BY KYLE HIGHTOWER
KISSIMMEE, Fla. — The way Alex Benepe remembers it, his roommate’s idea to make quidditch more than a broom-riding fantasy confined to books and the big screen began as only a passing thought as they stared out their dorm window at the vast field known as “Battell Beach.”
He and Xander Manshel were freshmen at Middlebury College in Vermont in 2005, staring at the field ironically named in the chilly, landlocked state. Manshel was bored with the Sunday tradition of bocce ball and was looking for a change.
“We were really lucky. It was really the perfect place to start quidditch,” Benepe said.
Now, eight years later, the fictional game once only played by characters in the popular “Harry Potter” books is played at more than 1,000 college campuses on three continents.
Manshel scribbled down a makeshift rulebook based in part on the books and elements of lacrosse, rugby and dodge ball. Intramural matches began at Middlebury in 2007.
Benepe founded the International Quidditch Association three years later, and the game is now played in North America, Europe and Australia. He is now the IQA commissioner.
Saturday and Sunday in Kissimmee, IQA will host 80 teams and more than 1,600 players for its annual World Cup event. The first three were at Middlebury, and the past two were held in New York.
All previous World Cups were won by Middlebury, but last weekend Texas defeated UCLA 190-80 in the championship game.
Of more than 300 active co-ed teams globally, about 250 pay team dues of $150 to IQA and travel for matches.
That’s quite an evolution from its ragtag beginnings, Benepe said: Garbage cans once served as hoops, with some players fashioning capes out of towels taped to their shirts.
“One guy wore his high school graduation robe. Another kid thought you had to bring your own broom, and he couldn’t find one. So he grabbed a lamp from his dormitory and was running around on a lamp. It was real thrown together,” Benepe said.
Now players spend anywhere from a few hundred bucks for basic equipment to several hundred for the top-of-the-line stuff at the World Cup.
Also, the majority of teams competing at this level have official uniforms names paying homage to the book series, like the Silicon Valley Skrewts and the Melbourne Manticores.
Spectators will find many of the same features from the books. Players throw balls or “quaffles” through ringed hoops for points and even can chase and capture the “snitch” to end matches.
And in case any Harry Potter diehards are wondering, yes, all the players also must maneuver around on broomsticks during gameplay. Much like the ability to dunk a basketball is restricted to a gifted few, however, real-life quidditch players have yet to take flight.
As far as the players, there are those like Brian Nackasha, a 26-year-old beater for Brevard Community College’s team, who said he listens to the Potter books daily on audio.
But the game isn’t just embraced by “Harry Potter” enthusiasts. In fact, there are several players at this weekend’s event who consider themselves novices and just enjoy the athletic aspect.
“We have people on our team that have never read the books or seen the movies, so it travels the whole spectrum,” said University of Ottawa team founder Clare Hutchinson. “Quidditch is not necessarily all about Harry Potter anymore.”
Hutchinson, 22, said she never played any team sports before quidditch, only previously participating in things such as skiing and horseback riding. She and her teammates even reorganized their final exams just to participate in the World Cup.
She said the camaraderie is worth it, though.
“We’ve deferred dozens of exams for this trip,” she said. “We had to make personal and academic sacrifices to make that choice, as well as the financial expense. … People are really surprised at the seriousness we take it at.”
For now, the IQA remains a nonprofit group and remains in contact with representatives for “Harry Potter” creator J.K. Rowling to ensure no trademarks are violated.
Although IQA has been approached by some corporate entities about possible sponsorships, he said the aim is to make sure the group doesn’t lose its grassroots appeal.
“The sport has really changed a lot of people’s lives for the better,” Benepe said. “People are turning into lifetime friends. I’m now good friends with people who have been playing quidditch for five or six years.
“It’s really like one big family.”