World Series of Beer Pong: A Rollicking Campus Tradition Tries to Go Legit

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterJuly 4, 2018

In this June 15, 2010 photo, Steve Soller, 23, left, and teammate Nate Mills,22, both of Ohio, try to intimidate Pavel Braude, 22, right, of Mass., as he tosses a ping pong ball during a game at the World Beer Pong Tour competition in Atlantic City, N.J. What started out as a drinking game has blossomed into a nationwide competition and a $25,000 first prize, all for doing what millions of college kids do when they should be studying. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Billy Gaines wasn't even that big of a drinker.

He didn't dislike it, per se. It's more the stuff that came with it, or didn't, as it were. Double-majoring in electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University didn't leave a lot of spare time. Neither did being on the swim team. Sometimes with him, it got to the point where a true moment of leisure felt a little too, you know, leisurely.

So when it came time to tip one back with his buddies, Gaines didn't want to play cards. He certainly didn't want to sit and talk, or whatever drinking people do. But there was a game people were playing. He could stand up while he did it, keep the blood flowing and do something competitive.

"I had my first exposure early on in college," Gaines said. "Like any sport, it's something you can beat people at or get whupped up on yourself. But you can practice and get better. It's just another activity that brings people together."

At the time, beer pong was spreading across Gaines' campus and many others like it. What Gaines didn't know then was that he'd soon be its Pied Piper.

Through law school and a job in intellectual property law, beer pong stuck with him. He wanted to connect players to one another, standardize the rules, get events going. One thing led to another, and in 2001 Gaines co-founded BPONG, a website and online forum.

Money tournaments were springing up, and in 2006 BPONG spawned one pong to rule them all: the World Series of Beer Pong. About 1,000 people played last year, with more expected this year. It takes place July 5 to 8 in Las Vegas.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Beer pong's natural habitat is still the college campus, the house party basement, the tailgate parking lot, the spring break beachfront. WSOBP encapsulates that. It hasn't cracked TV but is readily available on YouTube in all its NSFW glory.

According to Gaines, the average player is in the upper 20s. Anyone with $295 can sign up. The whole thing is rife with homespun pageantry, a rollicking raft of white dudes with knight costumes and reams of sister jokes. Take its key antecedent, the World Series of Poker, and then turn the volume to 11 and add more cargo shorts.

But hold on a second. Like its presumed namesake, there is a lot more craftsmanship here than meets the untrained eye. If you so much as chuckle at the notion of skill in beer pong, they will steal your soul and make you chug it.

"If you take some bro players playing with the bros, and you take me and my partner, it's like taking a guy on the corner versus Michael Jordan in a game of HORSE," said Brandon Marx, who is one-half of the defending WSOBP champions. "We're just on another level."


How It's Done

The basic rules are widely familiar. Two people to a team, one team on either end of the table, 10 cups to a team. Essentially, you win by sinking a ball into the other 10 cups. There is natural drama to the format, with a preliminary round; then double-elimination; then a best-of-three final.

At your average house party, players fill each cup with a few glugs of beer, usually something of a domestic persuasion. You land a ball in the other team's cup; they drink what's in the cup. WSOBP rules call for cups to be filled with water that is never consumed. Encouragement or pressure to consume alcohol is forbidden.

That doesn't deter players from grabbing a frosty beverage if they so choose. Some believe it helps them play better, in the bar-going tradition of pool or darts.

"Do people drink? Yes, they drink," Gaines said. "Players feel more relaxed after a drink or two. But we look out for each other so you don't get sucked into that party atmosphere."

Players police themselves. There is no specific penalty for drinking too much beer. According to the players, it's a matter of preference.

"A lot of it has to do with the practice regimen," Marx said. "Some people don't drink in practice; some do. If you're getting yelled at by the crowed, it allows you to block out the distractions."

Christy Radecic/Associated Press

Either way, it's easy to view beer pong as the consummate drinking game—it's in the name, after all—and it's the heretofore missing link between mindless guzzlefests like king's cup and leisurely competitions like bocce ball. That's the niche it appears to fill: the first drinking sport.

Even amid the rising glitz, a backyard feel remainsa garage startup that never completely leaves the garage. Rules arguments persist. Players half-joke about "pong flu," the bug that sweeps through the ranks whenever competitions involve the drinking of any liquid that touched the spherical petri dishes traveling from hand to hand, cup to cup and table to floor.

On a relative scale, WSOBP is no financial motherlode: about $100,000 total this year. That's still far more than anyone might have imagined 15 years ago, and in any case the money is secondary.

"You meet a lot of people you never thought you'd meet," said Justin Spurrier, a perennial WSOBP contender. "There are a few bad apples who go crazy, but as soon as you're done, 99 percent of the people have a drink with each other."


Feeding an Urge

The lure of the party is real, but there's more below the surface, and not just the natural intensity that kicks in during any competition. Beer pong is a way for those who found success in other sports to take another whack at the pinata. Being a catch basin for ex-athletes as well as ambitious dorm dwellers makes beer pong a breeding ground for underdog narratives and a showcase for the less tangible aspects of competition.

"Any Joe Schmoe has a chance at glory with beer pong," Marx said. "Anyone halfway decent at sports in high school or college, also people who got drafted in minor league baseball or a pro bowler who never got over the hump, they come and have a chance."

Like Gaines, quite a few WSOBP champs and contenders seem to have maxed out fairly high on the athletic scale before joining the 99 percent. Marx played basketball and golf in high school. The relevance of the former is obvious, but the latter might be even more useful.

In golf, there's value in a short memory, making quick and subtle adjustments on the fly, and thriving in what can be an intensely psychological environment. According to Marx, all come in handy in beer pong.

Spurrier is a professional bowler and played baseball in high school. Marx's partner, Kevin Kessler, wrestled in high school alongside former UFC champion Eddie Alvarez.

A postgrad athletic life of CrossFit or mountain biking or municipal nine-hole is not in the cards for everyone. And make no mistake: there is no beer in mountain biking.

The beer pong spectator is not exactly bombarded by well-conditioned physiques and flying sweat, but muscle memory and mental fortitude run through many a game.

"I have a competitive nature, growing up in sports as a youth and in high school," Kessler said. "You keep competitive in a social environment while engaging with your peers. … I'm supremely confident, and I'm tough to break."

Few other venues offer such high-profile rewards for such a low threshold of admission. Basically, you need good instincts and a lot of practice (Marx started by practicing eight hours a day).

It's a steep hill, though. There are no official stats, but many top guys regularly convert at a 75 percent clip, players said. And there's a game within the game. With beer flowing and fans screaming, if you can get in another player's head, you have an advantage.

Think about the pressure that builds around that last cup. Trash talk is as much a beer pong soundtrack as Imagine Dragons. This is why mental toughness takes a front seat.

Enter Kessler. To further the poker analogy, he's WSOBP's Phil Hellmuth. At 37, Kessler is one of the oldest beer pong contenders and by his own estimation the most hated man on the circuit. He's the reality-show contestant always telling the camera he's not here to make friends. He's a self-appointed target, the massive shark the heroes hoist aloft in old photos.

"Kevin will get personal," Marx said with a laugh. "There is not a line he will not cross. How great his life is, how much you want to be him. He'll do everything in his power to make you feel as little as possible."

Kessler has a bit of a double life. By day, he's married with three kids and lives in Pennsylvania, holding down a corporate sales job. By night, he's styling his hair into a mohawk, donning his best tank top and crushing all comers.

Kessler might be symbolic of beer pong today. The sport is maturing, and sometimes the new and old seem tough to reconcile. Gaines and others acknowledge excitement and challenges in similar measure. Beer pong and its leaders seem intent on shedding the frat-house image and adopting a more inclusive focus, all without abandoning its roots as a gamification of campus-borne impulses.

"Guys will do well, but under the bright lights they start to shrivel," Kessler said. "I get personal. I do a lot of trash talk. I think it's one of the things that holds it back from being on ESPN. That and the alcohol."


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