TEDxUCLA 2014: Open 2.0

The emergence of real-life Quidditch


About Alex

Alex Benepe is the founder and commissioner of the International Quidditch Association, the governing body of quidditch, a new sport adapted from the fictional sport of Quidditch in the Harry Potter books. Alex has led the growth of quidditch from a dozen students who first adapted the game from the books so they could play on a field behind their dorm in 2005, to its current roster today of more than 200 teams, 4,000 dues-paying registered players, and millions of fans globally.


What is emergence?

I’m a fan of the philosophical definition, a process which arises from a complex system which in turn arises from a multiplicity of simple interactions.

The real-life sport of Quidditch, inspired by the magical game from the Harry Potter books and films, is a great fit for that definition. Years of simple interactions, supplemented by persistence and a good deal of ingenuity, drove a sport to grow from a group of 20 college kids fooling around on a dorm quad to a complex system of over 200 official college teams and thousands of players.

And more often than not, it was the simplest interactions that sparked the biggest leaps forward. The Harry Potter books, first published in 1998, tell the story of a boy who discovers he has magical powers and his integration into the secret world of wizards. Author J.K. Rowling created a sport for that world, Quidditch, a game where seven players on each team flew around on flying broomsticks, trying to shoot balls called quaffles through hoops to score 10 points for their team, pelt balls called bludgers with bats at their opponents to try and knock them out, or chase the magical golden ball, the flying snitch to earn a whopping 150 extra points for their team and then the game.

Rowling recently revealed that she came up with the idea for Quidditch after a very simple interaction, a fight with her boyfriend, which led her to storm out and go to the local pub and come up with a sport for her book that would, quote unquote, “infuriate men because it made no sense to have a ball that was 150 points.”

To give you some some real-world context, that would be like a football game where one team could score 14 unanswered touchdowns, but the other team could still win because their quarterback wins a wrestling match in the middle of the field.

Now I want you all to use your time-turners and jump ahead from 1998. Now we’re going to 2005 to Middlebury College in Vermont, where I was a freshman. The fourth Harry Potter movie was about to hit theaters and the audiences had already been wowed by depictions of the fantastical flying sport of Quidditch in the first three films. A very common interaction took place over a lunchtime discussion. My friends came up with an idea: what if we tried to play Quidditch in real life?

We developed a simple but bizarre set of rules. For one, you would run around on the field holding a broomstick between your legs with one hand. The quaffle would be a volleyball. The bludger and bats would be simplified into dodge balls. And the snitch — this was the hard part — we decided to make it a person with a tail hanging out the back of their shorts, like flag football.

We decided to make the points much much lower, down to 30 instead of 150, enough to be important but not make the rest of the game irrelevant, and also to allow them to leave the field and run anywhere around campus. And perhaps most importantly, to emulate the books and the films, we decided to make the sport full-contact and co-ed.

So the next weekend, the next weekend, we played our first game of Quidditch. And even though it looks like only three people showed up, there are actually dozens there, and they came wearing towels as capes duct-taped around their necks. One guy showed up in his high school graduation robes. Another person thought it was BYOB, bring your own broom, and brought a lamp from his dormitory. Our, some of our goal hoops were even old recycling bins.

And I played seeker in the very first game ever of Quidditch, and I tore off the field, chasing after a wiry cross-country runner, dressed all in yellow with a flag flapping out the back of his shorts, clutching a broom between my legs, run, chasing this guy all over campus, feeling incredibly foolish, but also incredibly liberated and exhilarated. There had never been a sport like this before. We we were pioneers who discovered something new, and I knew the world would love it.

So we’re going to jump forward again now, to 2007. Quidditch was still an unofficial intramural fringe activity on campus, and over that summer I was watching, rewatching the fourth Harry Potter movie on DVD, which depicts the fictional Quidditch World Cup. And I was blown away by the spectacle of the festivities and it got me thinking: what if we turn our intramural championship event into a large community festival?

So that fall, we organized a huge tournament on our college campus with music and entertainers and food vendors and even owls. And a thousand spectators showed up, which is a lot for the tiny town of Middlebury with a population of 6,000, including students. And most importantly, we had a visiting college team. Vassar College had just started a team, they learned the sport from us. They were the only other school at the time playing. And they brought this team to Middlebury, and we put on this, the first-ever intercollegiate Quidditch match between Vassar and Middlebury.

And amazingly, USA Today covered it with this hyperbolic headline, “Collegiate Quidditch Takes Off.” Now in the, in the frenzy of this event, I turned a very simple interaction to a foolish one. During the interview with the writer, on the spur of the moment, I told him that we would be organizing a spring break northeast tour of other colleges to show off the sport. And USA Today published that. So I was reading the article and I go, “Oh, shit. Now we actually have to do this.”

In the spring of 2008, we went on the road. Seventeen college students and four vans, loaded down with brooms and balls and hoops, and we visited six colleges in seven days. Images, information, videos from these matches appeared on the front page of The Boston Globe, on MTV, on ESPN, and even a live segment on CBS that was announced by famed sports commentator Greg Gumbel. The press attention we got from this tour led students at over 100 universities to somehow find my email address — I don’t know how, still to this day — and reach out to us and figure out, hey, how can we start a team and how when can we play against you?

So I soon set out an email blast requesting the attendance of these hundred schools at an upcoming event, the second Quidditch World Cup. And 12 colleges answered the call and came to Middlebury that fall. This was the beginning, the first semblances of a sports league.

Now when I graduated in 2009, I wanted to figure out a way to bring big Quidditch tournaments outside of Middlebury. So I reached out to a guy I knew named Andrew Slack, who was the director of another Harry Potter inspired group, a nonprofit — you should really go look up, they do amazing work — called the Harry Potter Alliance. And I reached out to him for ideas and over another very simple interaction, just a lunchtime phone call, he gave me all the information and inspiration I needed.

In 2010, I incorporated the International Quidditch Association, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to governing the real-life sport of Quidditch. I drew my first board of directors from nine of the top team organizers around the country and invited them to a weekend in New York where they, they slept on my floor and we hosted our first meeting in my dad’s office.

But we made an important decision that day, to move the World Cup from Middlebury to New York City so that more people could attend. And it worked. That fall, we had 46 colleges, 800 players, and more than 10,000 spectators pile in to watch or play the event. It was covered by almost every major media outlet in America and beyond and generated hundreds of millions of media impressions for the sport. That marked a real taking-off point for the sport of Quidditch.

You know, it wasn’t all always smooth sailing from there. We had our ups and downs, but — and there was a lot more work to go after 2010 — but it was, it was a takeoff moment for the sport. When all of those small and important interactions were combining and creating momentum for us and, and really developing this sport and building a base for us to, to build this complex system on.

Today, we have a staff of four full-time paid employees, over 90 volunteers year-round. At our annual World Cup every year we have 300 volunteers who show up, and our last World Cup, our seventh annual World Cup was in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, we had 80 teams, all of whom had to qualify at their regional championships in order to get a spot in World Cup. Oh, and here’s your home team, UCLA!

So here we have a complex system that arose from a multiplicity of simple interactions. That started with a woman arguing with her boyfriend and brought us to the creation of a global sports league.

But what’s next? I believe that Quidditch can truly emerge one day as one of the biggest, if not the biggest sports in the world, and in the process — you laugh now, but seven years ago no one would have said this was possible! — I truly believe it can become one of the biggest, and in the process of being globally embraced, change the way that humanity works for the better.

Because think about sports today: they give us something to aspire to and they inspire us, but at the end of the day it’s really just a bunch of very fit men and women competing on a course or with a ball. But when you try to think about the impact that Quidditch could have, a sport borne out of creativity and literature, that brings men and women to compete together and against each other, that could not only change the way we look at and interact with sports, but the way we look at and interact with society as a whole.

So I want you to remember: the next time you’re having an argument with your partner, you might be about to change the world. Thank you.