Proposing FCL—The FIRST Champions League

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_Oldsteaser 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.


Disclaimer

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

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  • If teams need to participate in FRC to qualify for FCL each year, they must compete in both?
  • If this were really a thing, wouldn’t FRC in the fall and FCL in the spring be preferred get new students up to speed before the more prestigious competition.
  • Typically beta testing is done at lower levels, not higher levels with higher stakes (presumably).
  • If you’re really looking to add to the progression of programs, doesn’t it make the most sense to add something like this at the college or professional level?
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So, in order:

  • Yes, with the note that you could decline an FCL berth. I think it’s not advisable to create a totally separate program that pulls talent and interest away from FRC entirely.
  • It would. I was trying to limit the extent of the overhaul by not changing the FRC schedule, but I do think that could be better in the long run.
  • Maybe beta testing isn’t the perfect term, but I’m thinking of having somewhat relaxed rules where [insert 3 digit team] can put LiPo batteries on their robot before Team 9876 tries it out and burns someone
  • I think this goes back to point two, which is that I don’t know that I like the idea of expanding upward from FRC independently of it. I’m not convinced FIRST is in a position to be dabbling in college or professional competitions. There are plenty of engineering competitions that college students can find, and I don’t think they fit as neatly into the “culture change” ethos as K-12 programs.
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In that case, I wonder if it’d be a better outcome for some of FTC affiliate partners break away from FIRST and give the program a fair shot at life instead of living in relative neglect by FIRST. Maybe this would allow a more sustainable FTC-like program to even try and more directly compete with FIRST, forcing them to actually take a harder look at their expansion strategy.

Uh have you ever heard of the FIRST Vex Challenge (and subsequently the Vex Robotics Competition)?

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Yeah, but they’d get goBilda and open COTS, none of this neo-Tetrix nonsense.

Yknow that despite Vex and FIRST’s apparent distaste for the program, FTC is still growing, right?

I think FIRST has already made clear with 2champs and their lack of forcing areas to move to districts that they are not interested in bringing a competitive competition. They’re looking to impress sponsors and let “everyone experience champs”, as much as that idea faceplanted the moment they said it.

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If by chance some independent company were interested in buying the rights to Aerial Assist for an independent competition with the stipulation that FIRST can still use AA in historical material, do you think FIRST would bite?

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Overall, this proposal sounds like FIRST Global but maybe a tad better.

What is CD’s consensus on the usefulness of FGC, anyway?

I agree with the general premise that there ought to be a way to make high-level FRC play as appealing to non-participant viewers as E-sports.

I disagree with everything about the proposed solution, though.

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Honestly, no. I cant see them selling the rights under normal circumstances.

Outside of when Team Afghanistan had troubles getting into the US in 2017 and some students from another country fleeing that same year, i dont think it really got any mainstream media attention, so arguably a failure in the eyes of “mainstream popularity.”

The games were cool though.

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What is CD’s consensus on the usefulness of FGC, anyway?

im angry that they got a “water game” :frowning:

But in all seriousness I literally had never even heard of it until earlier this year when I saw a reveal video in my recommended

As for the FCL proposed I think it is certainly interesting however im not sure about replaying AA (or something similar) over and over again because half of FRC is seeing cool new robots every year

It would probably be more worthwhile getting more news coverage at FRC events and having the streamed on major sporting news channels rather than making a whole new league

Also with the covid stuff going on I dont think this will fly (at least this year)

If we want to being the heat and avoid mentor burnout, encourage participation from university students. (((Maybe we can do something other than a million Ri3D teams)))

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uni students are not going to do better than highschool programs

I think it would be hard to get traction for something like this, because in my experience most people involved in FIRST are not really there for FIRST’s mission.

  • As a mentor, I’m passionate about making a career in engineering feel possible to every student, especially those who never considered it an option.
  • My company’s foundation (a significant FRC sponsor) cares a little about strengthening the pipeline, and a lot more about improving access to STEM education for under-served groups.
  • My students want to make friends and learn how to make cool stuff together.
  • Their parents want an after-school activity that will keep their kids out of trouble and look good on college apps.

Education is not FIRST’s explicit mission, but it is the primary mission of many FIRST teams and stakeholders.

All of which is to say, as you’ve described it FCL sounds optimized for media/outside spectators, but not really for student education. FCL sounds like it would either be a) Two build seasons per year if you build a new robot each year (expensive and exhausting), or b) Trying to convince new recruits to care about some robot a bunch of kids they don’t know built a couple years ago if you don’t.

For my team’s goal of making STEM education accessible in our community, there are lots of other off-season activities that would give us more bang for our buck. There may be teams that would be willing to jettison their current off-season training and outreach in order to participate a culture-changing media spectacle, or teams that have the bandwidth to do both, but I think for the most part you’d have a lot of teams saying “thanks, but no thanks”.

A side note: I’ve seen several threads recently where people suggest that playing the same game every year would make it easier for spectators to follow along. I think a better solution would be to return to simpler games. The sports-themed games were extremely simple to explain (“The robots play 3-on-3 basketball, and at the end they balance on a see-saw for bonus points”), while being just as good of an engineering challenge as the detailed, complex nerd-themed games that we’ve seen in the past 5 years.

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Your bullet points actually sound pretty consistent with FIRST’s mission (well, maybe not the parents one, except indirectly). From the website:

The mission of FIRST® is to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders and innovators, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.

To be fair, 2020 was fairly easy to explain. Something like “3-on-3 game where robots shoot balls into a goal and hang from a giant coat hanger at the end” would explain most of the game sufficiently.

“Easily explainable” and “nerd themed” aren’t exclusive, though I wonder how much a game being “nerd themed” or “sports themed” would affect a true outsider (random person off the street, no inside connections) coming to spectate.

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My bad, I guess I meant to say vision, not mission. The vision of FIRST, from the website, is “To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders”, and the OP was pitching FCL as a way to bring about that culture change. Regardless of what’s vision vs mission I stand by my argument that most teams prioritize educational opportunities over bringing about culture change, which would make FCL a tough sell.

I agree, I guess I just think of them as going together since both trends started at the same time. I will say that the “nerd-themed” games have also tended to be more story-based, which has lead to us scoring Hatch Panels on Cargo Ships and hanging from Generator Switches instead of scoring Basketballs into Hoops and balancing on Bridges. You can explain the game without the jargon, but the Jumbotron animations and MCs often don’t (and of course this could be remedied without changing the themes themselves).

This year was better than the past few if you ignore the control panel, which I guess is reasonable since teams pretty much did too, and the inner goal, which isn’t visible from the stands anyway. The rank points were also pretty complicated compared to the W/L/T/coopertition era.

You might enjoy this thread: FIRST Is Bad at Mainstream Marketing
It’s primarily focused on student recruitment than spectators, but to the extent that kids who haven’t joined a team yet are also true outsiders you might find it interesting

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So, while not a season long league, IRI and CC have actually done a pretty good job of capturing the consistently high level of game play by selecting cream of the crop teams each year. And the level of production that has been put into turning those events into a show is quite high which makes them really fun to watch.

There are, in my opinion, 2 reasons why these events have gotten little attention outside the robotics community:

  1. The events are 2-3 days long which is an extraordinarily long time to try to follow an event. Even trying to follow just the elimination rounds is a several hour commitment. Certainly does not cater to our attention deficit society.

  2. There is little by the way of “community connection” to the teams. While many of the teams are connected to a particular school, outside of that school, few people would feel that it was their “hometown team” taking the field (with some obvious exceptions). When we all tune in to watch these events, we enjoy it mainly because we know those teams by reputation and in some cases because we played at an event with them or even were in an alliance with them. So, we feel connected, but people outside of FIRST struggle to make a connection. This could potentially be solved by looking at the way the little league world series plays out; once a team wins their local competitions, they take on the representation of that region such that in the final rounds, you have teams representing “New England”, “Japan” or “Southeast” rather than just their local town.

Thus, even these “champion league” level events struggle to gain any real visibility outside of FIRST.

These events bring the level of play that you are proposing, but in order for them to accomplish the goal of raising the visibility outside of the FIRST community, you have to solve these two problems. Both are solvable, and perhaps if they were fixed, these events could become those premier events that gives FIRST the level of visibility in the broader community that we all want.

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