If you ever come across it while journeying across a university campus or through a park, you will recognize the sport of quidditch immediately: there will be three hoops on poles on each end of the pitch, balls being hit between players or through the hoops, a person dressed in yellow with a sock-bound tennis ball hanging off the back of their shorts (aka "the snitch"), and people on broomsticks running up and down the field while tackling each other. You'll recognize it because it looks like nothing else. That's the easy part.
The hard part is grasping the byzantine rules, which have a steep, cricket-like learning curve.
Farzad Sangari learned just that in 2011. "I was walking across the campus at UCLA and I just saw them playing quidditch. It was just a strange experience," he says, because "I'd never seen it before, but I knew what it was immediately." Sangari is the director of the new documentary Mudbloods, which follows the UCLA quidditch team as they prepare for and then participate in the 2011 Quidditch World Cup--seriously.
When I sat down to watch the documentary with my Harry-Potter-loving six-year-old son, he peppered me with questions like, "Will they have wands? Will they look like us? Do they fly?" As a proud owner of a replica of Potter's wand, he was pretty disappointed to find out that no wands are involved, players cannot actually fly, and that they do, in fact, look like us.
Quidditch players are simply nerdy athletes (athletic nerds?) who love playing their sport. Yes, quidditch is a sport.
And quidditch is growing in popularity. In the short time since it was first played on the campus of Middlebury in 2005, it has become something of a mini-phenomenon in the U.S. and around the world. Today, U.S. Quidditch (USQ), according to its website, serves "over 4,000 athletes on almost 200 teams nationwide." It hosts the World Cup every year along with a handful of other major tournaments. There is also an International Quidditch Association and a bi-annual event called The Global Games. Alex Benepe, who is featured in Mudbloods, is the current CEO of USQ and one of the creators of the muggle-version of the sport. He says that "the sport is more popular than ever. Over the last four years, we've averaged a 40 percent growth rate."
Mostly, the players are just happy to skip around on broomsticks on campus greens across the country, and there are a myriad of reasons why. The first is that people love Harry Potter and the novelty of the game attracts media attention. Benepe says that initially, following the first World Cup in 2007 at Middlebury, they went on a spring road trip in 2008 where the Middlebury team "visited six colleges in seven days" and that "had a lot of media coverage." The sport was "on the front page of the Boston Globe, on ESPN's 360 show, on the early morning on CBS live in front of 2 million viewers, and we were also on MTV." This paid off. The World Cup that fall had 12 teams, the next year there were 21, by 2010 there were 46, and then in 2011, the year the documentary covers, there were 94 teams competing in the Quidditch World Cup in New York City in front of 10,000 spectators. By 2014, to control the numbers, Benepe says they "have now capped it at 80 teams. To go to the World Cup, teams have to qualify at regional championship events."
There is also the community created by the teams. In the documentary, players talk frequently about how they spend all their time together, two people on the team are dating, they host year-end banquets, and work together to fundraise the money to travel to tournaments. Sangari says that he tried to capture the "sense camaraderie," the "sense of spirit" on the team, something, he believes "that a lot of these people would [not] necessarily have had if quidditch didn't exist."
Kenny Chilton is the co-captain of the University of Texas' quidditch team, the current two-time World Cup champions. Now a graduating senior, he originally found out about the sport as a freshman when he was at a Harry Potter Alliance meeting. He says that he has played quidditch for the last four years because of "my teammates" and because he "loves the organization at UT."
The sport works hard at being an inclusive space. USQ has the adorably-titled "Title 9 3/4," named after the train platform at King's Cross Station where Potter catches the train to his wizarding school. Title 9 3/4 demands gender parity on the pitch at all times. The key part of this Title is the "Four-Maximum Rule" that "requires each team to have a maximum of four players who identify as the same gender." The point, USQ says, is to "ensure that teams are working to recruit and to field a team that has diversity."
Quidditch is also, and perhaps most importantly, a compelling, physical sport, and so, like all compelling, physical sports, demands an audience's attention. According to Chilton, playing quidditch is "a really, really good way to stay in shape." Sangari says that "it is extremely athletic. You don't understand how hard it is physically to run with a broom between your legs and play a one-handed sport." Chilton's team spends "six days a week training, practicing as a team 2 to 3 days a week." He says this is necessary "to compete on the level that we compete on" because "the people out there are athletes and to keep up with them, to keep up with my own team" you have to train hard.
Benepe says that since 2011, when Sangari shot the film, quidditch "is starting to become semi-normal" because of how many people now play the sport. "There's a lot more awareness of it now" and "it's becoming a widespread phenomenon." Sangari's documentary, which makes the sport out to look fun and challenging, and the competitions full of drama, will probably only build on this.
I asked my son at the end of the documentary if he wants to play quidditch when he is older. Having seen how they open-field tackle each other (one player in the film had to go by ambulance to the hospital after receiving a bloody head wound), he replied immediately that he would not be playing because "it's too hard. You can get hurt a lot." Still, he sees a future with the sport. "I could be a good snitch," he tells me. The snitch is the player who wears a tennis ball in a sock that hangs from their shorts--the first team to pull the sock off the snitch earns 30 points and the game ends immediately. The snitch's job, then, is to run around and not get caught. My son looks at me as he is describing it, a glint in his eyes: "I would be like running all around the stadium so fast that none of the kids could get me."
If the sport stays on the growth track it is now, he will have plenty of opportunities to try.