Doing my best to compose a longer post while on mobile, since I feel this is an important topic. There have been quite a number of variations on this theme discussed on CD over the years, and a lot of different viewpoints that all have valid observations and perspectives. It’s certainly not an easy topic to broach or answer.
Some carry the view that the competition is the “product” of FIRST, and that by increasing the competitive level of that product, more people can be inspired. The better the on-field match, the easier it is to market that on-field competition, the more people want to watch, the more people become inspired through watching. They want robosports to be taken seriously. There’s certainly logic behind this train of thought, and this strategy likely has merit. But there’s the obvious contingency that low performing teams hurt the end goal of an exciting on-field product. Nobody wants to watch a team struggle to drive or sit on the field dead.
Other people feel that the competition is the “Trojan horse” that gets kids excited about STEM, or that the robot is the “campfire” that we gather our teams around. To carry this perspective to its hyperbolic max, it can almost be summed up with the “the real treasure is the friends we made along the way” meme. I don’t believe anyone in this camp dislikes the competitions or thinks they’re wasteful, but they’re bigger believers in the journey than the end destination. This is often where the “science fair” teams who want to build “cool robots” more than they want to build competitive robots end up.
There’s obviously a whole spectrum (or probably really a whole multi-dimensional field) of beliefs between these, as well. But trying to tailor a program to meet both of these belief systems can end up creation friction, as decisions made can often please one group while disappointing the other. I think we’ve seen some pretty vocal advocates make that rather clear on Chief Delphi and elsewhere over the years.
This is also a topic where the CD hivemind has some inconsistent views at times. Mentors and posters praise Michigan for its scalable approach to FRC, despite Michigan also having the largest population of “low resource” teams. Posters scorn the “growth growth growth” model, despite Michigan having the most rapid growth. Posters advocate for lower resource teams to opt for FTC instead, despite Michigan disallowing FTC for high school teams. Posters advocate for equity, diversity, end inclusion but also want to raise the barriers to entry into FRC to avoid team attrition. Posters advocate for stronger mentor support networks for teams, yet choose to work with teams that already have strong mentor groups. This isn’t meant to decry those mentors or posters, but rather illustrate how complex and multifaceted these issues can be.
Personally, I’d love for robotic sports to be on the same level as eSports in the zeitgeist. It would be awesome. But part of what makes eSports (and traditional sports) so popular is that almost anyone can do it at a lower level. They can turn off the stream and fire up the game they just watched. FIRST, VRC, Botball, etc are those lower levels for technology sports. I don’t really think it’s FRCs place to try to replicate the professional level of play, and certainly not at any point where an exclusionary attitude is developed towards “lower resource” or “lower performing” teams.
I think scalable and lower cost competitions are vital, but I also think that telling communities that don’t have as easy access to sponsorships and mentors that they have to play on these lower cost competitions is a beneficial message. This is particularly prudent when many teams use FTC and VRC as their “JV,” “rookie,” and/or middle school teams. It’s not a particularly empowering subtext when a rural or urban team is told to play against the JV teams instead of competing with the big robots, even if it might be a more sustainable fit.
We need to find ways to lower barriers and make FRC less burnout inducing. Beefing up the kit of parts to provide more complete solutions may be part of that. Finding ways to reduce “arms races” between teams may be part of that. Continuing to adjust the season schedule may be part of that. Adjusting the competition formats may be part of that. Just remember that there’s likely not going to be a “one size fits all” solution. Things that help certain populations of teams may hurt others.