Thousands of college students and post-grads spent their weekend shooting volleyballs into three standing hoops, hurling dodgeballs, and tackling each other to the ground — all with a "broom" between their legs. Sixty collegiate and community-based teams from across the nation came together under the South Carolina sun to compete for the coveted top spot at the U.S. Quidditch Cup 9.
Yes, that quidditch.
Well, not quite that quidditch. This quidditch.
The tournament began early Saturday morning with a brief opening ceremony before diving into pool play. Every team is guaranteed to play three games, with the most successful teams continuing to bracket play on Sunday.
One team will walk away with the title of national champions in a competition everyone has been preparing for since, well, last year's tournament. Countless hours of drills, scrimmages, conditioning, and strategy come down to two days of do-or-die matches.
The first World Cup (the competition's name until this year) took place at Middlebury College in Vermont in 2007, two years after the sport was introduced there by then-freshman Xander Manshel. Middlebury beat the only one other team in attendance, Vassar.
From these humble beginnings, a national phenomenon has spread like an Incendio spell.
With each new World Cup, new teams joined. Thirteen teams came to Middlebury in 2008 for World Cup 2, and 22 came in 2009 for World Cup 3. As the competition grew, so did its location needs. World Cup 4 moved to New York City, which could better accommodate the 46 participating teams and a larger number of spectators.
With each passing year, the competition has not just increased but intensified. Beginning with World Cup 6 in 2013, only 60 Division 1 teams qualified for the international competition at regional tournaments. Justin Bogart, a former Middlebury player and current Lost Boys player, is the only person who's been to every World Cup besides Alex Benepe, the former U.S. Quidditch CEO. "World Cup 4 and 5 were definitely competitive, but anyone could show up," he told A Plus. "Starting at World Cup 6, you had to fight for that spot, so it definitely got more competitive … and so that's usually where people make the break between the original years and these new years of quidditch."
Though nearly 200 colleges and communities now have quidditch teams, only the top 60 make it to World Cup. Middlebury, the champion of the first five World Cups, did not qualify for World Cup 6. University of Texas at Austin won. Texas teams have since dominated World Cup, winning in 2014 and 2015. Many in the quidditch community attribute Texas' World Cup domination to its increased physicality.
After all, quidditch is, first and foremost, a sport.
And it's a coed, full-contact one. Over time, players have ditched their formerly required capes for mouth guards and concussion-preventing headbands. "It's not just a whole bunch of nerds running around," Jackson Johnson, a beater at Texas State University, told A Plus. "It's no longer just a bunch of nerds running around," Tad Walters, a beater for Gulf Coast Gumbeaux, clarified. "There's definitely still a little bit of that that still exists, but at the top tier, when you get to World Cup … it's extremely competitive. It's real, actual athletes who are playing this sport. It's full contact. It's physical."
But while the game itself is important, it’s not the sole reason so many players stick with this particular sport for years — many even after they graduate college.
Brooke Lydon played chaser on an intramural team at Emerson College before graduating and joining The Lost Boys, a Los Angeles community team. "I moved out to L.A. not really knowing anyone. I had a couple friends from school, but now I have a whole team," she told A Plus. "And I'm really close with the other team in L.A. … so I know so many more people and I feel more at home."
Stephanie Breen, another chaser and captain of Emerson College Quidditch, said, "I was a transfer student, and I suck at making friends in general. So just having a team of people to rely on and be friends with is probably the high point of my Emerson College experience in general, as well as my Emerson College Quidditch experience."
This weekend, camaraderie, and competition go wand in hand.
Even those who don't win enough games in pool play to qualify for the second day's bracket play come back to cheer on teams from their region who they often know from joint practices, scrimmages, and even parties. Others may cheer on individual players they've met at previous World Cups, the many quidditch-based internet forums, or fantasy tournaments. (That's right, fantasy tournaments for a fantasy-based sport.)
"It's really easy to become friends with people from a lot of places," Jackson said. "So it's not just like, you know, your team. I know people from all over the country now because I play quidditch." Walters added, "If I go most cities in the country, I know I'll have a place to crash because I'm friendly with so many people that I've met."
And quidditch isn't just fun to play, it's also fun to watch.
Quidditch's rules are numerous and nuanced (and thoroughly detailed in the 170-page official rulebook), but the overall goal, like any sport, is to score the most points. A team consists of seven players: one keeper, three chasers, two beaters, and a seeker. The keepers and chasers score 10 points each time they throw the quaffle (a volleyball) into the other team's hoops. The beaters help their offense score and prevent the other teams by hitting players with bludgers (dodgeballs).
Every game begins with each team's six starters kneeling at their respective hoops. The referee shouts, "Brooms up!" and a Hunger Games-esque sprint to the balls in the middle of the field ensues. With four beaters and only three bludgers on a field, things get interesting quick.
Teams score as many points as they can until the snitch comes on pitch after 17 minutes and the seekers are released exactly one minute later. They chase after the snitch runner, a person dressed in yellow often with a cross country and/or wrestling background. The actual snitch is a high-tech version of a tennis ball in a yellow sock velcroed to the back of the snitch runner's shorts.
Unlike the books, catching the snitch (i.e. pulling it from the back of the snitch runner's shorts) only earns the team an extra 30 points, not an automatic win. But the very presence of this unique opportunity for game-deciding bonus points is one of quidditch's many quirks that make it a prime spectator sport.
"This year, there were way more upsets and way more snitch range games than I think ever before … and these brackets have been super competitive," Walters said. "Snitch range games all the way from the round of 32 up to now."
While local spectators abounded in Harry Potter costumes and "Slytherwin" bro tanks, quid kids made up the majority of the crowd at most, if not every, game. "At least one team saw every game," Lydon said. "No one had a game without any other team as spectators, so that's fun."
Despite all the trials and tribulations along the way, every player wants to be here.
"This year was the first time I scored at a World Cup," Bogart said. "[After] 10 years of playing quidditch, to finally get that first goal at a national tournament … that was pretty exciting." Many post-grad players, like Bogart and Lydon, even use their vacation time off work to come.
"This is the equivalent of our Coachella," Leeanne Dillmann, a beater on Emerson College Quidditch, told A Plus.
Much like the musical festival, this year’s U.S. Quidditch Cup headliners didn’t disappoint.
The competition culminated in a nail-biting finals between Rochester United Quidditch and Q.C. Boston - The Massacre. It was a match for the history books: the first time two Northeast community teams played in the finals ever.
When the snitch came on pitch, QCB was winning 80-50, but RU wasn't about to go down without a fight. They scored a goal, putting them within snitch range, until QCB scored bringing the score to 90-60. Cody Keefer then caught the snitch for RU, throwing the match into overtime. Unlike a normal game, neither team has to catch the snitch to win in overtime. It ends when someone does or after five minutes, whichever comes first.
Thousands of eyes locked onto the teams as they sprinted across the pitch, scoring tit-for-tat as the timer wound down. With one minute left, the score was still tied 130-130 with both team seekers' still in hot pursuit of the snitch. Jayke Archibald, a chaser and captain of QCB, threw the game-winning goal. Q.C. Boston won 140-130. (You can watch the full game here.)
"I never would have thought that in my second year playing I would become a national champion," Dom Bailey, a chaser on QCB, told A Plus. "It feels great to bring another championship back to Boston and prove that the Northeast is just as good as the Southwest. Max [Havlin, QCB's other captain] and Jayke really deserve this."
While U.S. Quidditch Cup 9 is over, no one's hanging up their broom any time soon. "I've played sports all my life, but this is the first one that I've really been dedicated to getting better at the entire time," Walters said. He, Breen, Lydon, and Dillmann all plan to try out for their respective city's Major League Quidditch teams and continue to play during their "off-season."
Their ceaseless commitment proves quidditch isn't just a large part of these players' lives, but also one of the most rewarding. And besides, who has time to dismount? U.S. Quidditch Cup 10 will be here right before they know it ...