How to Choose Robotics Competition for Kids in 2021

Last Updated: May 1st, 202125.2 min readCategories: Robotics, VEX IQ

VEX IQ Challenge (VIQC) vs. FIRST LEGO League (FLL) vs. World Robot Olympiad (WRO)

Are you a teacher or coach who would like to start a robotics team? Are you a parent who would like to put your kids in a robotics program? There are quite a few very popular robotics competitions in US and Canada, which one should you consider?

This is complete comparison between 3 very popular robotics competition for kids between age 8 to 14 in US and Canada, VEX IQ Challenge (VIQC), FIRST LEGO League (FLL) and World Robot Olympiad (WRO).

Let’s dive right in.

Disclaimer

This comparison is based on my personal experience coaching 23 VEX IQ teams for 3 seasons, 31 FLL teams for 3 seasons and 11 WRO teams for 2 season in Ontario, Canada. Your experience might be different depends on your region. But what I’m trying to do is to give coaches and parents my point of view after coaching teams in all of those 3 competitions. Caution Tape Robotics Club currently coaches VEX IQ teams and public school FLL teams.

What this comparison is / isn’t

This is not a review about which competition is the best robotics competition. This review is aimed squarely at the competition experience and educational experience. My focus is to look at those competitions as an educator, a parent, which one of those competitions will bring my students, my children fun, exciting competition and help them developing interests in robotics and STEM education. While there is already a large community existed in the robotics training and education field, I have found that year after year, there are always novice teacher, parents who have just started exploring this field, and having hard time to pick up things here and there to find out what they could and should do.

Overall Impact

VEX IQ Challenge (VIQC)

VEX IQ Challenge (VIQC)

Robotics Education Competition Foundation (RECf) says,

The VEX IQ Challenge, presented by the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation, provides elementary and middle school students with exciting, open-ended robotics challenges that enhance their science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills through hands-on, student-centered learning.

The VEX IQ Challenge fosters student development of the teamwork, critical thinking, project management, and communication skills required to prepare them to become the next generation of innovators and problem solvers.

More than 8,500 teams from 45 countries playing in over 900 tournaments

Inaugural season: 2012

Fun fact: VEX World Champion (VEX Worlds) is named the largest robot competition by Guinness World Records in 2016.

FIRST LEGO League (FLL)

FIRST Lego League (FLL)

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) says,

FIRST LEGO League introduces science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to children ages 4-16* through fun, exciting hands-on learning. FIRST LEGO League participants gain real-world problem-solving experiences through a guided, global robotics program, helping today’s students and teachers build a better future together. In FIRST LEGO League, students engage in hands-on STEM experiences, building confidence, growing their knowledge and developing habits of learning. FIRST LEGO League’s three divisions inspire youth to experiment and grow their critical thinking, coding and design skills through hands-on STEM learning and robotics.

~100 countries, 504,000+ participants, 2,000+ events.

Inaugural season: 1999

World Robot Olympiad (WRO)

World Robot Olympiad (WRO)

WRO Association says,

At World Robot Olympiad it is our mission to give young people all the opportunity to develop their creativity and problem solving skills in a fun and engaging way.
We do this by organizing robotics competitions. Each season we have a new theme and we have challenges that are tailored to the age of the participants.
WRO tournaments are organized in over 85 countries worldwide and each season new countries join the movement.

Over 75,000 students, 28,000 teams, 75+ countries

Inaugural season: 2004

FLL is the largest and longest robotics competition among all 3, with LEGO being its hardware partner, it certainly attracted more students than the other 2 competitions. However, with the shortest history, VIQC has already passed WRO to become 2nd largest robotics competition.

Game Attractiveness

Robotics game is still a game after all, an attractive game will make the game look fun and intriguing for the young kids. Let’s take a look of each game from the students’ eyes of view.

VEX IQ Challenge (VIQC)

FIRST LEGO League (FLL)

World Robot Olympiad (WRO)

WRO doesn’t release game video, so we have to use a WRO international video instead.

FLL game set and rule are the most complicated, on average, FLL will have 15-20 missions each season for students to complete. Using over thousands of LEGO building bricks each season, the game looks vivid, and super fun to play with.

Even though WRO uses LEGO bricks, but it uses the same simple bricks every season, just build them into different shapes, they only replaces the game mat between each season.

VIQC uses different game set every year, but you cannot compare it with thousands of LEGO pieces every season. Period.

Age Groups

An appropriate age groups configuration will help the students to feel compete fairly, and not to be intimated with large age gap.

VEX IQ Challenge (VIQC)

Elementary: Grade 6 and lower.
Middle School: Grade 7/8

VIQC age groups are properly divided into elementary and middle school to allow students to compete against teams at similar ages, while middle school division is also designed for students to smoothly transition into their next level competition VEX Robotics Competition. Even though VIQC are divided into 2 age groups, but the game rules are exactly the same across 2 divisions.

FIRST LEGO League (FLL)

Age group: Grade 4-9

FLL has no age groups. All students in grade 4 to grade 9 will attend the same competition, which makes the competition very hard for those young kids under grade 6.

World Robot Olympiad (WRO)

Elementary: Grade 4-6.
Junior: Grade 7-9

Because WRO is originated in Asia, the age groups of WRO competition is also designed for Asian education system. Junior group is targeted to grade 7-9, in the meantime, American and Canadian middle schools age grade 7 and 8. Game rules and game sets are different between elementary and junior divisions. Junior division’s game is more complex geared to their age group.

The age group configurations from VIQC and WRO are appropriately set up to allow students to compete with teams at similar age.

Team Size and Roles

All these 3 robotics competition are like team sports, you never can go to a competition with one person team. Larger team means more working force to move faster, gets more work done, but it’s a lot of management and coordination hassle. Please make sure selecting a competition that suits your situation.

VEX IQ Challenge (VIQC)

Requirements: 2+
Typical Team Size: 2-6

VIQC tends to have a smaller team size, but they may have multiple roles in the team. Typical roles from a VIQC team are builder, programmer, notebooker and an optional STEM researcher (if team chooses to participate STEM project competition). At competition day, there will be driver, scout and team manager.

FIRST LEGO League (FLL)

Requirements: 2-10
Typical Team Size: 4-10

A typical FLL team will have 2 groups of students, one group focusing on robotics part and another group of students focusing on innovation project. Without either of them, you will not do well at any FLL competition. FLL team is hardest to manage and a lot of moving parts.

World Robot Olympiad (WRO)

Requirements: 2-3
Typical Team Size: 2-3

There is no judged awards for WRO Regular competition, and at competition day, there is only 3 tries for full 1 minute autonomous. You will only need builder and programmer in a WRO team, but the builder and programmer will face a surprise rule challenge at competition day, which means they will need to modify the robot design and code on spot as well.

VIQC has an easy to manage team size, and well balanced robotics team. FLL team size are typically bigger, and because of the workload under shorter competition season, it is much harder for coaches, teachers and parents to coordinate all the students in such short period. WRO team size is relatively small, but they are also limited to what they could achieve at competition.

Hardware

Unlike coding competitions, robotics competitions heavily rely on hardware for students to design, build and compete. There are lots of discussions on the internet regarding EV3 vs VEX IQ, we will not dive into so many details about the hardware spec, but rather simply focus on a few key factors of the hardware and its impact on the education and competition.

VEX IQ Challenge (VIQC)

VEX IQ Challenge allows all hardware in the VEX IQ product line, HEXBUG mechanical/structural components and very few non-VEX IQ components, such has decorations and rubber bands. VEX IQ brain has total of 12 ports, which can be used for either motors or sensors. However, in the competition, you are only allowed to use up to 6 motors. All robots in the robotics competition will require wheels to allow robots move freely around the field, VEX IQ has huge advantage by introducing omni wheel into the VEX IQ product line, this not only makes robots movement smoother but also gives much more chassis designing possibilities, such as H-drive and X-drive, which are quite popular in VEX IQ Challenge. You will never see that in FLL or WRO.

Release date: 2012
Retail Price: VEX IQ Super Kit (228-2500) US$379/CA$500

FIRST LEGO League (FLL) and World Robot Olympiad (WRO)

Because both FLL and WRO uses LEGO EV3 and SPIKE Prime, we will review them together.

Lego EV3 brain has only 8 ports, which 4 of them can be used for motors and 4 for sensors, this has greatly limited the chassis designing possibilities. All LEGO bricks and parts can be used for both FLL and WRO competitions, this has opened up more mechanical possibilities for attachments. You will see many different designs of attachments in FLL competition, (WRO doesn’t allow robot to go back to based and change attachment) But this also opens up another controversial issues is that team with access to more resources will have more designing possibilities and gaining competitive advantages.

Release Date: 2013
Retail Price: LEGO MINDSTORM EV3 Core Set US$465/CA$540

LEGO SPIKE Prime

Lego SPIKE Prime was just released in 2020. It was not a replacement for LEGO EV3, but rather a lower and cheaper model targeting different market. It has less capabilities than LEGO EV3, 6 universal ports, rather than 8 from EV3. It has even more limitations compare to EV3, but it leverages Scratch as its main programming environment. With Scratch being super popular in elementary coding teaching, SPIKE Prime makes it easier for kids to start robotics competition.

Release Date: 2020
Retail Price: LEGO SPIKE Prime Set US$340/CA$450

VEX IQ robots have more chassis designing possibilities because of its ports design and omni wheels. For FLL, you will see more attachments design especially for teams with access to more LEGO parts at the cost of limit your robot designing possibilities. For STEM education out of robotics competition, we do see more creativity possibilities with LEGO, because of the selections of LEGO bricks.

CAD Designing Software

Students love to get their hands dirty, dive into the pool of LEGO bricks or VEX IQ parts, nothing can buy that kind of happiness when you see their face in front of thousands of parts. However, engineering process is the heart of the robotics competition, they shouldn’t get their hands dirty without properly designing the robot first, but this requires time to transition them into proper designing process with CAD software.

SnapCAD – VEX IQ

Snap CAD

Autodesk Fusion 360 – VEX IQ

Autodesk Fusion 360 with VEX IQ

Studio 2.0 – LEGO

Studio 2.0 LEGO Mindstorms EV3

Autodesk Fusion 360 gives us the most freedom, a clear growing path for students who develops interests in mechanical engineering. It certainly brings more educational value compare to Studio 2.0 and Snap CAD.

Programming Environment

Students love to get their hands dirty, dive into the pool of LEGO bricks or VEX IQ parts, nothing can buy that kind of happiness when you see their face in front of thousands of parts. However, engineering process is the heart of the robotics competition, they shouldn’t get their hands dirty without properly designing the robot first, but this requires time to transition them into proper designing process with CAD software.

VEX IQ Challenge (VIQC)

VEXCode Blocks (Scratch)

Scratch based block coding, works with multiple platforms, easy to start and use.

Supported Systems: Windows, MacOS, Android, iPad, Chromebook

VEXCode Text (C++)

Helping students transition into text based programming smoothly. Multiple platforms support also limited the extensibilities of using professional development environment. You will not have file structures or folders, therefore, you cannot use version control system such as git to teach kids about version control.

Supported Systems: Windows, MacOS, Android, iPad, Chromebook

RobotC

RobotC is no longer the recommended platform for VEX IQ, nor a standard C programming language. It does missing some standard C syntaxes and functions. But the debugging capabilities still put RobotC in the radar for some experienced teams. Version control is fully supported.

Supported Systems: Windows

FIRST LEGO League (FLL) and World Robot Olympiad (WRO)

EV3-G

Outdated block coding software, connecting those lines are very painful compare to scratch based system.

Supported Systems: Windows, MacOS, Android, iPad, Chromebook

EV3 Python

Professional development environment support, but it’s quite tedious to transfer the code to robot, relies on the SD card.

Supported Systems: Windows, MacOS

SPIKE Scratch

Latest block based development for SPIKE is scratch, it’s definitely a step up from EV3-G.

Supported Systems: Windows, MacOS, Android, iPad, Chromebook

SPIKE Python

Integrated text based python development environment.

Supported Systems: Windows, MacOS, Android, iPad, Chromebook

Both VEX and LEGO work very hard to bring multiple programming environment to support different level of coders. The winner is the students. They now have freedom to start with block based Scratch, which is supported in both VEX IQ and LEGO SPIKE. When their coding skills are ready for more advanced languages, they can go to C++ or Python depends on platform.

Cost of Running a Team

Robotics competition does require some monetary investment to get started, let’s take a look how much it costs for a team to start a new season and continuous running after.

VEX IQ Challenge (VIQC)

Hardware: ~US$900/CA$1,200 including VEX IQ competition super kit and game field
Game Set: US$100/CA$140 each season
Team Registration:
 US$150/CA$200 first team, US$100/CA$150 after for one season
Regional Qualifier: Varies, depends on each event. On average, it costs about $30-$60 to go to a regional VEX IQ competition.
State/Provincial Championship: Varies, depends on each state and province. It may cost about $100-$200 to go to a state/provincial championship.

FIRST LEGO League (FLL)

Hardware: ~US$600/CA$650 including EV3 core set and expansion set, ~$100 to build your own FLL table
Game Set: CA$200
Team Registration:
US$225/CA$300 each team, including game set
Regional Qualifier: CA$25
State/Provincial Championship: CA$175

World Robot Olympiad (WRO)

Hardware: ~US$600/CA$650 including EV3 core set and expansion set, ~$200 to build your own FLL table
Game Set: CA$40 (US price unknown, but should be similar)
Team Registration:
US$50/CA$170
Regional Qualifier: CA$160
National Championship: CA$200

For a team total cost, WRO looks like the lowest one, however, you have to consider the WRO team size is generally much smaller than FLL and VIQC. The average cost per person will be highest among all 3. Running a FLL team will be the cheapest solution if you have a large team, but that also means the robot time per team member is shorter. It’s hard to compare the cost here, so we give a ranking based on the average cost per team member for the first season.

Season Timeline

Robotics competition season lasts from several month to year round, which one fits your needs?

VEX IQ Challenge (VIQC)

Games and Rules Release Date: Last day of VEX Robotics World Championship – VEX IQ Challenge, typically end of April
Regional Qualifier: Late October / early November to mid February
Regional State Championship: Late February / early March
VEX Robotics World Championship: Late April

On the last day of VEX Robotics World Championship, RECf will release the game for next season in front of all the teams participating in VEX Worlds. It builds the excitement in students, and they will get back to work after the exciting event. First regional qualifier will typically happen in late October and early November, depends on EP (event partner). This gives students about 6 months lead time before they even have their first competition. Lots of teams choose to do brainstorming, testing over summer break.

FIRST LEGO League (FLL)

Games and Rules Release Date: First week of August
Regional Qualifier: Late November to Early December
Regional State Championship: Late January/ Early February
FIRST® LEGO® League World Festival: Late April

FIRST releases FLL game on August 1st every season, right in the middle of the summer break. Teams have about 3-4 months before their first qualifier

World Robot Olympiad (WRO)

Games and Rules Release Date: January 15
Regional Qualifier: April – May (Canada)
National Championship: September (USA), End of May (Canada)
WRO International Final: November

WRO regional competitions vary from countries, please check with your local WRO organizer for the timeline. In Canada, students have about 3-4 months before the qualifier.

US WRO Organizer: WRO Foundation
Canada WRO Organizer: Zone01

VIQC gives students longest time in a season to prepare their robot, perfect the code. They have the whole summer break to prepare for qualifier. WRO and FLL has similar preparation time before qualifier, but FLL work load is much bigger compare to WRO, students will have to get a lot of things done for a very short period of time in FLL.

Engineering Process

Iterative design process

Engineering design process is the core value of robotics competition. Winning competition is cool and exciting, but without proper engineering process, students are not learning what they need to help them in their future careers.

VEX IQ Challenge (VIQC)

VIQC helps students focus on engineering design process by providing team multiple opportunities in regional qualifiers, there is no limitations that a team can go for regional qualifiers. Engineering notebook plays a major factor in judged awards. Teams with well documented engineering notebook to prove their engineering design process will have chance to win some judged awards.

FIRST LEGO League (FLL)

FLL focuses on teams with all around skills, not just engineering. Innovation project plays a major role in FLL competition which is not directly related to robotics. Team will only have 1 qualifier to go per season. Once students realized that they could have done better at competition, there is no second chance to improve what they have learned. They have to come back next season to try again. That’s why it’s hard for any first year FLL team to do well in competitions.

World Robot Olympiad (WRO)

There is no presentation or engineering notebook to show in WRO competitions. Instead, students need to complete surprise rules to prove that they did the work instead of adults. There are web sites that sells WRO solutions for profit. When team goes to competition, you will see judges going around with a book of existing WRO solutions to make sure the students didn’t just copycat from those solutions. You will never see such scene in VIQC or FLL. That is a major flaw of the competition itself because of its format. Like FLL, WRO will only have 1 qualifier for team to test their solution, there is no iteration after that.

Learning from failure plays a big role in engineering design process, students learn most from their failure. The best team I have coached all have experienced lost for a couple of seasons before they become top teams in the world. There is no shortcut or magic in engineering design process. VIQC does the best in this categories by providing teams opportunities multiple chances to test their solutions in qualifiers, present their design process in front of judges. Both FLL and WRO failed on this area because students will have one chance to test their solutions, running at their classroom is not comparable to running the program in competition. WRO comes last because there is no judging session about students’ design process, it only cares about the results.

Awards and Qualification Process

Awarding ceremony is the most exciting moment for every competition, robotics competition is no exception. All teams would like to see if they could qualify for higher level competitions, it also gives the students opportunities to meet new friends around the globe.

VEX IQ Challenge (VIQC)

VIQC Trophies

VIQC has several awards that team can win and some of them will get them to the state/provincial championship. There are 2 major types awards in VIQC, robot performance awards and technical judged awards. Teams have the opportunities to win awards in both categories, and there are awards in both categories will move up the team to the next level of competition, such as team champion award, or design award.

FIRST LEGO League (FLL)

FLL trophies

Besides Champion’s award, FLL has 3 additional categories, robot awards, project awards and core value awards. Students can win awards in one of those categories depends on their strength. All FLL awards are given based on their presentation except robot performance, which is the highest score in the competition day. Teams who has the best overall presentations in all 3 categories will win champion’s award and able to move up to next level of competition, such as state/provincial or receive an invitation to World Festival.

We like how FLL thinks teams should be all around, not just robot performance. However, we do think FLL’s awards are set up too much towards to judged awards. Best robot performance team in the competition is not moving up to the next level of the competition. The team could have the best score in the world, and still not be able move up and show it at world stage.

World Robot Olympiad (WRO)

WRO Trophies

WRO only awards teams purely based on robot performance, the top 3 teams with highest score in the competition will receive awards. But students will not be able to present their soft skills development progress or engineering design process in the competition either. We do consider the awards set up from WRO is too narrow and not well balanced.

VIQC’s awards set up is the best among all 3 competitions, teams with different capacities could pick an area that their team members are good at, and try to win award in those categories and move up to show to the rest of the state/province or even world what they have achieved in the season. FLL’s awards are misaligned for a robotics competition, while WRO’s awards is not giving teams who focus on the engineering process an opportunity to demonstrate themselves. But at least WRO is bringing the best performed robots to the world stage, and you will see the best of the best at international final, which is not the case of FLL.

Conclusion

Coaches, parents and students have choice to make, which competition suits your situation? There is no best or worst among these competitions, it all depends on what students and resources you currently have, and the goal of the team from the season.

VEX IQ Challenge (VIQC)

Overall, VEX IQ Challenge (VIQC) is a well designed and balanced competitions, it allows students with different strength to compete and demonstrate their skills and work in the competitions. There is additional online challenge from VIQC that team can also participate, if team designed the best web site for their own team, or helping the community to promote STEM or robotics, they could win a ticket to VEX Worlds and present their team at world stage.

FIRST LEGO League (FLL)

FLL World Festival

FIRST LEGO League (FLL) is a very good choice for schools which don’t have a lot of hardware and resources like private clubs or schools. It brings students with different capacities to work on project, robotics together. With LEGO being its partner, and well designed missions, it’s certainly more attractive than other 2 competitions when you see students compete in robot games for the young minds.

World Robot Olympiad (WRO)

WRO is easy to start, smaller team size and utilizing LEGO pieces. If you are a parent who just started thinking to organize a private team with friends and families, and having lots of LEGO technic parts around the house, WRO is the best choice. There is no presentation to prepare, students just pick up EV3 or SPIKE Prime, and focus on the game itself, then they are ready to go.

Category VIQC FLL WRO
Overall Impact 2 3 1
Game Attractiveness 2 3 1
Age Groups 3 1 3
Team Size and Roles 3 1 2
Hardware 3 2 2
CAD Designing Software 3 2 2
Programming Environment 3 3 3
Cost of Running a Team 2 3 1
Season Timeline 3 1 2
Engineering Process 3 2 1
Awards and Qualification Process 3 1 2
30 22 20

We give 3 points for each category winner, 2 points for second place and 1 point for third place. VIQC stands out with total 30 points from 11 categories we evaluated, FLL 22 points and WRO 20 points. There is no secret that VEX is fastest growing robotics competition and keeps growing. Each of them are focused to different type of situations. Let the competitions compete themselves. Regardless which robotics competition you will finally pick, final winner is always the students who spend time in learning, improving and be the better themselves after the competition.

Next Steps

Start Your Own Team

If you would like to start your own VEX IQ Challenge team, RECf has this great guide to get you started. We will be publishing a new step by step guide covering this topic as well, stay tuned!

Join a Club

If you happen to locate in Markham, Richmond Hill or another towns in Greater Toronto Area, and would like to check out the best VEX IQ club in Ontario, please check out our robotics program in Caution Tape Robotics Club. Our world champion coaching team have years of VEX competitions experiences. We offer virtual classes and competitive program to get your kids involved in STEM education, competitive robotics program from age 8-17.

Did I mention that we do have FREE coding classes run by our high school students volunteers, that’s a great opportunity to get your kids started taking instructed coding classes with absolutely no cost.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below!

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