Feature for Populous Magazine, March 2014
Visit some of North America’s most prestigious universities and you’ll be greeted by a bizarre sight. You’ll see grown men and women – the crème de la crème of the further education sector, tomorrow's captains of industry – running around muddy fields with brooms between their legs. They’ll be diving at each other and chasing after a baffling variety of balls, while a young man in a yellow leotard is prancing around between them. They’ll be watched by a crowd of hundreds, all in possession of similarly high IQs, who are cheering with a passion you’d expect to see at a rock concert or a boxing match.
Welcome to the world of real-life Quidditch. The generation of “muggles” who’ve grown up reading JK Rowling’s novels might never go to Hogwarts or wear an invisibility cloak. But they can play Quidditch, the arcane sport that she invented.
The version of the game that’s now become one of the fastest-growing sports on earth was developed in 2005 by Alex Benepe and Xander Manshell, freshman at a liberal arts college in Vermont called Middlebury.
“We used to have a Sunday tradition of playing bocce, an Italian game similar to boules,” says Benepe. “We’d wear old-school Victorian outfits and diss each other using British accents. One day, my friend Xander Manshell had the idea of playing Quidditch instead, and he managed to convince 30 kids in our class to join in.” Within a year it was being played all over the campus; by 2007 they were competing with other New England colleges in the first “Quidditch World Cup”.
Benepe and Manshell set up the International Quidditch Association (IQA), which now has more than 700 affiliated teams around the world. They started to develop the IQA Rulebook, now a 118-page document in its seventh edition, with translations in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian.
Obviously, a few adjustments that have been made with regards for health-and-safety legislation and, well, the basic laws of physics. Instead of flying in the air on broomsticks, the two teams run with a broomstick (“recommended length 42 inches”) between their legs. There are seven players in each team, made up of “keepers” (like goalkeepers), “chasers” (goalscorers), “beaters” and “seekers”. Much of the kit is cannibalised from other sports: the “quaffle” – the ball used for scoring goals – is a deflated volleyball (“between 25.6 and 26.4 inches in circumference“), while the three “bludgers” (the balls used by “beaters” to attack opposing players) are dodgeballs with a diameter of 8.5 inches. The hooped goals are made by hand, using PVC.
Most intriguing of all is the “Snitch”: in Rowling’s books the “Golden Snitch” is a walnut-sized ball which sprouts wings and mischievously darts around the pitch to be captured by the team’s “seekers” in order to win the game. In real-life Quidditch, the Snitch is a neutral athlete who runs among the teams, evading capture.
“There were attempts to play Quidditch before we tried it,” says Benepe, “but they always had problems replicating the Snitch. Usually it was a tennis ball, sometimes a remote controlled helicopter. But the human Snitch gives the game personality and chaos. If you watch a World Cup match, people go wild when the Snitch comes onto the pitch.”
It’s tempting to dismiss competitive Quidditch as the preserve of socially-awkward, un-athletic geeks. But it’s a surprisingly violent contact sport. “I’ve personally seen one major concussion, one broken collar bone and a few broken wrists,” says Karen Kumaki, international director of the IQA. “We always have medical staff on duty for events.”
The Quidditch rules dictate that each team has to contain both men and women, and there are roles that suit different physical attributes. “Initially, it was popular with cross-country runners or soccer players,” says Kumaki, “because fast runners were necessary, especially if you’re going to be a seeker. But increasingly, we’ve seen a lot more rugby players, American football players or wrestlers – people who like the contact nature of it and who are prepared to give or stand a tackle.”
Popularity is growing internationally. There are more than 600 competitive college teams in the US and Canada and some non-academic, city-based clubs – the Lost Boys in LA, the Boston Massacre and the NYDC Capitalists. Even Middlebury, who founded the sport, have been overtaken by the likes of University Of Texas and UCLA. There are active Quidditch scenes in the UK, Ireland, Australia, Italy and France, and semi-active teams in Germany, Norway, Spain, Belgium, Russia, Japan, China, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Jordan, and Uganda. Kumaki says that the IQA are trying to affiliate teams in countries as diverse as Israel, the Philippines, Taiwan, South Africa, Tunisia and India.
“There were various organisations with different rules,” says Kumaki, “but most of those have died out or been replaced by our IQA rules. The Swedes play by slightly different rules, while the Hungarians play a weird version with real bats for the beaters. But we’re trying to incorporate them into our Federation.”
You can see that it might be fun to play, but why does Quidditch attract so many spectators?
“You know, JK Rowling was on to something when she created a sport that has more than one ball,” says Benepe. “Most mainstream sports have just one ball, puck or disc. In Quidditch, at least a quarter of the players are holding a ball at all times. Throw the snitch into the mix and it’s a regular circus.”
“And then there’s the breadth of people,” he says. “These are not, for the most part, the 40 year old guys with ponytails who hang out at Star Trek conventions. Harry Potter fans are young, attractive and mostly female. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?"
Other fictitious sports
Invented by Winnie The Pooh’s author AA Milne for his son. Each player drops a twig on the upstream side of a bridge – the winner is the player whose twig first appears on the downstream side of the same bridge. Since 1984 there has been an annual World Poohsticks Championships at Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, attracting more than 1,500 visitors.
In his Disc World series, Terry Pratchett provided details for several fictional games, including a complex card game called Crippling Mr Onion and Stealth Chess. The series also inspired Thud, a draughts-like board game on an octagonal board played between “dwarfs” and “trolls”.
Mad Magazine’s 1965 parody of complicated college sports (like the Eton Wall Game) quickly started to spawn a cult following and a rulebook (“each team consists of one left and one right Inside Grouch, two Outside Grouch, four Deep Brooders, four Shallow Brooders, three Offensive Niblings…” and so on). There are, apparently, Squamish tribute societies in US universities.
The dystopian 1975 sci-fi film saw rollerstaking athletes attempt to kill each other using a studded steel ball. Less fatal games have been played using rubber balls. It’s also spawned numerous computer game spinoffs and TV parodies.
The daft 1998 film of the same name starred South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone as slackers who devise a sport where the physically unfit could excel. The result is a daft fusion of basketball and baseball which has actually been played by enthusiastic fans.