In the thick of the playoffs, the first World Series of Beer Pong was a cross between March Madness and a frat party, with the stink of cheap beer and testosterone flooding the nondescript convention center.
“It’s a pleasure to be around all these great athletes with swollen livers and steady hands,” commented Chris Cobb, a 29-year-old South Carolina paramedic and a member of the APA Boozehounds.
Flashing breasts, flapping frankfurters and the steady splash of ping-pong balls sinking into cups of low-cost brew: This was the first World Series of Beer Pong, held over three days in early January in Mesquite, Nevada, 80 miles northeast of Vegas. Played out on 14 custom tables set up at the Oasis Resort Casino, the event brought together 82 teams of (mostly) mid-twentysomethings from across the U.S. and Canada in pursuit of a $10,000 prize and North American Beer Pong championship bragging rights.
Beer Pong, a college party staple also known as “Beirut,” is a simple game. Pairs of players face off against each other across a long table, with each team arranging a set of beer-filled cups on its end. Shooters take turns trying to toss a ping-pong ball into an opposing team’s cup. Players must drink when a ball lands in their team’s cup. Whichever team sinks shots into all the opponents’ cups first, wins.
Defense wins championships; it’s a maxim applied to almost every team sport. So it made sense that defense was on the minds of many of the 164 players. Their strategies, however, weren’t lifted from any standard playbook.
“I’m total defense,” said Wesley Jowitt, a 23-year-old member of Hemogoblins, a team from Christopher Newport University in Virginia. “I shaved my head in defense.”
Wes shaved a major forehead extension into his scalp, adding a few inches to the front. He covered it, along with his arms, neck and face, with more than 50 temporary tattoos, a look best described as the brunt of a mean fraternity prank. But he took his distractive tactics to the next level, taunting the other team with a hot dog stuck in his pants, which his partner, 21-year-old Adam Bolt, massaged with a bun. During a match with a team called Dominance, Jowitt and Bolt were flashed by a female competitor, one of the three who entered on coed teams. But the Hemogoblins’ psych-outs proved more powerful and they prevailed.
“Girls flashing, you get that everywhere,” said Jowitt. “How many people have seen a bun beating off a hot dog?”
The World Series is more complex and challenging than a game played by Greeks looking for a way to kill a case of Bud Light. Two days of preliminary play determine seeding for a 32-team double elimination playoff. And as the World Series progresses, the stakes (and beer consumption) rise.
Organizers corralled players to prepare them for upcoming matches, matter-of-factly calling out team names like “Back Door Equals No Babies” and “Team Ramrod” over the PA. Crowds of screaming fans taunted players, chanted “defense” and shouted for the kill shot. Visual taunting, in the form of costumes, was just as intense. Two Southern California teams wore matching Cobra Kai karate uniforms, drawing inspiration from The Karate Kid. That earned them a few mocking swan kicks during the playoffs.
Dominance teammates Natalie Ramsey and Mike Filanowski, both from California, definitely got inside opponents’ heads. Ramsey, wearing a dominatrix outfit, led Filanowski, who wore pink tighty-whities and a ball gag in his mouth, by a chain attached to his collar. During one game, an animated Filanowski taped a cup to his crotch and used it as a decoy.
The Michael Jordan of Beer Pong
The tournament was the brainchild of Christian Adderson, a 26-year-old sales manager at the Oasis, and Billy Gaines and Duncan Carroll, 24-year-old co-owners of the Beer Pong website Bpong.com. Gaines and Carroll, who both graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 2003, were members of the school’s swim team, which normally capped off a meet with a night of Beer Pong. Inspiration came to Carroll one night in 2003, after his seventh game of the evening.
“I remember thinking this game is pretty hard,” said Carroll. “There should be a national tournament. And I wondered if there was a Michael Jordan of Beer Pong.”
Carroll’s vision included a Beer Pong logo, which he soon sketched. It was the catalyst for the website. The duo became engrossed in Beer Pong. A little too engrossed, according to Carroll’s former girlfriend.
“It wasn’t really specifically the event itself,” Carroll said about the breakup. “It was sort of Bpong.com in general. It was questionable to her where my priorities were. The long-distance situation also played a part. But she was definitely like, ‘You care about Beer Pong more than me.'”
Adderson, who joined the Oasis in early 2005, wanted to find new events to draw people to the resort casino. On a buddy’s suggestion, he started researching Beer Pong. By August, after an Internet search and a few e-mails, he got in touch with Gaines, and soon the trio started planning the tournament. In order to control beer consumption, they decided to limit each match to six cups per team, each filled about a third to a half full, and made water available as a substitute (though no team took that option). Teams would play once an hour, and everyone inside had to wear a wristband certifying they were at least 21. A few sponsors even signed up, including Chaser Plus hangover pills and a regional Coors Light distributor (though the national office pulled the sponsorship by the second day of the tournament).
The organizers see Beer Pong as a sport that’s about to cross over into the mainstream.
“You see how popular the World Series of Poker has become,” said Adderson. “Well, anybody can play Beer Pong. You don’t have to be any kind of freak athlete to do it. Anyone who watches it knows they can do it. That’s why I think it’s going to take off.”
The Iceman Cometh
In an era where few professional athletes resemble the guy next door, Beer Pong represents an activity the common man can easily master. All you need to play are plastic cups, ping-pong balls, a flat surface and some brew. And no matter what the final score is, everyone’s usually having a good time by the end of the night.
Just look at 24-year-old Scott Reck, a six-year senior at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who played on The Team You’re Gonna Beat. A husky 5’10”, Peck came to the court decked out in Milwaukee Brewers gear, including a team logo tattoo on his right arm. His friends call him Iceman, but it isn’t a reference to Top Gun. The nickname came from his job, filling the ice machines in the UW-Milwaukee cafeteria.
For him, Beer Pong isn’t just a game. It’s a social outlet. He’s a member of the Cramer House Beer Pong League (CHBPL), an organization started by fellow cafeteria crew in 2003 that now has dozens of teams, weekly events, an official website and championship belts, just like wrestling.
“It’s weird when people come up to me at school and know I’m Iceman,” he said. “It’s a little odd.”
Iceman never played sports in high school or college, but he’s a popular player in the CHBPL, which sent five teams to Mesquite. When Iceman stepped up to deliver his trademark shot — approaching the table, slowly tracing the ball across the table surface to calm his nerves and then firing away — he always had a few friends cheering from the stands. Aaron Spiering, a member of Professors of Pong, another Milwaukee team, usually talked shit to anyone facing the Iceman.
“He’s sexier with his shirt off!” Spiering yelled after Iceman sank a tough shot. “We’re from Milwaukee, the city that invented beer, and we don’t take no bullshit.”
Though the CHBPL website suggests the players have a serious obsession — regularly written columns and detailed player stats are available online — the league and the trip to Mesquite, for them, weren’t really about winning as much as they were about hanging out and having a good time. Since the cost for team entry was roughly $550 — which included beer during the tournament, a hotel room and free barbeque each day — the price was certainly right.
“It’s cheap, it’s a college atmosphere and you hang out with friends,” said Matt Salmon, Spiering’s teammate.
Others, however, just wanted to win. We Own Your Face from Secaucus, New Jersey — an early favorite after being the only undefeated team in the preliminary matches — was dead serious about shooting Pong.
“Where I come from, this is a game of honor,” said Antonio (“Tone”) Vassilatos, a bald, jacked-up guy who reacted like a pit bull when angry. “It’s about skill.”
It’s also about superstition. Before games, Vassilatos and teammate Matt Kelly rubbed their magic ball, a green ping-pong ball they said was excised from a leprechaun. It was only between shots, when Vassilatos would break into a cheesy routine resembling an uncoordinated dork on the dance floor, that he showed any nervousness.
“I do my stupid dance to stay calm,” he said. “Nothing goes through my head when I dance and that’s the point. The game is mental, and you’re your own worst enemy.”
Vassilatos proved that after his team’s first loss to Long Island’s Nutty Irishman Champions in the playoffs. Up until that point he was cocky, confident and mostly silent, playing like the Tim Duncan of Beer Pong. But when he became flustered by taunting from the Milwaukee players — who, because We Own Your Face was playing at the end table, could yell and wave their hands just a few feet from Vassilatos’s face — he lost his cool and stormed away from the table. We Own Your Face lost its next game and was eliminated.
“Why someone would do that, I don’t know,” Vassilatos said. “They were getting in my head. They showed no class.”
The final few games of the playoffs held the most drama. Slippery Fetus, from Long Island, lost to Team France, from Ann Arbor, in the winner’s bracket finals, but because it was a double-elimination tourney, Fetus still had one loss to go. They met Nutty Irishman in a tough loser’s bracket final. All four players are longtime friends who live five minutes from each other. Slippery Fetus won the game, the quietest of the tournament since there was no taunting.
“It really hurts to beat our boys, our best friends,” said Mike Sciame Jr. of Slippery Fetus. “We all came out here together.”
But that set up a rematch with Team France for the finals, and Josh DeFord, Sciame’s teammate, wanted revenge.
“Finishing second is not what we came here to do,” he said, echoing the focused look that hadn’t left his face the whole tournament.
The stage was set, and a big novelty check hovered in the background for the winner. After leaving their opponents waiting, Team France finally entered center stage. Jason Coben, short and cut, wearing a T-shirt with the right sleeve ripped off, paraded into the room.
“Gentlemen, shut the fuck up!” he said, looking toward Slippery Fetus. Before the day’s games, he and his partner, Nick Velissaris, were in the casino, playing roulette and drinking cocktails as a pre-game warm-up. A former swimmer and diver at the University of Michigan who competed in the 2008 Olympic trials for platform diving, Coben is used to competition. But he’d never been to a World Series before.
“I’ve never been more nervous,” said Coben before the match. “My partner is a college wrestler. We’re both real athletes. But this is way more fun. I’d give anything to win this.”
The final game was an even competition, bouncing back and forth until Team France hit two shots in a row to close things out, with Velissaris hitting the winning shot. Coben got congratulatory high fives from the crowd, and the team celebrated, telling everyone how they were about to use the cash to start their own business. Both posed for photos and, later, Coben called his mom.
With the tournament over, some players left for Sin City. Mesquite, a town of 16,000 with three old-fashioned casinos that recall mid-century Vegas resorts, isn’t a huge draw.
But inside some of the rooms at the Oasis, things were just getting started. Players made liquor runs to the discount store across the street. Tables were liberated from the conference hall and placed in rooms, and a few were even brought out to the tennis court. Coolers of beer were set outside doors and a pink plastic flamingo bought by Canadian player Joe Kuracina (capacity five full beers) was soon being filled and drained to the refrains of drunk, chanting Beer Pong players. Crowds gathered and sign-up sheets for pick-up games made the rounds. The sound of bouncing ping-pong balls could be heard all over the hotel. And thoughts were already turning toward next January.
“We’re definitely coming back,” said Iceman. “And we’re bringing 20 more people next year.”