When I first started competing in the National Cyber League in September 2015, I did not score very well. Frankly, it was embarrassing how badly I ranked and I’m pretty sure I only beat the people who didn’t even log in.
But I battled.
I learned along the way.
And soon enough, I was a fierce competitor.
How NCL works?
It’s an offensive and defensive security capture the flag style competition where competitors all across the US compete simultaneously. You can get more information directly from their website here, but I’ll give you an overview.
There are 3 rounds each season. The pre-season round where your only real competition is yourself. Your individual score in this round of the competition will determine which bracket you will compete in throughout the rest of the season. Your goal should be to place in a higher bracket than you did the year before.
Competitors whose score ranks them in the top 15% of all competitors will be in the coveted gold bracket. The next 35% of the ranks will be in silver. Everyone else competing in preseason will be in bronze. Anyone who does not compete in the preseason will be placed in the pewter bracket. Follow directions, compete in the mandatory preseason, and you get to avoid the pewter bracket.
The second part of the NCL season is the regular season games. This can vary from 1-2 competitions and you will compete both in your assigned bracket from preseason and overall. This is another individual competition.
Lastly, there is the post-season team competition. This is personally my favorite section because I love to see all the different levels of experience and the various expertise that each person brings to the table. Your team’s bracket is determined by the average regular season score of each team’s competitors. Again divided 15%/35%/50% going to gold, silver, and bronze respectively.
But why do it?
It takes a lot of time. It’s really challenging.
Depending on your level of competitiveness, you may drive everyone you live with crazy… hypothetically. I mean, not that it would ever happen to me, of course. (Sorry, Mikey! Thanks for loving me even during NCL season.)
For the GLORY!
I’m not kidding. Placing well will open doors for you, but showing personal growth between seasons will open many doors as well. Companies pay NCL to produce these scoring reports so that they can scout the best of the best collegiate cyber-athletes. (Did that make us sound cool? I tried!)
Personally, I was able to secure an interview with Google because of my exponential growth in my NCL scores, ranking, and skills. Ultimately, I did not get the position because I was underqualified, but because of the growth they saw in my scores, I was given recommendations on how to do better next time. I was told to try again next summer because they knew that I had the ability to learn and grow quickly because of my NCL scouting reports.
What kind of growth did they see?
Here’s how NCL is listed on my active resume:
My very first season, I ranked 1247th out of 2153. I scored an astounding 90 points… (Note: I only answered 12/51 challenges.) I did horrible.
But I improved. I started in the bronze bracket, but in just that season I moved from 1247th in preseason to 880th in Game 1 to 424th in the final individual competition. I beat hundreds more competitors each time!
The following season, I was in the silver bracket. I consistently improved. In this past season, I completed 100% of the challenges in the pre-season competition finally securing myself a position in the gold bracket. I was beyond elated ranking in the top 100 of almost 2000 competitors. This season, I ranked 36th in Gold and 45th overall in the regular season.
That’s not all though. When I got my scouting report this year, I was shocked.
In Web Application Exploitation, a section I had never performed well in and spent the least amount of time practicing, I was able to rank 9th in the gold bracket and 12th overall of the 2000 competitors.
This year, my team only ranked 11th in our bracket and 27th out of 152 teams overall, but we took 1st in our bracket and 4th overall in Wireless Access Exploitation. Additionally, we took 6th in the silver bracket and 14th overall in Network Traffic Analysis and 8th in their bracket and 16th overall in Cryptography. To see more, about my 2017 Spring Season Team, see the Pace University Seidenberg Blog for more information.
What do I look for when I get my scouting report?
For me, I immediately go for the sections that I struggled with. I’m able to see the national average as well as my own rank in my bracket and overall.
I want to definitely beat the average in every section. Every year, the competition gets harder, the competitors get stronger, and it’s harder to stay above that mark, but that’s what I use as a metric.
Then I compare it to my previous scouting report. I look for the areas I improved. I also look at the sections I had the lowest accuracy. That usually means that I struggled, but didn’t give up and learned something along the way. Those are the sections where I will train for the following season.
Lastly, I pat myself on the back for a job well done because, at the end of the day, I know I battled, I trained, I worked hard for it, and I learned along the way.
And that is why I do this competition.
And you should, too!
Honestly, it’s worth the experience. I recommend this competition to anyone whether you think you don’t know anything or even if you think you know everything, this competition will absolutely prove you wrong! You will realize you know more than you thought you did about some things and realize you know less than you want to about others.
If you’ve never done NCL, feel free to reach out to me in the comments below or on Twitter with questions. If you’ve done NCL before, tell me about your experience! What do you recommend to people who’ve never competed before?