In the past, most elite programming competitions (e.g. IOI, ICPC, TopCoder Open, AtCoder World Tour, GCJ, Hacker Cup) have held their final stages in person. In 2020 and 2021, however, most of these contests were moved online. This was unfortunate, but understandable given the circumstances: in 2020, the state of the pandemic clearly did not allow for extensive travel, and while the dangers decreased by late 2021 as a result of rising vaccination rates around the world, there was still sufficient uncertainty to justify holding events online in 2021.
This year, however, both Google Code Jam and Meta Hacker Cup have committed to hosting online finals. [UPD: Meta has retracted its commitment to a virtual finals, so it seems that the plans for MHC are still up in the air.] I believe that this is a highly unnecessary precaution--there is plenty of evidence showing that it is possible to successfully run an in-person event in 2022. Notably, TopCoder has committed to hosting the TCO finals in person in November. Moreover, as a recent/particularly relevant example, the ICPC North America Championship was hosted in person a few weeks ago; while I'm aware of a handful of COVID cases that occurred at the contest, my understanding is that there was no especially large outbreak, in spite of the fact that the NAC had nearly 10x as many participants as either GCJ or Hacker Cup finals and that there were several precautions ICPC chose not to take (e.g. masks were not required except for during the competition itself; participants were not tested for COVID before/after the contest). If GCJ/Hacker Cup were to take these additional precautions, I find it hard to believe that the COVID risks would be particularly significant.
I participated in the online FHC finals in 2020. All in all, the Facebook staff did a great job transitioning the event to the online format (some highlights included adding some unannounced prizes, including Oculus Quests for all the finalists, and organizing card games after the contest). Even so, there's simply no comparison between online and in-person events. Moreover, the opportunities to compete in-person are so limited, especially for those who have run out of ICPC eligibility, that each additional in-person event contributes huge value in terms of community-building, particularly because many finalists in these events have reached a point at which only a few others in their country are as passionate about/skilled at competitive programming as they are. Finally, the in-person competition experience is the biggest difference between these events and the competitions taking place on CF, AtCoder, and CodeChef every week, and I suspect that if this experience doesn't return, these contests will become much less exciting to top competitors and will thus lose prominence in the community over time.
That said, I'm concerned that if in-person finals don't return within the next year or two, online finals will become the new default, and it's unlikely that in-person competition will ever return to these events. I would view this as a huge loss to the community, and as a result, I'd like to strongly encourage the organizers of GCJ/Hacker Cup to return to the in person format for their 2023 finals.
A few parting thoughts:
- My understanding is that there's been at least some effort to hold in-person finals this year, and I suspect that one primary reason these events haven't been held in person is difficulty finding the necessary support from events staff rather than a lack of effort put in by the contest organizers themselves. (Shout-out to the problem authors/others involved in preparing these events; my intent is not to call any of you out, and I appreciate what you do to make these contests happen!) I'm not sure how best to convince these organizations that returning to in-person competition is worth the effort; if anyone has any thoughts on this, I'd be happy to hear them.
- If in-person competition returns, I'd strongly encourage Google/Meta to implement a remote option for people unable to attend due to travel restrictions, underlying health concerns, the ongoing war in Ukraine, etc.
Thanks for reading--please feel free to share your thoughts below!