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There May Not Be Flying, But Quidditch Still Creates Magic

A chaser handles a quaffle during practice. In the real-life version of the game, it's a volleyball and is the only ball that results in a score when it goes through the hoops. Each goal is 10 points.

When Colby Palmer started his freshman year at Virginia Commonwealth University, some students approached him in his dorm and asked whether he wanted to play quidditch.

Palmer had read all of the Harry Potter books and knew about the sport but said he felt reluctant to try it out.

"My impressions of quidditch was just that it's for nerds by nerds — that they wouldn't be like people who I would find things in common with," Palmer says.

Despite his hesitations, Palmer did give it a try and found he loved it and the community. Now, he's heading into his senior year at VCU and is spending the summer playing for the Washington Admirals, one of 16 Major League Quidditch teams. The season starts this weekend.

Maybe you've never heard of quidditch. And you might have missed the images of actor Daniel Radcliffe as the boy wizard Harry Potter plunging toward the ground on a flying broomstick in the screen adaptation of J.K. Rowling's series. If that is the case, you have a lot to learn. But then again, so does everyone who comes to the sport.

"There's such a dichotomy within the community because there are people who got into it because of Harry Potter and became athletic through friendship and playing, and then there are people like me who are looking for something to really stay in shape," Palmer says.

Quidditch 101

Unlike the majority of large spectator sports, quidditch is more complex — partly because it is rooted in magic. Teams may have only seven players on the field, or pitch, at a time: three chasers, two beaters, one keeper and one seeker. All of the players wear headbands, and each color designates their position. Chasers wear white, beaters wear black, keepers wear green, and seekers wear yellow.

There are three hoops mounted on each side of the pitch, and each player has a broom or stick. And, unlike basketball, baseball and football, in quidditch, up to five balls can be moving around the pitch at all times.

First, there is the quaffle. In the real-life version of the game, it's a volleyball handled by the chasers and is the only ball that results in a score when it goes through the hoops. Each goal is 10 points.

Then there are the bludgers. Those familiar with Harry Potter might remember that these balls have a mind of their own and are sent speeding toward other players to knock them off brooms. In real life, these balls don't fly, but they can still knock players off their brooms. There are three bludgers on the field at a time. The bludgers are dodgeballs and are used by the beaters like they would a regular dodgeball. If players are hit by a bludger, they dismount from their brooms and run back to their hoops and tag up. On both defense and offense, the bludgers are used to clear paths for a team's chasers as players run toward the opposing team's hoops and help the keepers — or goalies — protect their own hoops. Bludgers also used to keep the opposing team's seeker away from the snitch, the last of the balls.

Like in the fictional sport quidditch is based on, the snitch is vastly smaller than the other balls — about the size of a tennis ball — and it's worth 30 points if caught. But the snitch is also a position in the game, though this person is not a member of either team on the field, to keep things fair. The ball is secured in a cloth strip, which is Velcroed to the back of the person's shorts, similar to flag football. The person who is the snitch can do just about anything, including running, dodging and grappling, to make sure the seekers — whose sole focus is to catch the snitch — don't get the ball. Once a seeker catches the snitch, the match is over.

With all of that going on at once on the field, it can seem a little chaotic to first-time viewers, but that complex strategy is what a lot of players enjoy about the game.

"If you don't have the snitch, you have the quaffle and three bludgers active at all time on the field. It creates such a more dynamic sport, and it can kind of play out in crazy ways," says Ethan Sturm, a co-commissioner of Major League Quidditch. "There's so many things you can do strategically because there's so much more variety ... you have to worry about a bludger taking you out of the play and allowing the quaffle to be easily scored."

The gender rule

Additionally, quidditch has proven itself to be one of the most progressive sports in terms of gender equality. The game isn't divided based on sex, and anyone, regardless of their gender identity, is welcome to play.

The rule was established in US Quidditch, which serves as the governing body for the sport and has a league and season that takes place during the school year.

"It's not strictly the gender binary by either male or female, so it creates a really unique way for people to identify outside of that binary to have a way that they can play sports and be accepted for who they are and really be able to have an atmosphere and a community that fully accepts them and be themselves," says Sarah Woolsey, executive director of US Quidditch.

The main rule regarding gender on the field only allows a maximum of four members of a team who identify the same way to be playing at a time. This is something that many players, such as Augie Monroe of the Texas Cavalry team, like about the sport. Monroe played football in high school but says the locker room culture turned him off. That is not a problem with quidditch, he says.

"I wasn't all that big on the [football] culture, and I love co-ed teams because there's a balance of opinions and perspectives just in communicating with people on your team," Monroe says. "I think it's a more fun group to be a part of."

And Monroe has been a part of the quidditch community for a while. He started his career in 2011 at the University of Texas, where he played with the Longhorns as they won three straight national titles from 2013 to 2015. After graduating, he knew he wasn't done playing and founded the Texas Cavalry team, which plays in the US Quidditch league and won the championship cup in April.

Although he has been on four championship teams, Monroe was far from the best player on the pitch when he started out. It was the people that made him come back. Once he found his place on the pitch, Monroe just had to work on the skills.

"The thing that proved the most difficult was running around with a broom and getting used to that," Monroe says. "I kept like tripping over myself and didn't have a clue what was going on with the team, but then again at the same time, it wasn't the most competitive at that point."

Quidditch through the ages

The level of competition has quickly changed despite the sport's young age.

The first quidditch match took place at Middlebury College in Vermont in 2005. Initially, the sport spread slowly, with the concentration of teams located in the Northeast.

As time went on, teams from the across the country started to compete in the annual championship tournament, but they weren't limited to colleges and universities. Community teams started to form and are also part of the US Quidditch league.

By 2012, more than 110 teams had registered with US Quidditch, and along with that growth came rule changes. One of the major shifts involved the snitch. Back in 2005, the snitch wasn't limited to just running around the pitch and could often run off to completely different areas of a campus where a match was taking place. While that was great for keeping with the spirit of how the snitch is in the magical world, it turned out to not be the best implementation for consistent play.

"Some of those changes are a lot bigger than others, and you know we're just always kind of looking at what we can do to make this sport as safe as possible and as effective as possible for quality competition and fair opportunity for all players," Woolsey says.

And significant changes are on the horizon. One of the biggest issues facing US Quidditch right now is the debate surrounding the mixture of collegiate and community teams. Community teams are largely made up of previous collegiate players who, after graduating, didn't want to stop playing. These players often have more experience than those on college teams who just joined the sport, and when community teams form, they are usually made up of many strong players, so issues of fairness arise.

"I think it's a whole lot easier to get people involved and excited about quidditch when school teams are competing against other school teams and having that as something that's kind of reassuring and something that is familiar and makes sense to people in the general public who are college sports fans," says Jack McGovern, media outreach coordinator for Major League Quidditch.

US Quidditch is working on changing how the collegiate and community teams compete against one another, but as that is taking place, a new league has emerged.

Playing in the majors

Major League Quidditch started when co-commissioner Sturm saw the potential for the sport to draw more fans and become more established. Sturm played quidditch throughout his undergraduate and graduate years at Tufts University and watched as his teammates graduated and got involved with community teams.

"While I could tell, and people who knew the sport well could see how far it was coming, it was just in the format which was a really helter skelter regular season and then a giant tournament at the end," Sturm says. "It was just really hard to kind of reach out using that format to a wider audience to get them to perceive it as a sport."

Unlike US Quidditch, MLQ's season is much shorter and takes place over the summer. The 16 teams are divided into four regions, with four teams in each region. Like any other major league, the teams travel and compete against one another in series and then all the teams converge for a championship at the end of the summer.

"I knew that if we wanted quidditch to succeed and kind of pop into the public eye, we needed to do it in a more consumable form," he says.

Before the season started, each team held tryouts for collegiate and noncollegiate players. Once the rosters were formed, each team had 30 players. The players and teams are self-funded but hold fundraisers to pay for their equipment and travel.

Sturm says that in addition to being consumable, the sport also has to be sustainable, which prompted MLQ to create practice teams in each of the 16 cities for players who may not have made the roster but are still working on developing their skills.

In addition to players having room for improvement, Sturm says the sport does as well.

"I think we've still barely scratched the surface on what can be done in the sport. I think it's easy to be lazy and do what's been working," he says. "We definitely want to get into more people's eyes and have a larger following."

The next generation

Growth of the sport is something many in the sport want to make happen.

"We're kind of getting to a point where some of the older players are starting to retire," Sturm says. "Is there going to be a kind of a second generation of great players or is it kind of dissipated out because of this stagnation at the top?"

The way the structure is now, and because quidditch was founded on a college campus, the majority of the players and teams are at a college level. And while there are community teams, many of the players are graduates of college teams.

There are some high school teams, but there is not a solid structure for them. That doesn't mean there isn't interest though. US Quidditch has adapted rules for high school and middle school teams. One big difference is that tackling is not allowed, because quidditch can get rough and sometimes players get concussions and broken bones.

Sturm admits that a lot of people who play or who come to the sport eagerly are fans of the Harry Potter series and says that is something that will always be a factor. But he says that people who aren't fans learn to love the game, but the key to getting recruits isn't asking them whether they want to play.

"You can't talk to them about quidditch — you'll never change their mind on it and you're not going to get past any preconceived notions they have," Sturm says. "You really need to show them ... because if people watching quidditch can see the technicalities and see the athleticism, it 9 times out of 10 gets rid of all those preconceived notions, and then you have somebody who can potentially get into the sport."

Though he was at first hesitant to join the game, this is Colby Palmer's second season with the Washington Admirals. Once he joined the game, he found it was more than a way to stay in shape.

"The people on this pitch right here are some of my lifelong friends," Palmer says. "These are the people that I'll be friends with for the rest of my life and that's something that other sports really don't afford you in the same way that quidditch does. It gives you a sense of community as well as a sense of competition, and to me, nothing binds people more than being on a team and working towards a goal. And it just so happens they're some of the coolest people on the planet."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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