Hello Codeforces! I am writing this blog post to bring attention to and publicly discuss inconsistencies in the ICPC World Finals selection process for North America.
For those who are unaware, every North American (NA) team competes in one regional (which is usually determined by their geographical location) and top teams are selected from each regional to represent NA in World Finals. The only official rule is that the winner of each region qualifies for finals. The remaining teams are selected based on several criteria that are not officially specified. In the past few years, NA has received 23+ world finals slots.
I am a member of Georgia Tech’s premier ICPC team, and my teammates are AlanWaP and RaresC. We compete in the southeastern USA (SER) regional in North America. Our region also contains University of Central Florida, who consistently have a top ~25 team at World Finals and who were the North American Champions and bronze medalists in the 2018 world finals. This year Georgia Tech ranked second in our regional solving 7/11 problems, and the top UCF team solved 9/11 problems. We have been in similar situations for the last four years: achieving 2nd place, losing to UCF, and not advancing to world finals.
Since UCF is the reigning NA champion, we expected to qualify for World Finals this year. In the past, there seems to have been an unofficial rule that gives the region of last year’s medalist(s) additional world finals spot(s). This rule appeared to be in place for Harvard and MIT, which are both in the Northeastern North America (NENA) regional. In 2016 world finals when both Harvard and MIT medaled, NENA received 3 world final spots for the next world finals. Note that the difference in problems solved between rank 1 and rank 3 was 4 problems. Similarly, when Berkeley was a medalist in the 2015 world finals, the PACNW region received three slots instead of their normal two for the next world finals.
After communication with NA ICPC officials, it seems that the difference in number of problems solved is primarily taken into account while determining how many slots are allotted to a region. This metric is inconsistent with the NENA example above, and it is also unreliable for several reasons:
- First, different regionals have different problem sets and some are significantly easier than others. For example, in Mid-Atlantic USA 2018, there were only 8 problems, 5 distinct teams solved all of them, and every problem was solved by at least 9 teams. SER was undoubtedly one of the hardest (if not the hardest) NA problem set this year.
- Second, it doesn’t take into account the strength of the region. For regions where the top teams are not as strong as UCF, one should expect to have closer competition.
- Last, our team's computer crashed for 30 minutes during SER 2018 around the 150 minute mark, which seriously impacted our time penalty. Printing at our site also took at least 45 minutes, making it almost impossible to “debug on paper” while a teammate codes another problem. Our team did not get a contest extension even though we made multiple requests, so we ran out of time coding the 8th solution. We want to point out that several schools in our region including UCF competed at a different site and didn’t encounter these problems. That said, both of these problems were officially recorded and the NA selection committee was aware of the differences.
The World Finals teams were announced recently, and we were surprised to not have advanced. Furthermore, the number of teams from NA was reduced from 23+ to 19 this year. The officials told us that the reason for this is the “growth of ICPC”. Why were so many slots cut from North America? They also told us that “NA champ’s region gets an extra slot convention” was considered but not used this year due to the new space constraints. However, they gave additional slots to other regions based on scoreboard closeness.
It is AlanWaP s last year of eligibility, and possibly my and RaresC s last participation as well. We’ve all invested a nontrivial number of hours into programming competitions, so this is incredibly disheartening for us. We performed very well nationally in NAIPC 2018 and in NAQ 2018. It is evident that we are a very strong NA team with the potential to perform well at world finals, so it seems odd that a region like SER is so underrepresented. Unfortunately, there is very little transparency in the selection process, and Georgia Tech regularly receives the short end of the stick. It’s terrific that our region has fierce competition, but we believe SER should routinely be awarded more WF slots because of this.
On a more positive note, there is discussion about North America moving to a super-regional system to decide teams next year, which would be fantastic and should eliminate all the problems caused by comparing incomparable regions. Coincidentally, it is likely going to be hosted by Georgia Tech. There has been an ongoing push for a more fair selection process for years, so we hope that the super-regional contest becomes the new standard for qualifying for World Finals from North America.