Are You Ready for Some… Quidditch?! – An Interview With the IQA’s Alex Benepe

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International Quidditch Association logoInternational Quidditch Association logoYes, friends, September brings with it both the new school year and Quidditch season. J.K. Rowling’s fantastical sport of witches and wizards has been adopted by college and community teams the world over, and is gaining traction despite its fantastical leanings.

Using traditional sporting goods like hula hoops, volleyballs (as quaffles) and dodge balls (bludgers), real-world competitors of Muggle Quidditch have easily adjusted the high-flying action of the fictional sport to something more tonic with our distinctly mundane lifestyle. But, as with any growing sport, the community that’s sprung up as a result of this newfound passion has come to rely on a governing body to assure the safety of its players and the sanctity of its pastime. That organization is the International Quidditch Association headed up by Commissioner Alex Benepe.

Alex was kind enough to take a few moments out of his pre-season duties to enlighten me as to the history and allure of this new sport, as well as the impending grandeur of this November’s Quidditch World Cup.

GeekDad: What is the purpose of the International Quidditch Association, and how did your organization come together?

Alex Benepe: Our mission is to promote, govern, and develop the sport of real-life Quidditch and use it to get young people more physically active and socially engaged.

GD: Exactly how international is the IQA?

AB: Not that international yet, but we have more international teams than the World Series at least… Roughly 85% of our active teams are in the US, but we have a big scene starting in Canada, as well as Australia, New Zealand, and a few countries in South America. Europe is finally starting to pick up the ball (no pun intended) including Finland, France and the UK.

GD: You’ve watched over 800 games of Quidditch. Would you say that’s more than any other fan or official?

AB: So far, yes.

GD: Alex, you refer to yourself as “Commissioner, CEO, President, and Janitor of the IQA.” Isn’t that a lot of responsibility for one man to shoulder?

AB: It depends how messy my co-workers are. In small companies (and sometimes bigger ones) CEO and president are generally the same person and have very similar responsibilities (in that the President is more of a day-to-day executor and the CEO is more focused on long-term strategy), and there’s no reason someone can’t do both of those things. The term Commissioner simply encapsulates both of those, at least at this point in the sport’s development.

GD: What do you think is the appeal of Quidditch that sets it apart from other high school, college or community sports?

AB: The people engaged in the sport. A lot of sports are filled with overly-serious people that are a turn-off to newcomers. Quidditch continues to attract a group of really friendly, open-minded, people who are only serious about having fun. The competition can get intense at points, but at the end of the day, everyone is in it for the excitement, the friendship, and a good laugh.

GD: I think I understand the mechanics of quaffles and bludgers, but how is the snitch handled in Muggle Quidditch?

2010 Quidditch World Cup finals2010 Quidditch World Cup finals

Follow that snitch!

AB: The snitch is the fulcrum of real-life Quidditch, less so in terms of game mechanics and more so in terms of entertainment value. It is only worth 30 points (3 goals) compared to the book’s 150 (15 goals), and instead of being an autonomous flying ball, it is a human being dressed all in gold and yellow and wearing a long sock with a tennis ball hanging out of the runner’s shorts. They can leave the field and head anywhere around campus or around the tournament site, climb trees, ride bikes, hide, wear disguises, trip, toss, and wrestle with their pursuers, and use acrobatics to evade capture. They basically have no rules, and their pursuers, the seekers, are slowed by the broomsticks they have to hold and stymied by the fact that they are not allowed to touch the snitch except to grab the sock or defend themselves.

GD: Are there any particularly adept teams or players to watch at this year’s World Cup? Who’s our Viktor Krum?

AB: Great question. In the Northeast, fans should look out for Middlebury (defending champions and #1 in the world), Boston University, Emerson College, and Pittsburgh (all in the top ten). Pittsburgh’s players had some of the fastest, most agile maneuvers I’ve seen at the recent northeast regionals, but they were ultimately beaten by BU who had superior numbers and solid strategy. Emerson plays an aggressive game and Middlebury is excellent at long passes and agility that penetrates most defenses. They have the highest points per game of any team in the league.

In the south, the teams to beat are LSU, University of Florida, U Miami, and University of South Florida. LSU (#3 in the world) is very strong and plays a physically aggressive team, probably mostly due to the fact that they tend to play against Texan teams on a regular basis. Among the Florida teams, U Miami and UF have deeper ranks and a more polished strategy (UF also has some great seekers like Byron McCoy), but I think USF is a very underestimated team with some amazingly talented players (Sean Snipes and Sean Pagoda form a very solid chaser duo) and I’m curious to see how they’ll perform in NYC.

I must admit I am not too familiar with the Midwest teams although I will be after I attend the Midwest Regionals this October, which we are co-sponsoring. The event is co-hosted by Ball State and Purdue, and will feature a dozen other schools. I know that at a spring invitational earlier this year, Ball State narrowly beat out Illinois State, with Loyola in 3rd and Michigan State in 4th. We expect around 15 teams at the Regionals this October which should be pretty exciting.

On the West Coast, Arizona State has proven to be a real powerhouse with some amazing defense led by their keeper Willy Jackson. (They are currently ranked #2 in the world.) UCLA and USC are also both big standouts, with some solid chasing by Asher Abramson at the former and Sean Robinson at the latter.

In the Southwest, Texas A&M is led by captain Drew Wasikowski and they are currently ranked #4 in the world – this will be their 3rd World Cup. They have a very fierce playing strategy and a deep bench of superbly experienced players. Texas Tech has a very strong group as well and I’m excited to see how they do at the cup.

Among our Canadian teams, Carleton and McGill are the big standouts. McGill is led by Coach Ben Cohen and they performed very well last year, and I think everyone will be watching them closely this year.

Among international teams, the Finnish Vaasa Centaurs were in the spotlight this past spring as they played some of the first intercontinental matches in history during a northeast tour, stopping at Harvard, Vassar, and Stonybrook and playing against more than half a dozen teams.

GD: Speaking of the IQA World Cup, when and where is this year’s competition?

Quidditch World CupQuidditch World CupAB: Randall’s Island, NYC, November 12-13, all day long both days. More info and tickets are available at worldcupquidditch.com.

We are going to be having over 450 games of Quidditch on more than 10 fields, and we have 100 teams registered from over 20 states and several nations.

Live bands and circus performers will be on stage every hour, with half-time shows each day and a major headline act Saturday night (all acts will be announced in September), along with live owls and other interesting attractions.

Each field will have live improv comedy announcers from PIT (Peoples Improv Theater), a popular club in New York.

The finals matches will go down under the lights in Icahn Stadium, a world class venue that seats 5,000 and was home to Usain Bolt‘s 200m world record in 2008.

GD: What makes this venue particularly Quidditch-friendly?

AB: It’s huge and beautiful and has plenty of room for hundreds of games of Quidditch and thousands of spectators. It has a history of large musical events and is known among New Yorkers as a destination for large events. It’s also on an island, and there’s something magical about taking a boat to escape city life for two days and immerse yourself in something as fantastical as a real-life Quidditch tournament.

GD: Recently the IQA found itself embroiled in a bit of a controversy surrounding new gender rules. How was this problem ultimately solved, and was it the Association’s first such weighty dispute?

AB: We saw the game becoming male-dominated due to our minimum requirement of two female players on the field per team (a lot of teams were hitting the minimum and not attempting to do better) and being a young, dynamic, flexible company, we sought a quick solution to halt the trend by requiring teams to have more women on the field. We realized however after we heard from a few teams that imposing this rule so close to World Cup would disrupt too many team rosters and force some teams to cancel their plans to attend, and we didn’t want a rule designed for inclusivity to exclude. So we are pushing back the rule to fall 2012 and giving teams more time to adjust.

GD: Obviously real-world Quidditch owes its life to Jo Rowling. How much bleed-over is there between the sport and other Potter-centric fan communities like the Wizard Rock music scene?

AB: For the first few years we operated pretty independently of other Harry Potter fandom communities, but lately we’ve been forging more connections with them. We are very excited about the possibility of partnering with a few of the bigger ones for World Cup (we’ll be announcing these later) and we are definitely going to have more than a few Wizard Rock bands for World Cup, including Harry and the Potters who played last year. I must admit that I was very skeptical of Wrock at first, but when I saw HATP play last year, their charisma and catchy songs and amazing fan interaction and the passion of their supporters really blew me away.

GD: What resources can new fans and potential players use to find games or teams in their geographic areas?

AB: With the season about to start this September, we are beginning to post new games to the calendar on the IQA website, and we try to put up a new story or news item every day. Fans should also subscribe to our email newsletter (on the IQA homepage on the bottom right) to get weekly updates about upcoming games all around the country.

GD: Lastly, Alex, what do you see as the future of Quidditch? Where does the game go from here?

2010 Quidditch World Cup finals 22010 Quidditch World Cup finals 2

Brooms are mandatory.

AB: Right now we are just focusing on this year’s World Cup. The success or failure of this event will be a major determinant in the next few years of our development, specifically how much funding we are able to raise, as we plan to use a significant portion to pay for more and bigger regional tournaments for our teams all around the country.

Looking ahead, we are aiming to make the 2012-2013 academic year our first real season. We will be creating a regular games schedule and organizing a set number of head to head, refereed, season games between all of our official member teams, hosting Regional Championships to qualify teams for World Cup, and moving World Cup to the spring to create a more cohesive and dramatic narrative to the season, which will strengthen interest among fans and teams. So in effect, we are resetting the IQA’s schedule, so spring 2012 should be a very formative, chrysalis-like period when we will have time to plan all of this out. During that period instead of organizing tournaments, we may give grants to a few team-organized tournaments, and focus our resources on future planning and general promotion (reaching out to as many schools nationwide as possible) and also thinking about putting on an expo match in London during the 2012 Olympics.

I think that Quidditch has the capacity to be in every community in the world. People have long been asking me, will the game survive after Harry Potter? And I think the answer is yes, and in fact this game has the capacity to help Harry Potter survive long-term, as fan interest in the stories begins to reach its twilight. Rather than abatement, we’ve only seen accelerating interest in the game, which people are beginning to see as its own sport and not a fantasy-reenactment. Lofty claims, I know, but I’m very excited, because now is our time to begin proving all of that.

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