Update Sept. 10: Troy Meyer won the LearnedLeague Live event at SporcleCon. The winner of the very first overall LL championship in 2014, Meyer is the all-time leader in that competition with four titles. He is also a two-time winner of Geek Bowl (produced by Questionist’s parent company, Geeks Who Drink), and, as of Jan. 26, a six-time winner of Jeopardy! who is eligible to compete in the next Tournament of Champions – whenever that might happen.
Update Sept. 6: Patrick Friel won the 10th annual LearnedLeague championship. Speaking of “playing defense,” he won his first title in 2022.
Correction: This story originally stated that season 98 starts soon. In fact, it began on August 28.
For Shayne Bushfield, LearnedLeague has a paradox at its heart.
“I’ve created this competition,” says Bushfield, the Indiana-born Seattlite who rules the realm under his “nom de jeu,” Thorsten Integrity. “But I’ve tried to minimize the competitive aspect of it.”
The dichotomy will be on full display this weekend at LearnedLeague Live in Washington, D.C., where everyone with a SporcleCon ticket can join in-person league play on equal footing – 192 took part at last year’s edition. But their randomly assigned round-robin “leagues” feed just eight spots in a single-elimination tournament. The ultimate winner, if they haven’t already qualified by other means, gets an automatic berth in next year’s overall LL championship.
As for the actual game format, each match consists of six questions, and success depends not just on getting them right, but on correctly guessing which ones your opponents will miss: each player has an allotment of nine points to assign to the questions, based on their perceived difficulty.
That aspect of “playing defense” makes LL unique among trivia offerings. And it’s hooky enough that its year-round online competition is something of a phenomenon, attracting coverage from such publications as The New Yorker and The Washington Post.
“I think a big appeal to the league for a lot of people is that it’s low stakes, low key, and low pressure,” Bushfield says. “And while there’s enough of a competitive element to give it an edge, it’s really a solitary activity, just you and your brain.”
In its all-comers spirit, the Live format is a microcosm of LL’s main draw, that online league – or, more accurately, 140 leagues – structured like English football’s league pyramid, complete with promotion and relegation. At the top, there are 140 “A rundles,” and the top three finishers in each of those A rundles, for each of the year’s four five-week seasons, qualify for that same annual championship. Add it all up, and Bushfield says 800 people took part in the 2023 edition.
As big as an 800-player championship may seem in a trivia world where the diehards are few, those finalists sit atop a base of 29,512 – each invited by an existing player – who started Season 98 in late August. In other words, 97 percent will be also-rans. And that’s essentially why, Bushfield says, LL isn’t really about the elite players.
“I don’t want participation in LearnedLeague to be framed around how well you can do, and whether you can be champion,” he says. “It makes no difference to most of the people who participate.”
But everyone can try.
LearnedLeague Live goes down at the Washington Hilton on Saturday, Sept. 9, the second day of SporcleCon. Tickets for the full weekend are $219. For more information, visit sporclecon.com.
Photo illustration: LearnedLeague / Questionist