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An Introduction to Competitive Debate

Debate as a past time and sport dates back to the late 1700s in England when public debates became popular spectators events. Debating societies formed to put on such debates which attracted large audiences and press attention.

This enthusiasm for public debate has carried forward through the British colonial empire up to today. Its modern vestiges are mostly in the middle, college, and high schools of countries once part of the empire. It is practiced both for sport and as an educational exercise.

What sets competitive debate apart from most other forms of debate is that the debate is judged in some fashion. This leads to a competitive environment that values the development of skills and a set of rules to encourage fairness. Judgement is typically rendered either by a vote of the audience or by selected judges who try to maintain an impartial evaluation of the arguments presented. Most judging is based on the truth of a given statement or resolution, though some debates are judged more on the knowledge and skill of the participants demonstrated through the debate.

How Judging Changes Debate

The most popular form of judging for competitive debate are impartial judges. Popular votes are often subject to being a popularity contest, either for the position held by one of the sides or for the debaters themselves. Because of the desire for competition, and thus impartial judgment, popular votes are, not popular with debaters themselves.

The ideal of an impartial competitive judge is one who does not bring their own pre-conceived ideas or opinions into their judgment of the debate. They simply listen to the arguments presented and weigh them against one another to determine who made their case most effectively. Any position or facts not argued by the debaters cannot be considered. Nor should a judge be filling in the gaps in either side’s position.

The good

Impartial judging has a number of benefits. Firstly, it encourages debaters to use evidence and reason as their primary tools of persuasion. In a popular debate, pure rhetoric and emotional appeal can often win out instead. Judges are encouraged to identify and reject illogical arguments or unsupported contentions, thus forcing debaters to use sound evidence and reasoning.

It eliminates the problems of the popularity contest to a large degree. In popular votes, a winning tactic is simply to encourage more of your loyal fans to attend and vote on your behalf. While this is good for encouraging an audience, it is prone to metagaming and results in neither an assessment of truth nor of the skill of the debaters.

It provides good constructive feedback to debaters. Audience votes are very hard to fathom. Rarely are votes explained in any detail so debaters cannot refine or improve their arguments. Impartial judges are usually obligated to provide some rationale for their decision as well as to suggest improvements for the debaters. This helps the debaters improve their skills and tactics for further debates.

The bad

Many people argue because they believe in the truth of their position. They may feel that a judge is ignoring important facts or accepting patently ridiculous arguments simply because they chose not to devote equal time to refute them during the debate. They want the judgment to reflect the truth of the statement, not who had better delivery during the debate. They may feel the rules of the format are an impediment to arriving at the truth and that debate becomes a mere verbal game rather than a search for meaning.

Sometimes, the formal rules that develop and the impartial judging that focuses on reason and evidence, create an environment where the debate itself becomes inaccessible or confusing to a general audience. At this point, many feel the core purpose of debate as social discourse and deliberation is entirely lost. The skills and techniques that are encouraged become useless when applied to debate outside the competition environment.

Principles of Competitive Debate

A search for truth

While the judging system may not be centered on the wider truth of the world, but the narrow truth of the round, the overall search for truth is still the heart of debate. It is the passion that drives the topics and debaters to engage, and it is the nobler part of the purpose of debate in the wider world. Debaters are expected to be honest and earnest in their arguments. And in opposing one another, they provide valuable critique and challenge to ideas, exposing fault and challenging assumptions.

Rational thinking

While emotion and rhetoric have a part to play, the focus of most competitive debate is on logic, reason, and evidence. These are the qualities that are most valued, and often felt most missing from wider public discussion and politics. Most of the conventions of public debate are designed to create a logical and rational structure on which to make arguments.


Like any type of competition, values of sportsmanship are essential to the culture. This often sets competitive debate apart from social and political debate. In competition, one is expected to show respect and camaraderie with your opponent. Without an opponent, no competition is possible. Outside of the competitive environment debate rivals are often seen as enemies who are to be defeated at any cost, or by any tactic.


Most competitive debate is done in the context of school, and thus education is a paramount virtue. Debaters are often asked to debate both sides of an issue or resolution. Debaters are expected not only to learn the substance of a given debate topic, but also the art of communication, and the science of logic and reason. There are further lessons of sportsmanship, teamwork, competition, research skills, and many others that all derive from the pursuit of competitive debate.

Civic Discourse

Underlying the foundation of debate itself is the desire for civic discourse. The ability of people in society to explore differences of opinion and thought in a manner that is civil and constructive. Because of this, most competitive debate also has rules of decorum and behavior in support of this ideal.

Forms of Competitive Debate

There are a vast number of different formats practiced around the world in competitive debate. The majority of formats are team-oriented, with groups of two or more debaters per team taking turns at offering argumentation. Individual formats are not uncommon but are more the exception than the rule.

Nearly every format involves strict time limits for presentations with the two sides of the debate taking turns at making presentations. Some formats allow for question and answer between teams, while others have formal rules for interruptions by the opposing team to make brief statements. Some popular formats include a period where debates answer questions from the audience of the debate.

Typically one group of debaters is designated to speak first and is arguing for a given position, while an opposing team speaks last and represents opposition to the position taken by the first team. Topics for debate can either be pre-arranged or are revealed shortly before the debate.

The time limits placed on nearly every competitive format tends to focus competitive debates on a narrow range of arguments on a given topic rather than a broad survey of a topic.

The Wikipedia article for Debate has a nice list of some popular formats. And if you are looking for a way to try it out, Qallout hosts frequent online tournaments.

  1. Thank you for such an informative post, Sigfried

    Prathit Singh on December 18 | Reply