URBANA — It was a strange feeling for the Uni High Quiz Bowl participants, up on a stage in a ballroom at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis with around 1,300 people looking on in the championship matchup of the National Academic Quiz Tournament.
Microphones were affixed to their heads, so their every word could be heard on a Twitch stream, which racked up 5,700 views.
It didn't necessarily add to the pressure, Ethan Ashbrook said, but it did make the moment that much more special.
"It was weird actually having people watch you play," the Uni junior said.
"There weren't so many nerves for me, but it was just a strange experience to have people cheering for you and wanting you to do well."
President Tim Cho joked that the reason he joined Quiz Bowl — known as "scholastic bowl" in Illinois — is because he wanted to find an activity in which he could "flex."
As far as Quiz Bowl goes, this was the ultimate stage to do that.
And after finishing 51st a year ago, just making the championship was a boon for the Illineks.
"We already did really well," Cho said, "and there wasn't really any pressure to do much better. It was just really fun."
The preparation for the tournament began last summer after 2018's relatively disappointing finish.
Each of the team members has his expertise, at least for the most part. Ashbrook is the team's literature guy. Cho is a history buff. Dylan Bowman is the point person for math, while Jonathan Lau covers a broad range of subjects with a specialty in geography and history.
Questions run the gamut, covering "history, literature, science, fine arts, current events, popular culture, sports and more," according to the NAQT website. Some questions are directed to an individual team in the head-to-head games. Others are tossups that either team can answer, which a player answers by buzzing in "Jeopardy!"-style.
Ashbrook said the preparation involved plenty of summer research, including falling down more than a few "Wikipedia rabbit holes," and reading summaries of plenty of books.
"I think we've developed our team dynamic pretty well, and we can encourage each other and fist bump after every question," Ashbrook said. "We did an insanely good job of covering everything they have.
"This tournament, especially, tends to lean towards history or stuff like world current events, geography things, and Tim and Jonathan would eat that stuff up and just do insanely well. It was nuts."
Ultimately, the underdog Illineks lost to the powerhouse from Beavercreek, Ohio, in the championship. In the immediate aftermath, the loss stung. But after they put their buzzers down and picked up a runner-up trophy that was almost as tall as each of the players, the reality of their accomplishment set in.
"When we finished and got the second place, at the moment I was kind of disappointed because we came all this way, and we had such a good playoff run, but a few hours later, I was genuinely really happy," Lau said. "We came so far from being some random team in downstate Illinois that nobody cared about, and now we're one of the best teams in the country.
"That was really amazing. Seeing all of our family and friends and people from school supporting us was really nice."