As cars drove by the soccer fields at Texas State University on a gray Sunday afternoon this past February, they slowed down to take in a strange scene: a dozen people running around holding broomsticks between their legs.
Anyone familiar with the Wizarding World of the Harry Potter universe would immediately recognize the activity as quidditch, the fictional sport invented by the books’ author J.K. Rowling. Of course, the version described in the books and seen in the movie adaptations is, well, magical, with the wizard characters flying on broomsticks across a field of play that takes place primarily in the sky. But a decade ago, it was adapted to real-life play by the only group of people who have the time and inclination to do such things: college students.
In 2005, some enterprising kids at Vermont’s Middlebury College created “muggle quidditch,” and since then the sport has rapidly grown. The US Quidditch Association formed in 2010 and now oversees more than 4,000 athletes playing for nearly 200 teams across seven regions in America. An International Quidditch Association formed in 2013 governs the dozens of teams that span more than twenty countries across the globe. The sport even has its own World Cup, which will be in its eighth iteration this weekend, when 80 teams from the US and Canada will battle it out for the championship in South Carolina.
Almost as astounding as the sport’s explosive growth is Central Texas’s now total domination of it. Five of the eight teams that made the quarterfinals for last year’s World Cup—UT, Baylor, Lone Star, Texas A&M, and Texas State—were from the area; three of them—UT, A&M, and Texas State—played in the semifinals. (UT beat Texas State in the final match, clinching its second World Cup championship in a row.) And going into the 2015 World Cup, four central Texas teams are listed in the top 10 overall standings, with Lone Star sitting at the top.
“The level of play in the southwest region is at such a higher level than the rest of the country,” says Beth Clementi, a first-year graduate student at Texas State who plays on the university’s team. She credits this, partly, to the state’s football culture. Despite its cutesy origins, quidditch is a high-intensity contact sport, an advantage in Texas, where kids grow up on gridiron. “Half of the guys on our teams played football. They want to tackle; they want to be aggressive. We’re big, so we just wanna go through people.”
Ethan Sturm,* a player from Tufts University who is the co-founder and current managing editor of the quidditch analysis website, The Eighth Man, puts it a bit more bluntly: “You’ve got this hub in Texas where the players are simply more athletic than in other parts of the country.”
This proclivity to a certain brand of athleticism helps on the field, but Sturm also points out that it’s a numbers game. UT, A&M, and Texas State all have tens of thousands of students, giving them a larger pool of talent to draw from. The Lone Star Club, which is based in Austin and isn’t affiliated with a university, can attribute its ascent to attracting players who have graduated from nearby schools and want to keep playing.
One more factor favoring Texas teams is the logistics of the quidditch season. The game is played most of the year—the official season runs from the first day of classes in the fall to the last in the spring—and the southwest doesn’t suffer harsh winters, allowing teams in this region to play and practice more frequently.
But what catapulted Texas—more specifically UT—to the top of the league was an innovative technique it introduced to the game that radically changed the way it’s played. Two years ago, at World Cup VI, it seemed every member on UT’s team “was fluent in two-handed catches,” according to Sturm.
This is revolutionary when you consider the mechanics of the game. Quidditch is played on an oval pitch, 60-by-36 yards with three hoops on either side of the long ends. Each team has three offensive players—called “chasers”—who score ten points by throwing the “quaffle” (a slightly deflated volleyball) through these hoops. The opposing team’s defensive players—two members called “beaters”—thwart the chasers’ efforts by hitting them with one of the three “bludgers” (slightly deflated dodgeballs) that are in play. When anybody—a chaser or a beater—is hit by a bludger, the player must drop whatever ball is in hand, run to his team’s hoop, touch it, and then rejoin play of game. (Don’t forget, everyone is running around holding a broom between his or her legs.) A “keeper,” who acts as a sort of goalie, guards the hoops. This means that at any given time, there are four balls in play, and if a team has the skills and ability to handle them better, they’re at a clear advantage. (That is, until the “snitch” and the “seeker” burst onto the scene, but more on that later.)
So when the two-handed catch entered the equation, no one could touch UT (in some cases, quite literally). “They could catch and release a shot or pass faster than anyone else,” Sturm said. “They were throwing up alley-oops to each other that defenses just weren’t ready for. Today, every good team can pass and catch like that, but at that time, it was a game changer.”
And as steel sharpens steel, so quidditch player sharpens quidditch player. Teams compete in three tournaments each semester, and, in order to save time and cost, they end up primarily playing the other teams in their own regions. As UT got better, “Baylor and Texas State, the strongest teams to play those programs regularly, started to too,” Sturm said. “Other areas of the country have fewer top teams and weren’t afforded the same chances.” But it seems those other regions know that if you wanna be the best, you gotta play the best. “It’s not coincidence that the top California team for each of the past three seasons has traveled to Texas for a regular season tournament,” Sturm said. “You need to experience that.”
And more than a hundred fans and spectators who trekked out to the southwest regional qualifying round at Texas State on that cold February afternoon witnessed that Texas-on-Texas experience up-close. Twenty-two teams from Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas competed, but the final game came down to Lone Star versus Baylor.
Eighteen minutes into the game, the “snitch” entered the pitch. In J.K. Rowling’s version of quidditch, the snitch is a small, gold, winged ball that is introduced to the game after an arbitrary and unspecified period of standard play. The magical item flies around the pitch, and a “seeker” from each team (this is Harry’s position in the books) is tasked with attempting to capture it, winning his or her team 150 points and ending the game. In IRL quidditch, the snitch is actually a person dressed entirely in yellow running around with a tennis ball in a tube sock tucked into the back of a his pants. When the snitch enters the field (the referee signals him to jump in), each team deploys a seeker to try and grab the ball from the snitch, who can use both of his arms to hold off them off. It’s a highly physical battle, and the interaction between the seekers and the snitch looks like a cross between a game of tag and a wrestling match. The game is over when a seeker pulls the sock with the tennis ball off the snitch’s body, with that seeker’s team getting 30 points for the effort. When Lone Star’s seeker finally tackled the snitch, the team claimed victory—and the top spot in the US Quidditch Association’s rankings going into the World Cup.
Lone Star comes by its pack-leader status honestly. The team practices regularly, “every Sunday and Tuesdays or Wednesdays,” according to Sarah Holub, a former UT quidditch team member and current member of Lone Star. But fifth-ranked UT won’t turn over its championship reign easily. The team has been practicing Tuesdays and Wednesdays for an hour, working on conditioning and skills. They also have three-hour long practices on Friday evenings and Sunday mornings. And like any competitive sport, they make time to watch film. Seventh-ranked Texas State is another one to watch, training for this weekend’s World Cup with a similar regimen. “We practice three days a week and we have a conditioning day on the weekend,” said Ryan Peavler, a senior on the team. “We’re together 4 or 5 days a week.”
And while the Central Texas teams certainly have the odds in their favor, it all comes down to any given Sunday—and who can grab a tennis-ball filled tube sock stuffed into the back of some guy’s pants while riding a broomstick.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Ethan Sturm’s name. We regret the error.