In 2019, the last time the Scripps National Spelling Bee was held, the final rounds dragged on for hours before resulting in an eight-way tie, with the champions announced after midnight. Looking to avoid a similar outcome in the future, organizers have announced the addition of new challenges to the competition when it returns this summer, after being canceled last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The new elements include a “word meaning component” and a lighting round spell-off that would be held in the event of a tie in the final round of the competition, which will air live on ESPN2 on July 8.
The changes, which were announced on Monday, were partly inspired by pandemic-era safety measures, according to J. Michael Durnil, the competition’s new executive director.
The mix of new and old spelling bee elements will “ensure the competition continues to mature in a way that appropriately challenges the most accomplished spellers in the country,” Dr. Durnil said in a statement.
“Just as with spelling, word meaning is core to students’ understanding of the English language,” he added.
The word meaning component will be featured in the second round of each level of the competition — the preliminaries, quarterfinals, semifinals and finals. The contestant will be required to orally select the correct multiple choice answer to a vocabulary question read by the pronouncer, according to the E.W. Scripps Company, which administers the bee.
The contestant will have 30 seconds to view the question and three answer choices and must answer correctly within the time limit to move on to the next round of competition.
The other rounds of the competition will consist of traditional oral spelling, according to the organizer.
The spell-off would be used in the closing minutes of the finals if a champion had not been declared “in a traditional, one-person, one-word round.” In that lighting round, contestants would have 90 seconds to spell as many words correctly as they could.
The student who spelled the most words correctly would be declared the champion.
“The spell-off, if activated, promises to be a gripping moment for both the spellers onstage during the finals and audiences on the edges of their seats at home,” Dr. Durnil said.
In response to a question on Twitter about a potential “tie in the speed round,” the bee replied that “the spellers would be declared co-champions.”
After an initial suspension, last year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee was canceled because of concerns around the coronavirus pandemic. It was the only time since World War II that the bee’s national finals had been canceled.
The record-breaking 2019 competition resulted in eight spellers being named “octochamps.”
After the 17th round, Jacques Bailly, the event’s pronouncer, said that any of the eight remaining contestants who made it through three more words would share in the prize. All eight correctly spelled their assigned word in the 20th round. The students had exhausted the sponsors’ list of difficult words.
Typically, the champion speller receives a $50,000 prize. That year, all eight co-champions received $50,000 and a trophy.
The students who participate in the national finals have to prove their spelling prowess in local or state contests first. The 2019 competition had a record number of spellers, a total of 565 competitors.
This year’s national competition will be conducted mostly in a virtual format, beginning June 12 on ESPN platforms, according to Scripps.
The fourth and final round of the competition, which features 10 to 12 spellers, will be held in person at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Fla., on July 8.