You're familiar, I presume, with the fact that high schools and colleges commonly have debate teams. There's a set topic, often assigned viewpoints (as in, you have to argue for a certain side even if you don't agree with it), a structured ruleset, time limits, judges, a winner and a loser. You're definitely familiar with Presidential debates (and debates for smaller offices), which in theory are similar to those but in practice are filled with behaviors that would get a debate team laughed off the stage, topics that attract little or no dissent between the candidates, and the only real way a winner is declared is on Election Day.
In competitive debate, the highest level of competition... well, really it's the debates for public office, but other than that, the highest competition judging pure debating skills is the World Universities Debating Championships, held since 1981. The 2014 edition concluded on Saturday in Chennai, India. Debates here use what's called the British Parliamentary style, using four two-person teams, and with the topic (often one relevant to the host nation) expressed as a 'motion' which one side, two teams acting as the 'government', is arguing in favor of, and the other side, the other two teams as 'opposition', is arguing against. The way it works is, in short, each of the eight debaters has seven minutes to make their assigned case as best they can, given only 15 minutes of prep time beforehand. Things are ordered so that the first member of each team goes, and then the second member of each team goes. Throughout the debate, each side tries to trip up the other as well as establish and maintain their own relevance by demanding 'points of information', which in colloquial terms might be akin to this:
In addition to the main (or 'open' competition, there are separate competitions encompassing English as a second language, English as a foreign language, public speaking, 'masters' (aka the judges, competing as national teams), and there's even a stand-up comedy competition, which I imagine isn't exactly the Laugh Factory but hey. Team competitions also hand out awards for best individual speaker.
This year, the open competition was won by Josh Zoffer and Ben Sprung-Keyser of Harvard (USA), who in the final defeated teams from the University of Sydney (Australia), University of Glasgow (UK), and Cambridge (UK). Elle Jones of the Sydney squad won Best Speaker. The topic of the quarterfinal, for those of you that want to play along, was "This House would auction off the long-term right to govern bankrupt cities for profit." The topic of the semifinal was "This House believes that women should reject practices that alter the
appearance of their genitalia, such as waxing and labiaplasty." The topic of the final was "This House believes that India should adopt aggressive free market policies", with Zoffer and Sprung-Keyser being assigned the Government role.
The English-as-second-language competition was won by Dessislava Kirova and Kai Dittman of Berlin Debating Union (Germany), defeating teams from with Mubarrat Wassey of International Islamic University (Malaysia) winning Best Speaker. The topic of the quarterfinal was "This House would remove all copyright protection for material deemed to be morally objectionable." The topic of the semifinal was "This House believes that Pope Francis should publicly encourage
Catholics to support radically redistributive government policies." The topic of the final was "This House would allow countries to pay other countries to settle asylum-seekers at their borders."
The English-as-foreign-language competition was won by Vicario Reinaldo and Fauzan Reza Maulana of Institut Teknologi Bandung (Indonesia), with Helena Ivanova of the University of Belgrade (Serbia) winning Best Speaker. The topic of the semifinal was "This House believes that the gay rights movement should abandon the claim that sexuality is not a choice." The topic of the final was "This House believes that multinational companies should be liable for
any human rights abuses that occur anywhere in their supply chain."
The other topics from throughout the tournament, as well as previous tournaments, can be found here. Some selected topics:
PRELIMINARY ROUND 1: "This House believes that the United States of America
should fund moderate Madrassas (schools of Islamic study) throughout the
PRELIMINARY ROUND 2: " This House would allow first-time offenders to, with the consent of the
victims, pay compensation to them in place of a prison sentence."
PRELIMINARY ROUND 8: "This House believes that NATO should unconditionally offer membership to the states of the former Soviet Union, excluding Russia."
OPEN COMPETITION, OCTOFINAL (the round before the quarterfinal): "This House believes that Japan should shame its soldiers who
participated in WWII, including those who did not commit war crimes
MASTERS ROUND 1: This House believes that the feminist movement should actively fight to liberate men from their prescribed gender roles."
MASTERS ROUND 2: "This House would redraw the borders of Africa."
MASTERS FINALS: "This House would never categorize people on their race."
Do remember the challenge here regarding, in particular, that last one: you are assigned your side, and you must argue it regardless of your personal belief. The side given the Opposition was made to argue that you should categorize on race no matter how abhorrent they think that is, and they are judged on how well they do it. This kind of topic does come up every so often, where in reality the debate ought to be a curbstomp. The Dublin 2006 open final, for instance, had the topic "This House would abolish all laws prohibiting cruelty to animals." If an actual government tried to sneak that one through, there'd be an international outcry and rightly so. The task in competitive debate is remembering that that isn't the point.
So let me give you some other topics from the archive that meet that criteria. If you were a competitive debater, sooner or later, you would have to make a potentially uncomfortable argument regarding the following.
GABORONE 2011, PRELIMINARY ROUND 2: "This House believes that all states have a right to nuclear weapons."
GABORONE 2011, OPEN OCTOFINAL: This House would buy countries' votes in international organizations."
KOC (Turkey) 2010, ENGLISH-AS-SECOND-LANGUAGE QUARTERFINALS: "This House would ban any scheme intended to cure homosexuality."
CORK 2009, PRELIMINARY ROUND 9: " This House would ban the publication of political opinion polls."
CORK 2009, ENGLISH-AS-FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FINAL: "This House would prohibit all private health care."
BANGKOK 2008, PRELIMINARY ROUND 1: "This House would allow the use of torture."
BANGKOK 2008, PRELIMINARY ROUND 7: "This House would assassinate Vladimir Putin."
SINGAPORE 2004, PRELIMINARY ROUND 2: "This House supports all forms of child labor."
SINGAPORE 2004, OPEN QUARTERFINAL: "This House believes parents should cast proxy votes for their children."
SYDNEY 2000, MASTERS ROUND 1: "This House would club baby seals."
Well. Go on, Government. Tell me why you would club a baby seal. You've got 15 minutes to prep.