Wow… apologies in advance for how long-winded this became.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about how best to effectuate the culture change from FIRST’s vision statement through the programs, so here’s me throwing my hat in the ring. After reading and thinking about @BriFRC’s Infinite Recharge replay thread, @guineawheek’s recent FTC thread, and @Tyler_Olds’ teaser discussion thread, and particularly @mrnoble’s thought provoking comment, I wanted to offer up the following.
One of the things that I and many others love about FRC is its sense of grandness. FIRST is at its strongest when it has a powerful keystone program with which to make its best first impression to outsiders and newcomers. And yet FRC’s sustainability continues to be a point of concern and contention, and deservedly so. Options involving beefing up FTC have been discussed at length, but I see them ultimately as unlikely given FIRST’s historical stance on FRC expansion.
And this hiatus from live sports has taught us something important—there is, at least in unusual circumstances, an appetite for nontraditional competitions on major media platforms. We’ve seen esports on ESPN. FIRST can do this—but not if a large fraction of teams can’t move or meaningfully participate in the game for much of the season. It needs to be even grander than FRC is today, and the continued focus on quantity over quality of teams, while defensible, means we’re not getting closer.
I understand the economics of expanding the workload and overhead of FIRST don’t look great right now and probably won’t in the medium term future. With that said, come along on a long-term thought experiment…
Thus, I propose adding a new, fifth program to the FIRST progression—the FIRST Champions League. This would be a complement to FRC that sits above it and is open to current FRC teams on a qualification basis, similar to the international soccer competition from which it takes its name. FCL would play a consistent, perhaps occasionally modified, game from season to season, in the vein of a true sports model. Of course, Aerial Assist is the perennial favorite whenever a discussion like this comes up, but I lean toward a new game introduced for this purpose. The important point is to learn from the best parts of AA: keep it simple, likely with a single (even shared) game piece, and emphasize alliance cooperation. As a way to lean into the sports appeal, modify the structure from a traditional FRC game—I’m thinking of a “shot clock”/“innings”/“downs” mechanic that forces changes of possession so one alliance can’t go up 1-0 and then run out the clock. Have six-minute matches with a battery-swap halftime that gives the chance to re-strategize as an alliance, and live halftime and post-match commentary like the Championships livestreams have featured in the last few years.
Qualification would be based on a modified district points model from FRC results over the last four years with a 40-30-20-10 weighting. This provides a level of consistency while still allowing strong performers to rise up and qualify within a reasonable time frame. Some level of geographical apportionment would be appropriate, although at a larger scale than individual districts (think NE + NY + FMA, Great Lakes, Chesapeake to Florida, etc. as groupings). I’m eyeballing around 400 teams total. Of course, teams would be allowed to decline their place if they don’t feel financially capable. Perhaps there could also be a mechanism to allow multiple qualified FRC teams to combine forces in FCL to pool their resources.
The season would be run in the fall (admittedly, this isn’t a perfect option for media visibility, but I think it’s the best we can hope for given the FIRST landscape), with a small contingent (one field of 40 teams) making each championship in April as well for the visibility. Robots could be swapped out freely during a season or reused over multiple. Likely, a first-time qualifying team would build a new robot for FCL, then upgrade and reuse it multiple times. There could also be a registration break the first year of qualification or the first time back after some given number of years to offset the robot cost.
Some of the advantages FCL provides:
- A true spectacle for FIRST to market for maximum media attention—no (at least fewer) dead robots
- A high level of gameplay at every event
- Another level of accomplishment for teams to see and strive for in a way that celebrates consistent excellence
- A more robust beta testing platform to test out potential system upgrades, like alternate battery chemistries, before committing to bringing them to lower-resource teams in FRC
- FIRST-sanctioned magnet events that draw in both participants and outsiders as spectators more strongly than current FRC districts and regionals—imagine a season of IRIs and Chezy Champses in every region
- Year-to-year consistency for outside viewers to learn the rules and follow along, and foster a real FIRST fanbase outside of alumni and grandparents
- Ideally, in the “culture changed” realm, a self-sustaining program that can turn a profit and pass the benefits along to the rest of the FIRST programs in the form of reduced registration fees
Obviously stratifying the FRC community in any way is a contentious proposition, but I hope this is a route that takes little away from everyday FRC teams—it doesn’t take the top teams out of the league with everyone else, it builds almost entirely on FRC infrastructure to limit development and field costs, and it’s capped in size to limit the total price tag. And possibly, this could coincide with a moderate reduction of some of the FRC costs, maybe through a minor downscale, since FIRST doesn’t have to multiply the expenses of hyping their top-of-the-line program over 185 events.
And of course, finally, I have to mention the elephant in the room, which is mentor burnout. I know, and that’s not an easily solved problem. I know there are holes to be patched. But take this idea and run with it. What’s good, what’s bad, and am I totally out of my mind?
Edit: just grammar gremlins