So… With the announcement of the 2021 theme, FIRST GAME CHANGERS, I’ve seen a lot of speculation going around that FIRST will change how seasons work so that they are more consistent over time, noting the particular emphasis on sports in the reveal. Personally, I am inclined to think this is likely to happen, which is what I’m going to talk about here in this thread. However, before I continue:
This post is speculation and an opinion piece! Everything I am going to say here is what I think will probably happen based on my understanding of FIRST. Nothing I say is guaranteed to occur. In fact, this post is not super well researched, and this is only my 4th year in FIRST, so take what I have to say at a grain of salt. You have every right to disagree with my analysis and I would love to hear your thoughts on this thread.
With that out of the way, let’s continue.
First of all, why did these speculations start? I think it is for two main reasons:
- With the 2020 season abruptly interrupted, teams have had their seasons cut short or not had a season at all, meaning that all of their robots that they have poured hours into on would go to waste if there was a brand new game in 2021. Additionally, with the present economic environment (that will last for the foreseeable short-term future) and suboptimal seasons for teams, obtaining funding from sponsors for the 2021 season could present an insurmountable challenge for many teams. The general consensus I have observed is that FIRST realizes this and will recycle INFINITE RECHARGE with minor modifications to be efficient with the 2021 game (thus lowering costs for both competition and robot building for 2021) and to allow teams to let their 2020 robots see some action.
- With the distinct emphasis on sports in the 2021 season announcement, including the reference to e-sports around the 0:37-0:40 mark, the rumor has it that FIRST is going to shift their programs to appeal more to general audiences and be closer to what the public would view as a “sport.” Although FIRST has been a “sport of the mind” for a while now, its continually changing game has been confusing to general, non-robotics audiences and thus has not garnered their interest like a more constant sport does… The implication being that FIRST will make the 2021 game and subsequent games more similar to each other such that general audiences can be engaged better. This view has also picked up a lot of influence from FIRST Updates Now’s video.
Okay, so why do I believe this scant evidence implies that FIRST will “change the game” so to speak? First off, I want to remind you of what FIRST, the acronym, stands for: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. Additionally, here are FIRST’s mission and vision:
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 transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.” Dean Kamen, Founder
In brief, FIRST wants its program to show the world STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in order to create recognition of STEM, particularly in young people, inspiring them to become future STEM innovators and leaders. It is with this lens that I view the recent announcement and the current rumors.
FRC, FIRST’s flagship program, is great; have loved my past 4 seasons in it and I’m fairly certain you love it too. However, it does have some issues that just so happen to coincide with the two hypotheses of the rumor above. The one big problem encountered in FRC is that of funding. FRC is expensive—registration, robot parts, travel, etc.—and one of the biggest challenges is finding money to pay for it all. Some may say it’s is part of the experience to locate sponsors to fund a season, and I would agree it’s an important skill, but with the sheer amount of sponsorship money necessary to run a season (and FIRST’s relative obscurity, which makes it hard to convince a sponsor it’s worthwhile), it can take away from the actual engineering. Worse, the burden of funding could kill a team if they’re unlucky one year, or even prevent a team from even getting off the ground depending on the circumstances of a school. Most importantly, I think, is that the issue of funding often prevents teams from getting equal educational outcomes. Money, either from sponsors or schools, is a strong factor in overall team success: it buys registration, transport, parts, facilities, labor, and outreach opportunities, all of which are critical for success in FIRST’s current system of FRC. With less money, it is much more difficult for a team to have adequate learning opportunities, and this creates inequality in outcomes of students exiting FRC (if those on poorer-performing teams decide to stick around). This inequality is also divided generally along the same lines as income inequality, so students who are already better off get better outcomes, while those who live in low-income communities with poorer schools get worse outcomes. This goes against FIRST’s mission in two ways:
- The issue of funds acts as a barrier to entry to certain categories of students, meaning those students are left uninspired in the area of STEM and don’t obtain the benefits of the program.
- Teams unable to muster the funding necessary to be fully successful are unable to fully provide recognition of STEM and leave their members without the same level of inspiration and benefits that other teams can provide.
This dichotomy of outcomes and success of the mission due to the immense monetary requirements is an area FIRST probably wants to improve. In order to do this, FIRST has to reduce the financial burden of the program such that teams with less money can compete on a more equal ground than teams with more money. If they were to make it so that subsequent games were adapted from each other, with similar game elements and mechanics reused from year to year, field and game development costs could drop dramatically. Additionally, if teams could reuse their robot from year to year in this system, then the cost expended on the robot would drop too, potentially allowing them to sink more funds into higher quality parts or into outreach (if the team wants to focus on Chairman’s more).
This, of course, doesn’t fix all of the inequality between teams but it does reduce a major deciding factor on learning outcome success. Money isn’t what makes 254 The Chezy Poofs as successful as they are, but you can’t expect to be as good as them without money. FIRST may even even have been considering making such a change for solely this reason but been unable to due to how the community would react to such a change. Times are changing however which may mean FIRST may be in a position to make the switch.
This brings me to what’s kind of new. FIRST has considered itself a “sport of the mind” but hasn’t gained traction publicly as a sport that non-robotics-students want to watch, talk about, etc. Part of this has to do with the changing game every year, which is confusing and drives casual spectators away, leaving FIRST in obscurity. Meanwhile, e-sports of all things (no offense to e-sports competitors) have become a publicly known professional competitor sport. Maybe not on the same level of, say, football, but it’s got public recognition with the wider community. FIRST, in order to achieve its mission of wider recognition of STEM, especially among younger crowds (who tend to watch e-sports), wants to have a similar success story. If they were to make FRC as popular of a spectator sport as e-sports are, then thousands more children would have exposure to STEM and would potentially even be interested in joining FIRST. That gives them additional incentive to switch to a more consistent game format like mentioned above because it would be easier for audiences to understand and follow for multiple seasons.
Okay, but why do I think this will happen now if it hasn’t happened before? You probably already know the answer: COVID-19. Since Infinite Recharge fell flat and teams are wanting an opportunity to let their robots see the light of day without breaking the bank, now would be an opportune time for FIRST to make the shift, simple as that.
But hold on… would making this change ruin FRC? You might ask… The concept of kickoff, the unique games each year, the innovation… its all integral to the experience and the learning outcomes, right? Couldn’t FIRST’s efforts to fix the above issues just break the whole idea so much as to defeat the purpose? Well, maybe. If FIRST does it wrong, then yes, it would ruin FRC. However, such a change would likely receive a lot of scrutiny before it was implemented such that it wouldn’t be game-breaking (and worst case the system could be “patched” in future seasons similar to how video games are). It’s even possible that they have had a plan in the works for years, kept silent for fear of community backlash. I see the removal of the stop build day for Infinite Recharge as a testing of the water to gauge how the community would react to a fundamental tenant of FRC being altered; if anything it has shown that we are open to change.
Additionally, not all engineering is ground-up innovation like our traditional build season—depending on what, where, and when, an engineering project you work on in the future could be an extension, modification, or adaptation of existing technology, and all science is extended from previous work. Having teams keep the same robot from year-to-year and make changes and upgrades would teach slightly different, yet still relevant, STEM skills. The way I think it could work is that each season, one game mechanic would be swapped out for a new one, some relatively small “wildcard mechanic” would be updated, and the field reorganized slightly to keep things interesting. After a few seasons, all new mechanics would be present. IMO, this would provide just the right amount of uniqueness each season while keeping things similar and less expensive. FRC wouldn’t be the same with the changes, but it could end up “better” in a sense.
Alright, those are my thoughts on the matter! It’s 1:40 AM as I write this so I should wrap this up. Again, this is just my speculation on what FIRST will do based on a short 4 years of experience and a tiny bit of research. Please do comment your thoughts on this interpretation and any alternate theories you have. Thanks for reading!