Of the millions of people who have idly knocked a ball back and forth between plastic players on a foosball table, only a tiny fraction have ever gone pro. This year, a number of them met at a hotel in Irving so close to DFW Airport that they had to talk over the sound of planes landing and taking off as they checked in. Yards away from the lobby, in the windowless Trinity Ballroom, 45 brand-new foosball tables and a chance to win $25,000 in prize money were waiting. It was Memorial Day weekend, time for the annual Texas State Championships of Foosball.
There were 24 distinct events scheduled in the ballroom—pro doubles matches, matches for amateurs, and an open tournament where people of all levels could compete. On Sunday, the third day of the gathering, the main action was at table number one, where a field of fifty players had been whittled down to two men, local player Dustin Gatliff and Florida’s Dylan Marshall, who were vying for the singles championship. Just a few feet away, Jim Stevens, the country’s only professional foosball commentator, had set up several cameras for the 1,500 or so viewers watching online. He had been calling games all day, but he’d stepped out for this one and was about to miss its ending. On a small set of bleachers nearby, a couple of dozen fans craned their necks as they followed the action.
Thirty-four-year-old Gatliff and 21-year-old Marshall, both relative newcomers, had stayed even on points for the first ten minutes of the game. But when Gatliff went up 4–3, he needed just one more goal to win the championship. Taking his time, he cradled the ball back by his goalie for a minute, looking for an open lane between his opponent’s players. When he found one, he sliced the ball. It rolled diagonally, through the defense, and up to his men at midfield.
Gatliff had the ball on his 3-bar, so called because it manipulates three offensive players. Marshall was frantic. He kept switching blocks, jerking his goalie bar out from the table as if he were firing up a chain saw. Gatliff pinned the ball against the table and then punched it. Somehow, Marshall’s man was there. The shot ricocheted back toward midfield and off the table. Marshall had gained a reprieve.
Gatliff has been playing for twelve years now, ever since the power temporarily went out at the automotive water pump factory in Ohio where he worked. With nothing to do, three of his colleagues asked him to be their fourth in a doubles foosball game in the break room. His team got creamed, but Gatliff was hooked. He spent the better part of a decade competing as an amateur, drilling plays and watching tape in his spare time. In 2015 he turned pro, becoming part of a group of two hundred or so American players ranked by International Foosball Promotions, an organization that runs several of the biggest pro foosball tours in the country.
In the seventies and early eighties, when massive table sales bankrolled sponsorships and a million-dollar tour, a number of players (some say ten to twenty; others say as many as several hundred) made their living entirely off the sport. Right now, though, there are only two active foosballers who have quit their day jobs: the number one player in the country, Florida’s Tony Spredeman—who has been advising Marshall—and an older legend from California named Todd Loffredo. And both of them sell merchandise at tournaments to supplement their trophy money.
There are about twenty major tournaments each year in the U.S., and a few more in Europe. Texas State is up there on the domestic list; along with regional tournaments in Thornton, Colorado, and Lexington, Kentucky, it’s third only to the World Championships, in Lexington, and the Hall of Fame Classic, in Las Vegas. Last November, Gatliff moved to Allen, fifteen minutes north of Plano, because Texas’s foosball scene is so competitive. “The thought process was pretty simple,” he said. “I realized I wasn’t in the best place for me to grow as a player, so I found the best place and went there.”
Most pros would agree with that assessment of Texas, and not just because of the tournament. Texas has been a foosball hotbed since the early seventies, when three table manufacturers, Tornado, Dynamo, and Leisure Sports, set up shop in the Dallas area. Their promotions drew serious players to the state, where they started to develop a playing style based on the Texas-born “shot series” and the European-derived “pass series” techniques. The idea is to repeatedly set up one’s offensive players in a formation that creates multiple gaps through which you can pass the ball. Then, despite putting your men in the same starting spots over and over again, you shoot the ball in a different direction every time. For the defender, this can be infuriating. The offense looks the same on every possession, but there’s no way to anticipate where to block. The strategy is now standard among U.S. players.
In the early days, Stevens says, Texas players had a reputation for being particularly competitive. “It wasn’t unusual, especially in the Houston area, to see a fight break out on an almost weekly basis,” he recalls. “If someone thought they got cheated, sometimes they took it out back.” Though that sort of thing hardly ever happens anymore, Texans are still known for their fierceness.
Gatliff’s peers describe his style as “methodical”; perhaps because he’s still new to Texas, he hasn’t caught the local attitude. He makes smart passes, holds the ball, thinks, and does it again. Late in his championship game against Marshall, Gatliff had the ball back at his 2-bar, just in front of his own goal. He glanced quickly and saw a pathway open between all six rows of men in front of him. Faced with this opportunity to put the game away, many players would hit the ball as hard as they could and hope it got through. But Gatliff wasn’t tempted to muscle his way to victory. He made a quick little move, rolling his player into the ball hard enough that Marshall couldn’t stop it, but gently enough that the trajectory was spot-on. It hit the back of the goal and fell out of sight. Gatliff was the pro singles champion.
Marshall looked up for the first time since the set began. Tony Spredeman, who was sitting in the bleachers, gave him a sympathetic look. “Usually, he gets lazy,” Spredeman said about his friend. “But he played hard today. Look, he’s sweating.” In fact, both players were.