Roger’s Reflections: The Return to In-Person Debate

Roger Li

In-person debate is returning after over two years of being online. Prior to the pandemic, students on the Lexington debate team would travel to compete at tournaments. Now, debaters face opponents in-person one week and compete on Zoom the next. As a second-year debater, I have had the opportunity to experience “both worlds.” 

Online debate does have its benefits. Tournaments are less costly because we don’t have to pay for hotel rooms, plane tickets, or bus fees. Last year, I could attend any tournament I wanted to, and this flexibility contributed to Lexington Debate’s strong performance. Smaller programs around the country were also able to participate in high-level national circuit tournaments for the first time, increasing the accessibility of debate as an activity. 

However, surprisingly, the increased availability of online debate has lowered participation. I know many people who don’t want to spend time debating online when other activities are in-person. Consequently, participation in tournaments decreased during the pandemic. Even successful debaters didn’t want to continue competing online convinced that debate wouldn’t recover. However, sign-ups for debate classes have rebounded this year.

Personally, I had fun competing last year from the comfort of my own home. By having more opportunities to face different debaters, I improved my own argumentative skills. But after a few months, debate started to get boring. I would spend the weekend stumbling through grueling debate rounds, with no one to celebrate my wins or help me recover after a loss. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when many of last year’s seniors, despite being extremely successful, decided to quit after being burned out. Many of this year’s seniors are participating in mostly in-person tournaments, since competing virtually isn’t worth it anymore. 

In-person debate is just more enjoyable than online debate. When you go to debate camp over the summer, you spend weeks practicing debate with high-quality instructors and making connections with people you’ll meet at tournaments later in the season. Friendships are built and maintained through in-person interactions at in-person tournaments. Additionally, team bonding is much stronger when you’re sitting next to your teammates rather than texting in a group chat. Even if there are more opportunities to be successful in online debate, in-person debate is of much higher quality. That’s why the debate program is trying to give this year’s seniors as many in-person opportunities as possible, since they missed over two years of this experience. 

However, having online tournaments available is still beneficial. Some schools can only afford to attend a few high-level national tournaments a year, so having a three-tournament series that can qualify people for the Tournament of Champions, the most prestigious national tournament, is a great way to increase accessibility. 

However, the last two and a half years have proven that online debate is not sustainable. That’s why I, along with so many other debaters, are excited for the return to in-person debate.