differing formats depending on the customs
of the host university. By the late 1980s, with the field of teams typically hovering
around 100-150, the break had settled at 32.1 So, the current Worlds break was
actually designed for a remarkably different state of affairs to the present, with
some 20-25% of the field progressing to elimination rounds.

Some current debaters might understandably assume that the current situation is
the natural way of things, but proponents of break expansion (even to 64 teams)
are not advocating a radical shift in the nature of Worlds so much as a return to the
status quo ante in which elimination rounds were open to a much larger proportion
of the field than now. Furthermore, such a change would bring Worlds more into
line with other tournaments. No one hosting a BP competition with 40 teams
would dream of breaking directly to a grand final, yet this is (proportionately)
what Worlds has done in recent years.

The authors of this paper wholeheartedly agree that the Worlds break should be
a significant accomplishment and should never be ‘easy’ to get into, but this is
not at odds with break expansion, as we shall see below. Once again, the history
of the tournament suggests that concerns about low standards are overstated.
The early World Championships were very different affairs from today’s major
multinational events, attended almost exclusively by teams from six Anglophone
nations for whom the trip to Princeton, Sydney or Glasgow might be one of
only three or four competitions that they attended during the year, in contrast to
today’s well-developed national and international debating circuits.2 While the
field at a contemporary WUDC tournament obviously includes a great many
teams who do not realistically have a shot at making the main break, there is little
doubt that as the competition has grown, so too has the number of well-drilled,
competitive teams who would not be out of place in an octofinal; as has the
difficulty of making it that far.

The Purpose of Elimination Rounds

What, then, is the function of elimination rounds at Worlds? The simple answer
seems to be that they are a device for sorting teams by quality. Of course, at the
end of preliminary rounds, we already have such a list (“the tab”), which we use
to decide who breaks. So, if the sole purpose of these rounds were sorting, then we
would need evidence that a single elimination format does a better job at sorting
than four or five more power-paired preliminary rounds.

We are not confident that elimination rounds do a better job at sorting teams for
three reasons. First, they start by largely throwing out a lot of relevant evidence
from the rounds that have already occurred. Second, if we assume that the
seeding for the single elimination bracket (i.e., the tab ordering) is not particularly
accurate—which we must assume, or else there is no good reason for additional
sorting—then the single elimination format does not even theoretically do a good
job of sorting anyone beyond the best two teams.3 Third, single elimination is a
poor sorting device for even the best team (especially four rounds of it) because
even excellent judging is imprecise and even excellent teams can get put in very
tough situations (e.g., by another team’s bizarre argumentation).

If you think that none of this is a persuasive reason for abandoning single
elimination rounds, we agree. However, it does show that there are important
functions of the elimination rounds beyond sorting.

These other functions include: A) creating an exciting, high-stakes set of
increasingly high quality debates; B) providing a learning opportunity for
viewers; C) generating a celebratory culmination of the tournament; D) giving
an award in its own right for debaters who have performed well; and, E) providing
an opportunity to evaluate debaters’ performance in front of an audience. All of
these are good reasons to keep single elimination rounds, and indeed to expand

Elimination rounds are very good at fulfilling function A. They bring an element
of uncertainty to the competition, like a sporting event in which top teams may
be humbled by underdogs before the final. Some contend that it is somehow
unfair for a skilled team to run the risk of being eliminated by a “wrong” decision.
Indeed, there are those who would even be happy to see the world champions
of debate selected on the basis of the team that topped the tab after 12 or 15
preliminary rounds of debate. But where would be the excitement in that?

Elimination rounds also provide what for many competitors will be a rare
opportunity to watch, listen to and learn from the best of their contemporaries
(B), and the value of function C is fairly self-explanatory. All three proposals
to expand the break will accomplish functions A, B and C to roughly the same
degree. The difference between the proposals primarily lies in five things: 1) the
practicality of their implementation; 2) the fairness of their implementation; 3)
how effective they are at sorting teams, such that the higher quality team are likely
to progress further in the tournament; 4) how well they perform function E,
evaluating debaters with an audience; and, 5) how well they accomplish function
D, distributing a valued award.

Let us briefly consider the function of the break as an award. There are very few
trophies given out at Worlds, but being able to say that one “broke at Worlds” is
in itself a significant intangible award. The two important most aspects of this
award’s value are its exclusivity and its fairness. Although giving and getting
awards (even intangible ones) is nice, as the percentage of debaters who break
increases, the prestige of this award decreases. This is surely one reason we can
all agree that breaking 128 out of 350 teams would be a mistake, even if it were
practical. But at the same time, breaking only 8 teams would be a mistake because
such a distribution is too stingy, even if it were a more reliable sorting method.
The point here is that there is some admittedly vague point that is the ideal
compromise between being too stingy and excessively devaluing the award of
breaking. The most objective means of estimating the prestige of breaking across
years is to calculate the percentage of participating teams that break. So, let us
look quickly at how these three proposals would have affected these percentages
over the last 10 years and with a couple hypothetical larger fields.

Basically, the lower the percentage of the break, the higher the prestige of the
award, but the fewer the people who get to enjoy it. The top two lines are
included to frame the perspective on what some see as the likely future growth
of the tournament. Obviously some of the older data is of limited usefulness,
since future tournaments are unlikely to have fewer than 200 teams, but they
do provide an important historical perspective. As noted above, in the 1990s
there were 32 teams in the break, with only about 150 teams in the field, making
the portion of teams breaking over 20%. But, history provides no authoritative
guidance on the correct percentage of breaking teams.

Proposal 1: Breaking 64 Teams

If the decision to expand the WUDC break is to be implemented, there are
several reasons to think that a 64-team break is the most sensible and elegant
solution. First, and most obviously, it is the simplest method. Doubling the size
of the break adds an extra round, but leaves the structure of a Worlds tournament
otherwise unchanged. Logistically there is no significant problem adding an extra
elimination round into a WUDC schedule. Once the organisational obstacles of
the first nine rounds have been navigated, the last two days of competition are
relatively plain sailing.


A full discussion of whether debating has moved too far away from its origins as
an audience-centred activity is beyond the scope of this paper.4 However, we will
say that we see parliamentary debate as primarily audience centered. Audiences
in Worlds style are not merely passive spectators but an interactive and sometimes
unpredictable element, which can have an indirect effect on the course of the
debate. Debates are different when there is an audience present, and every seasoned
debater knows it. A speaker with good manner draws energy and confidence from
a supportive audience; a dull, flat speech sounds more mediocre when received
with general indifference. And it is important to stress that this is not a merely
incidental feature of elimination rounds, let alone some kind of “problem”, but
absolutely central to what parliamentary debate is about. The absence of an
audience during preliminary rounds is a concession to an unfortunate practical
necessity. Ideally, all debates would have an audience.

Because audiences are crucial to its continuing appeal and relevance, then there
is reason to prefer breaking 64 teams. Worlds should showcase the best that our
discipline has to offer and this cannot be done behind closed doors, away from
an audience. Within sensible limits, the more space in the competition format
given over to public debate, the better. Although it is currently impractical to
arrange for an audience beyond the judges in preliminary rounds, adding doubleoctofinals
would double the current number of debates that have an audience.
This would reinforce the importance of the skills required to flourish in front
of an audience, thereby incentivizing their development and improving debates
beyond Worlds, and perhaps leading adjudicators to consider manner issues more
carefully than in the more sterile atmosphere of a preliminary round.

Moreover, because debating before an audience is both different and important,
breaking 64 teams actually improve the sorting function of the elimination
rounds. Debates without an audience (prelims) are missing a centrally important
element, so it is important to include a large number of teams in debates with
audiences (elimination rounds). Therefore, breaking 64 teams is preferable.

As we have argued above, one of the functions of elimination rounds is giving
people an intangible (but very real and coveted) award. Breaking 64 teams gives
out many more awards at essentially no cost to anyone. Some will argue that this
claim ignores the cost of devaluing others’ intangible awards. Though we have
already admitted that there is a kernel of truth to this, the claim is overstated.
Assuming the same number of competitors, giving 48 identical awards (instead
of 64) will result in each award being more valuable, but in fact, the awards are
not identical. Right now, if someone says “I broke at Worlds” she almost surely
implies that she made it to octo-finals. If she had made it to, say, semi-finals,
she would have said that instead. So, if 64 teams break, then the same number
of people still get to say that they made it to octofinals, which is as impressive
as before, and may even be more impressive. In short, if we look at the vast
expansion and improvement in the quality of debating over the past decade, it is
clear that giving a place in a break round to the team ranked, say, 60th in the tab
is not going to unacceptably devalue Worlds or its intangible awards.

Proposal 2: Breaking 48 Teams

Although Worlds Council has accepted that breaking 32 teams is too few and
breaking 64 teams is the next natural step in the arithmetic progression, many
people see breaking 64 as impractical and perhaps undesirable. To address this,
the tournament could break just 48 teams. There is a simple method of doing
this fairly and in a way that is consistent with the principles employed in pairings
now. The top 16 teams on the tab after the prelim rounds would break directly
to octofinals, while teams ranked 17 to 48 would debate in a double-octofinal
round. The winners of this double-octo round are then paired against the teams
who broke directly to octofinals, and things proceed as they do now.

Breaking 48 is very practical and its ease of implementation is a major virtue. It
requires no additional judges beyond what is needed for the current break, since
there are never more than 8 rooms being run in the main finals, just as in the status
quo. (Of course, if you think that there are good independent reasons to expand
the judge break, then this model would give additional opportunities for more
judges to be used in elimination rounds.) Concerning scheduling, there is enough
time during the final two days to hold five main elimination rounds, as well as
all ESL & EFL elimination rounds. ESL & EFL elimination rounds can be run
concurrently with main elimination rounds. If necessary, these could begin during
the main quarterfinals, when more breaking judges are available.

expanding the break 2.PNG

By breaking 48 team, then whenever the total field is fewer than 400
teams, all 18s will likely break. If there are fewer teams than this,
then some of the top 17 teams will likely break. The chart given earlier (figure one)
includes a column listing how many teams on 17 would have broken if 48 teams had
broken at recent WUDCs. If you believe that future tournaments are likely to be in the
range of 350 to 400 teams and you think that breaking a few of the top 17
point teams is desirable, then breaking 48 will be very appealing. It would then
reward 12% – 15% of the field with the main break, which is neither stingy nor
exceedingly generous.

Perhaps most importantly, breaking 48 provides a good sorting mechanism, for
both the elite teams on 20+ and for teams in the 17 to 19 point range. Team
seedings near the top of the tab are generally more accurate, partly because these
teams have had much more opportunity to directly compete against each other in
the top rooms, but mostly because small errors are amplified in the middle of the
bell curve. Adding or subtracting one team point from a team on 21 will only
change their rank two or three places, but for a team on 17 it could easily move
them fifteen or twenty places on the tab. The point is that we justifiably have
much less confidence in the accuracy of the rankings as we go down toward the
middle of the tab, but we have much more confidence near the top. Breaking
48 rewards the top 16 “elite” teams (mostly teams on 20+) by having them break
directly to octofinals. This avoids exposing this set of teams, which very likely
contains the best several teams at the tournament, from being exposed to any
additional risk beyond the status quo of being knocked out by a single elimination
fluke. Recall Worlds 2009, where all four top seeds were eliminated in octofinals.
We want elimination rounds to result in higher quality teams going further, and
putting the top 16 teams directly into octofinals will help do this better than a
system (like breaking 64) that forced them to compete in double-octos. This is
not unfair because their strong record rightly earns them an extra benefit beyond
just a seeding position in the bracket. At the same time, breaking 48 recognizes
that the teams ranked 17 to 48 on the tab are likely not as reliably seeded and
provides another round to sort these teams out. It is very easy to believe that the
top 17 point team in 2010 (ranked 47th) might have deserved to be ranked 28th
(adding just one team point). Since we have to believe that better teams are more
likely to prevail in this new first break round, we are likely to get higher quality
teams into the octofinals by breaking 48 than in the status quo. So, we would
likely get better teams into the later elimination rounds too.

Proposal 3: Breaking All Teams on 18 and Above

The first question often asked is how would this system work? A proposal to
advance all teams who have 18 points after nine preliminary rounds would rely
on an approach similar to breaking 48: a partial double-octo (PDO) round would
held in which teams on the low end of the break would contest a limited number
of seeds in the octofinal round. Other, higher-breaking teams would receive a bye
directly into the octofinal round.

The number of teams contesting the PDO round would vary depending upon the
number of teams with an average of at least two points per preliminary round (2+
teams). The goal of the PDO round would be to produce an octofinal field of 32
teams. To accomplish this, teams in the PDO round would contest a number of
octofinal seeds equal to the number of 2+ teams beyond 32.

At the 2009 Cork WUDC, for instance, there were 36 teams with a record of
18 or better after nine preliminary rounds. To sort the field of 36 down to 32
octofinal teams, a partial double octofinal round would be held to determine the
bottom four seeds in the octofinal round (36-32=4). The lowest eight breaking
teams would be paired into two debates; the top two teams in each debate would
advance to the octofinal round.

This approach is scalable for a larger break pool. Both the 2008 Assumption and
the 2010 Koç WUDC had 46 teams on 2+. In both cases, 14 octofinal seeds
(46-32=14) would be contested in seven PDO debates involving the bottom 28
teams from the break. The upper 18 seeds would receive a bye directly into the
octofinal round. There are two methods of handling situations where there are
an odd number of teams on 2+. Both will be discussed at the end of this section.

The proposal to break all 2+ teams shares many of the motivations and advantages
of the other proposals discussed herein. It seeks to honor the sentiment of
the 2011 Worlds Council when it voted to expand the break; it seeks a more
representative—and potentially a more diverse—break; and it seeks to increase
the proportion of breaking teams relative to those who have participated in the
championships. This proposal, however, has a number of unique advantages not
shared by breaking 48 or 64.

Chief among the advantages of this proposal is its use of a rational delineating line
between those teams who break and those that don’t. While an argument may
be made that this is an inappropriate (some have said “unfair”) point at which
to distinguish breaking teams from those who won’t break, at least the point is
grounded in the performance of the teams. Currently, and as would be the case
in each of the other proposals mentioned in this paper, the point of distinction
between breaking and non-breaking teams is determined by the convenience of
the organizers of the tournament: we currently break 32 teams—or would break
48 or 64—because those numbers are evenly divisible by four, thereby making
the task of scheduling elimination rounds easier.

expanding the break 3.PNG

This is an unreasonable basis on which to determine which teams may compete
for the championship and which may not. Deferring to the convenience of the
organizers rather than team performance forces the WUDC to rely on speaker
points to break ties between teams. Never has there been a “clean break” between
teams 32 and 33, necessitating the use of speaker points to break ties. This results
in circumstance where just a few speaker points (or even none!), out of thousands
awarded to a team during nine preliminary rounds, determine who breaks and
who doesn’t. And, this is typical.

While there may be disagreement about the value of speaker points in measuring a
team’s quality, several issues are difficult to ignore. First, it is absurd to claim that
there is a meaningful difference between a team because one averages one third
more speaker point per preliminary round—distributed between both speakers—
than the other. Speaker points are notoriously subjective and idiosyncratic; when
dealing with a quantum as small as one third or one half speaker point, the
distinctions they make are so unreliable that they are practically meaningless.
Beyond that, of course, there are circumstances in which there was no difference
in the number of team or speaker points between the 32nd and 33rd teams, which
is even worse.

Second, because speaker points attempt to evaluate teams in absolute terms rather
than relative terms, they are less reliable as a measure of quality. Though both
speaker points and team points are the product of a subjective assessment of teams’
performance, at least in the case of team points that subjectivity is constrained
to the limited context of a particular debate round. As team points are the
product of teams’ rankings within a round, adjudicators rely only on what they
have directly observed to distribute them. Speaker points, in contrast, presume
a fictitious absolute standard against which to judge teams. Adjudicators are
expected to assign speaker points to a particular speaker based on that speaker’s
performance as compared to all other speakers who have ever spoken.5 Relative
rankings are more reliable. Because their sphere of consideration is limited to
only the performance of the debaters before them, judges are more likely to
measure accurately the performance of a particular team.6 Moreover, the available
evaluative gradients are limited when ranking teams, making the determination
of those gradients easier: articulating the difference between first and second is
far easier than distinguishing between a speaker worthy of 75 speaker points and
another who receives 76.

Imperfect though they may be, speaker points do play an important role in seeding
teams for the elimination rounds. That said, there’s a significant difference between
using them for that purpose, which is inclusive, and using them to exclude teams
from the opportunity to compete in the elimination rounds.

expanding the break 4.PNG

Advancing all 2+ teams is in line with the rewards structure present in other aspects
of the tournament. Accumulating two or more points in each preliminary round
of the tournament is a significant accomplishment. In modern incarnations of
Worlds (i.e., those in which more than 300 teams participated, which is every
Worlds since 2004), the teams breaking to the elimination rounds have needed a
minimum of 18 team points to be in contention for the break. Debaters attach
significance to being ranked in the “top half ” of a round, indicating that this
accomplishment is qualitatively more valuable than being in the bottom half
of a round. During elimination rounds of a British parliamentary debating
tournament, the participants accept that the top two teams from each elimination
round will progress to the subsequent elimination round, creating a circumstance
in which both the first and second place teams “win” the round. In many ways,
accumulating an average of at least two points per preliminary round has meaning.

Another advantage of this proposal is that the size of the break remains consistent
relative to the number of participants in the tournament. In all modern
incarnations of Worlds, had all teams with 18+ points broken, the percentage of
breaking teams would have been, on average, 11.7%. That contrasts with a range
of breaking teams that is, at its lowest, 8.1% at the 2007 Assumption WUDC to
a high of 10.3% at the 2005 MMU WUDC.7

There are two plausible methods of breaking 18+ when there are an odd number
of teams on 18+. In the first method, which we call “the clean break”, all and only
18+ teams break to partial double-octos. In this case, to select exactly 32 teams to
advance to octos, one double-octo room will need to advance 3 teams, with only
one team being eliminated. For example, say there are 35 teams on 18+, the clean
break method breaks 35 teams and holds two double-octo debates: {28,31,32,35}
and {29,30,33,34}. But, the first of these rooms would advance 3 teams to octos,
while the other would advance the normal 2 teams. The rationale here is that
the debate from which three teams advance is the toughest debate, with the
lowest cumulative rankings of teams who are not the lowest seed in that round
participating. In other words, the cumulative rankings of the teams other than
the 35th seed in the first debate is 89; the cumulative rankings of the teams other
than the 34th seed in the second is 90, so the first room should be tougher. This
is significant because it provides a natural protection for the best seed in the PDO
pool; breaking three teams from that round increases the 28th seed’s chances of
making it to octofinals. Sure, it increases the chances of the 35th seed making
octos, too, but if they beat a higher seed, so be it. In the second method, which
we call “the wildcard”, the top team on 17 is added to the double-octo round so
that one additional higher seed gets a bye to octos and all the double-octo rooms
advance 2 teams to octos. For example, suppose again that there are 35 teams
on 18+, the wildcard method breaks 36 teams (including the top team on 17)
and holds two PDO debates: {29,32,33,36} & {30,31,34,35}. Each of these
advances 2 teams. The 28th seed gets a bye using this method.

Rebuttals & Responses

When considering the three proposals, we see the major question as whether to
have a fixed number of teams breaking (48 or 64) or a variable number of teams
breaking. We first discuss the objections concerning fixed breaks, then variable

Problems with Fixed Breaks

Some concerns about breaking 64 have already been addressed, such as the
practical problems of scheduling and the concern about diluting the value of the
intangible award of breaking. There are two further concerns that apply equally
to breaking 48 or 64, along with one major issue dividing these two proposals.

Both fixed number breaking methods (48 and 64) continue to rely heavily on
speaker points, a largely capricious measure of the quality of a team’s skills.
Additionally, both of these methods make it reasonably likely that there will
be ties for the final spot in the break, and these ties will need to be broken in
some unsatisfying manner. Breaking 18+ largely avoids these problems, which
may count as a significant advantage. However, one could respond to that
although speaker points are inevitably somewhat imprecise, they are nevertheless
meaningful. Imagine a public opinion survey with a margin of error of +/- 3%,
in which people preferred A to B by a margin of 2%. Although the results are
obviously not “statistically significant” and so are not reliable, if one had to choose
based on this evidence alone, it’s still true that it’s a better bet that people prefer
A. Basically, speaker points are weak evidence when they are close, but until
we come up with something better, they are nevertheless a justifiable basis for

Some have objected that breaking 64 would be impractical because there are not
enough qualified judges. Defenders of breaking 64 may respond in several ways.
First, double-octofinals would only require 80 judges, using standard 5 judge
panels. There is no doubt that there are sufficiently many highly qualified judges
to fill these positions. Koc Worlds voluntarily broke 100 judges. Moreover,
breaking 64 teams may encourage organisers to expand the adjudicator break, with
important positive effects. The best way for up and coming judges to hone their
skills is to watch high-quality debates in the company of other, more experienced
adjudicators. In preliminary rounds there is precious little time to discuss debates
and for chair judges to explain why they may have seen a round in a different
way. Judging on a break round panel allows more time for reflection, discussion
and feedback. The primary purpose of WUDC is competitive rather than
pedagogical, of course, but where the two can co-exist (as with the introduction
of oral adjudication in 1999) it is to everyone’s benefit. Creating more highly
qualified judges is a good thing.

One of the main features of breaking 48 is that the top 16 teams receive a bye to
octo-finals while the other 32 teams contest a double-octo round. This reward
for breaking high up on the tab has its attractions, but some would argue that
it violates the principle that all teams at a World Championships should receive
equal treatment and have an equal chance. If we are looking for the best team in
the world, it seems only reasonable that they should have to prove themselves on
a level playing field with others; and debaters do not need any extra incentive to
finish higher up on the tab at a competition of such importance. According to
this objection, breaking 48 is preferable to the status quo, but remains a somewhat
unsatisfactory halfway house, accepting the logic of break expansion but failing
to carry it through to its conclusion. Of course, this invites the question: Would
a sufficient increase in tournament size make the next rational adjustment of the
break directly to 128 teams?

Advocates of breaking 48 can respond that their plan provides a fair playing field
with equal treatment for all. Top seeded teams earn a bye to octofinals by strong
performance in prelims, just like sports teams earn automatic spots in the playoffs
by doing well during the season. Rewarding high-performing teams with a bye is
not different in kind from rewarding them with a good seeding position, which
we already do. In fact, some argue that breaking 64 unreasonably puts the highest
ranking teams in danger of being knocked out by a fluke, thereby disrupting the
major function of the break as a sorting mechanism to get the best teams into
the late rounds. Advocates of breaking 64 can respond by arguing that it is very
unlikely for one of the top teams to be knocked out in a double-octo round. For
example, the team seeded 8th would just need to place first or second in a room
with teams seeded 25th, 40th and 57th.

Another potential objection to breaking 48 is that it might become too small
if the field of competitors continues to expand. In a field of about 420 teams,
we expect that not all teams on 18 would break if only 48 teams broke. If the
tournament grew to 500 teams, then breaking 48 would leave us breaking about
the same percentage (9.6%) as we have been breaking over the past 3 years (average
9.5%). In this case, we wonder if Worlds Council would need to revisit this issue
and again expand the break. Of course, Worlds Council could adopt a policy
of automatically increasing the size of the fixed break depending on how many
teams competed in a given year, just as happens in determining the size of the ESL
and EFL breaks. Indeed, one could argue that any break expansion policy using
a fixed size break should include a rule whereby it automatically fluctuates in size
along with the tournament size, perhaps in increments of 8 or 16. This would
presumably be done in a manner so as to try to maintain a certain percentage of
the total field as breaking.

Problems with Variable Breaks

Moving on to concerns about the breaking 18+, there are some practical concerns
and some principled concerns. Practicality objections will obviously depend on
whether we adopt the clean break or the wildcard method. Some would argue
that clean break method is unacceptable unfair because of the large advantage that
it gives all the teams who are in the double-octo room that advances three teams.
The rationale for who gets this significant advantage seems thin and insufficient.
Moreover, if teams know that they just need to avoid coming in last in that room,
it will likely change the dynamics of the debate. Considering that advocates of
breaking 18+ have put so much emphasis on the significance of placing in the
top two in a room, advancing three teams is inconsistent and troubling. The
practicality objections for the wildcard method are less significant. While it is
theoretically possible that there would be a tie for the top 17 position, this is
extremely unlikely, since speaker points in each team point bracket tend to have a
normal (i.e., bell curve) distribution, which makes for bigger gaps at the top and
bottom. Some would argue that allowing one team on 17 into the break opens
up the door to other 17s to complain that they were excluded, but the answer to
this seems just to be “we only needed one team to fill out the bracket”. Moreover,
as we just said, there will very likely be a significant drop in speaker points at this
point on the tab, which helps justify making the break there.

expanding the break 5.PNG

Another potential objection to breaking 18+ is that the size of the break would
remain too small. Given tournaments the size of those in 2009 and 2011, only
36 teams would break, which some would argue is too meagre an expansion. On
average, this method will break 11.7% of the field, regardless of the size of the
field. But some may argue that breaking 15% or even 20% is preferable. There
seems little more to say about this issue, given what we have said already. People
have very different intuitions about it. But, if you are committed to breaking a
higher percentage of the field, then you probably will want to advocate for a fixed
break system where the size of the break adjusts to the size of the field. Of course,
it is also possible to advocate for an analogous system that breaks all 17+ teams
(about 18.5%), but we expect that fairly few would advocate for such a system.

The main virtue of breaking 18+ is that it appears to offer a method of drawing a
principled line in the tab, not relying on something as imprecise as speaker points
(or worse, Article 4.a.iii) to decide who breaks. In making any decision regarding
how many to include and exclude from some award, it is ideal to find the point
where there is the most precipitous drop in the qualifications curve. The sharper
the downturn, the more clearly justified one is in drawing the line at that point.
A variable break gives us the chance to break at such an ideal place on the tab.
But, what appeared to be the main advantage of breaking 18+ may actually be its
greatest problem. That is because the top ranked team with 17 points is almost
certainly a higher quality team than the bottom ranked 18 point team, and often
by a significant degree. Call this “the discontinuity objection”. Consider this data
from the tournaments since points were standardized (fig 5). On average, the top
17 point team has 83 more speaker points than the bottom 18 point team. That
is more than 4 speaker points per partner in every round. So, it is implausible to
say that the one extra team point is better evidence of team quality than this small
mountain of speaker points. Although breaking 18+ seems to choose a principled
place in the qualifications curve, the curve actually goes up at the point where it
needs to go down to justify it as a place to draw the line. Consider the following
two charts created using the team tab from 2010, which is a typical year.

expanding the break 6.PNG
expanding the break 7.PNG

In this chart, a “quality index” has been created to give credit to teams who have
more team points. Each speaker point counts for one quality point and for
each team point the team is awarded 21.50 additional quality points.8 The
index is obviously not precise, but it is a more reliable indicator of team strength
than the rank ordering on the tab. If the best place to draw the line is a steep dip
in the quality curve, then the worst place to draw the line is right before one of
the steepest upticks in quality (e.g., the top of the 17s). Just for example, in 2007
the top ranked team on 17 was Yale A, who had the fifth highest speaker points
at the tournament—above even the top ranked team—and had been favored by
many to win the championship, having performed well the Oxford IV and
Cambridge IV that fall. Although this incident was more memorable, a look at
Worlds tabs over the past 10 years strongly suggests that the top few teams on 17
are typically of very high quality and would have an excellent chance advancing
past octofinals. This means that systems like breaking 48 or 64 would provide a
better sorting mechanism because they don’t consistently set the cut off point
such that teams just missing the cut are consistently more skilled than teams just
making the cut.

Taking all this into consideration, picking a somewhat arbitrary place elsewhere
on the curve based on speaker points seems preferable to breaking 18+. All
methods other than breaking 18+ are open to a criticism of unfairness because
the team that just misses the break can rightly claim that the speaker points used
to make the distinction that excludes them are impossible to standardize with any
precision, so that the evidence used to say that their performance was of lower
quality than the next team up the tab is extremely weak. But consider the case for
unfairness that could be mounted by the team just missing the break under the
plan of breaking 18+. They can rightly argue not just that the evidence of their
lower quality debating is weak, but that any reasonable assessment of the evidence
actually shows that they are more qualified. The latter claim of unfairness seems
much more compelling.

The suggestion being made here is not that the order in which teams break (i.e.,
their ranking on the tab) should be changed to match something like a quality
index. Such an approach seems fraught with problems, so we seem stuck with a
ranking that gives strict (lexicographic) priority to teams with more team points.9
Rather, the point here is that since we need to work down this list in order, it
is best to avoid making the cut-off precisely where there is a significant quality
discontinuity in the wrong direction.

Since the fairest place to make the cutoff for the break is where the drop off in
team quality is steepest, one could modify the breaking 18+ system to also include
the top 2 or 3 teams on 17 points. Call this the “Top 17+ plan”. Breaking 18+
using the wildcard method already needs to allow in the top team on 17 when
the number of 18+ teams is odd, and this Top 17+ plan simply acknowledges
that the top teams on 17 are often exceptionally talented and worthy of breaking.
More to the point, figure seven shows how there tends to be a precipitous decline
in team quality at exactly this point. And, as a bonus, ties in points are unlikely
at this point on the curve. Essentially, the point here is that breaking at 32, 48,
64 or any particular number of teams cannot give us good reason to expect the
break to coincide with a steep downturn in quality. Breaking after the bottom
18 team all but guarantees that the break coincides with a steep upturn in quality.
But by including 2 or 3 of the top 17s, we have excellent reason to expect that the
break will coincide with a fairly steep decline in team quality, and therefore have
maximum justifiability.

Response to the Discontinuity Objection

A legitimate concern expressed regarding this proposal is that the lowest ranked
18 point team may have significantly fewer speaker points than the top ranked 17
point team, indicating that the bottom 18 point team is of a lower quality than
the top 17 point team. Although the manner in which we determine and reward
the merit of a team’s performance is not without flaw, the argument that the
lowest 18 point team is less deserving than the highest 17 point team is troubling.

expanding the break 8.PNG

First, we as a community have agreed that team points are more meaningful
than speaker points. We use team points to power-pair teams throughout the
tournament to test teams against others of similar records. In fact, the powerpair
approach of the WUDC deliberately ignores delineations within a particular
record bracket, preferring a random match of teams with similar records to one
in which the teams with the highest speaker points within a bracket are paired
against teams with the lowest speaker points. Moreover, breaking teams are
determined first and foremost on their team points records; we rely on speaker
points only to seed teams within elimination rounds (and, in the status quo, to
determine which teams make the break).

Finally, to criticize this proposal because “lower quality” teams would advance
(i.e., that 18 point teams with low speaker points would advance while nonbreaking
17 point teams high speaker points would not) ignores that this is the
status quo. In three of the last four WUDCs, several non-breaking teams on 18
had more speaker points than the lowest-ranked 19-point team.


There are legitimate arguments in favor of all the proposals that we have discussed,
but in conclusion we would like to quickly survey their major advantages and
disadvantages of each according to the standards identified earlier in this essay:
1) the practicality of their implementation; 2) how effectively they emphasize the
importance of the audience; 3) how appropriately they distribute highly valued
intangible awards; 4) the fairness of their implementation; and, 5) how effective
they are at sorting teams, such that the higher quality team are likely to progress
further in the tournament.

Regarding practicality, all of the proposals discussed here are entirely feasible.
Any differences in ease of use are too minor to base a decision on. One long-term
practical consideration deserves a brief discussion. As mentioned earlier, endorsing
any new particular fixed size break risks just kicking this same problem down the
road to when the tournament expands further (or perhaps contracts). For this
reason, we argue that any expansion plan using a fixed size break should build in a
rule that automatically adjusts the size of the break to the size of the tournament.
Although we make no specific proposal, figure nine would be just one example.
This one example is of a system designed to ensure that at least 12.5% of the field
breaks (which almost certainly includes all teams on 18+). Such a system could
be made finer grained by adjusting the break size by increments of 4 teams, which
would keep the maximum break at 14% of the field.

And, of course, these numbers could be adjusted in myriad other ways to
accommodate people’s beliefs about what the size of the break should be. That
the important thing is that once such a graduated fixed break system is set, Worlds
Council would be unlikely to need to take up this issue again any time in the
foreseeable future. The variable size break plans we’ve discussed (e.g., breaking 18+)
will automatically adjust to the size of the tournament.

expanding the break 9.PNG

Regarding exposing teams to audiences, all we can say for certain is that plans
that break a greater percentage of the field are obviously better at increasing the
exposure of teams to an audience, and thereby gaining the advantages mentioned
earlier that come along with this. So, this consideration seems to favor a graduated
fixed break system with higher percentages of teams making the break. The
relative importance of this consideration is a matter of considerably more dispute,
and we cannot settle that here.

Regarding award distribution, there are advantages and disadvantages to all the
systems. A smaller break makes the intangible award of breaking more valuable,
so this is a reason to prefer expansion systems that break a smaller percentage of
the field. In contrast, it is also desirable to recognize more people’s achievement,
even if just with an intangible award, which is reason to prefer systems that break
a larger percentage. Of course, none of this will change that only 32 teams will be
able to say that they “made it to octofinals”. Intuitions vary considerably on what
percentage of the field at the top of the tab deserves the special recognition of
such an intangible award, and we don’t see that further discussion here will likely
change this for most people. However, although it is only a rough guideline, we
agree that plausible proportion of teams deserving such recognition falls in the
range of 10% to 20%.

Regarding fairness, none of the proposals is without problems. Critics of fixed
break plans argue that these all rely on insignificant differences in unreliable
speaker points to make the very important distinction between who breaks and
who doesn’t. The unfairness here stems from the system’s unreliability, and it is
even worse in cases where a tie occurs, which is not that unusual. The criticism of
variable break plans depends on which method is used. Critics of the clean break
method of breaking 18+ will claim both that it gives a major unfair advantage to
some teams when an odd number of teams break and that it unfairly makes the
cutoff for breaking immediately before a significant increase in team quality. The
former claim is of a procedural injustice, while the latter claim is that the proposed
system mistakes clarity for justification. Critics of the wildcard method will argue
that it is unfair to violate the defining principle of the system of breaking 18+
(by including the top team on 17 in the break) just because an odd number of
teams happened to be on 18+. The claim here is that this is unfair because it is
inconsistent or capricious. Finally, critics of breaking the top 2 or 3 teams on
17 argue that this is unfair because this method still relies on unreliable speaker
points, even though the gaps between teams tend to be larger at this point on
the tab. Additionally, advocates of the clean break at 18 argue that averaging at
least 2 points per round (i.e., achieving a ‘winning average’) is itself normatively
significant, such that these teams deserve to break in a sense that a team on 17
with high speaker points does not deserve to break. In other words, deserving
to break is in an important sense not a comparative judgment about how a team
placed on the tab compared to how well other teams did.

Regarding sorting teams, we want to make three observations. First, there is a
sorting advantage to getting more teams in front of an audience because this is
essentially a public event and the most effective way to sort competitors’ public
debating skills is by seeing them debate in public. Second, having a partial
double-octo round is an effective way to protect and reward top teams who have
performed exceptionally in preliminary rounds. More of the most talented teams
are likely to make it to late elimination rounds if some of the top seeded teams
break directly to octofinals. Third, a system that allows some 17 point teams
to break will of course allow the top 17 point teams to break, and these are
often very high quality teams that may justifiably make it into quarters or even
later elimination rounds, improving the sorting. Unfortunately, there is also the
disadvantage that these high-quality top 17 teams may disrupt the sorting in
other ways because their seeding is not commensurate with their skill.10 The
sorting advantage of breaking mid-range 17 point teams is less obvious, but it is
possible that some of these teams will flourish in front of an audience.

In the end, as in the beginning, the authors of this paper do not agree on the best
approach to expanding the break. However we hope that we have identified the
most important considerations that go into making this decision so that future
discussions will be better informed and the best decision made more likely.
10 Of course, this is only a problem if one admits that the skills of the top few teams on 17 are
significantly greater than their rank on the tab suggests.


1 [Accessed July 6, 2011]

2 For more on the development of Worlds, see Hume, A. (2009). “Citius, altius, fortius: the
evolution of Worlds debating”. Monash Debating Review.

3 To see why, first consider why a single-elimination bracket in any two contestant event (e.g.,
tennis) will only be theoretically effective at sorting the single best player if we presume that the
initial seedings are not already accurate. It is very possible that the two best players will meet
before the finals, so being in finals doesn’t reliably indicate that you are one of the two best players,
being in semi-finals doesn’t reliably indicate that you are one of the four best players, etc. The
same problem exists with BP debate, except that each single elimination contest advances two
teams. Of course, all this is true even if we grant that judge panels in elimination rounds never
make errors. The problem is mathematical, not practical.

4 If one looks at the history of competitive debating, it is hard to resist the conclusion that
when a debating format moves away from being an audience centred performance, that style
quickly degenerates into fast and often incomprehensible oral battles filled with jargon and of
little interest to public intellectuals or anyone outside itself.

5 And, frequently, against those teams who haven’t yet spoken. I routinely hear adjudication
teams instruct judges at the outset of a tournament that the average for all speakers points should
be 75 speaker points, thereby requiring judges to compare speeches they’re hearing in round one
against speeches they have not yet, but may eventually hear in round 9. This also assumes that
an individual adjudicator at a WUDC will see enough speakers at that tournament to understand
what the “average” is, a logistic impossibility given that most adjudicators will typically see only
about 10% of the speakers at the tournament—assuming that they don’t see one team twice—and
given that no mechanism exists for ensuring that particular adjudicators see a representative crosssection
of the quality of debaters participating at the tournament.

6 For a more thorough treatment of the advantages of relative rankings over absolute ratings, see
Goffin, Richard, and James Olson. “Is It All Relative? Comparative Judgments and the Possible
Improvement of Self-Ratings and Ratings of Others.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 6.1
(2011): 48-60. Sage Publications. Web. 13 July 2011.

7 If one looks further back in WUDC history, an even higher percentage of teams have broken.
Consider the 1999 Manila WUDC, in which 173 teams participated and 18.3% of teams broke.
As we note elsewhere in this paper, a proportionally larger number of breaking teams was typical
at the time the octofinal round was set as the first elimination round for the WUDC.

8 Quality Index = Total Team Speaker Points + (Team Points x 21.50) The 21.50 in this formula
represents the average difference in total prelim speaker points between teams that are separated
by one team point, calculated from the data over the past five years. So, the formula gives exactly
this much credit toward the quality index for each team point. Those skeptical of this formula
should note that even adding twice as many quality points for each team points would clearly
show the same phenomenon. Teams at the top of their team point bracket will almost invariably
be stronger than teams at the bottom of the next higher team point bracket.

9 At this point, one might think that it is a good idea to discard the traditional lexicographic
method of ranking teams on the tab (where speaker points are only considered to break ties in
team points) and replace it with a quality index. The problem is how to convert two numbers
measuring team skill into a single number. As done in the charts, multiplying the more important
number (team points) by some factor can produce a quality index, but unless everyone can agree
on what that factor should be, the resulting index would likely lack the legitimacy that is necessary
for the very important role of determining the break. The factor used in the above charts is not
arbitrary, but then again, no specific awards or privileges are associated with its precise results.
(The conceptual point made by the chart would have been supported by any multiplying factor
vaguely in the same range.) In short, teams who just missed the break based on a quality index
would almost surely perceive the chosen factor as capricious and entirely unfair. Such discontent
would not be worth the trouble.