The Quidditch World Cup: Fantasy Game, Real Bruises

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Joseph Chi Lin for TIME

A Middlebury College Quidditch player breaks past two players from Villanova University during the Quidditch World Cup held in New York City

A sociologist looking to underscore the narrative of Generation Y's prolonged immaturity would have had a field day with the fourth annual Quidditch World Cup, the Harry Potter–inspired sports competition that drew legions of muggles to midtown Manhattan this past weekend. Quidditch is, after all, an event inspired by a magical sport in a line of far-fetched children's books that most of this weekend's competitors read way back in elementary school. Indeed, at the event's opening ceremony, many of the 700 athletes arrived dressed in costumes, capes and T-shirts, singing songs from 1990s Disney musicals while masses of media surveyed the endless Potter in-jokes proudly scrawled on their attire ("Pwning Myrtle"). The high point of these people's lives, it might have appeared, was sometime around 1998.

But this sense of nerdish camaraderie came to an abrupt end right around the time of the first gang tackle.

Quidditch is a sport striving for legitimacy. It has a rule book, a governing body (the International Quidditch Association, a nonprofit) and its own live streaming webcasts. Its players move with the grace and ferocity of top athletes; the best of them look like lacrosse players and hit like linebackers. All told, 46 teams from the U.S. and Canada vie for the Cup, and hundreds more franchises are just getting started. For a five-year-old sport, it's a remarkable ascension.

The rules of Muggle Quidditch are similar to those outlined by author J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series, right down to the use of brooms. (None of the players fly — they carry them between their legs.) Players try to shoot the Quaffle (a volleyball) into a series of hoops; the defense, meanwhile, throws Bludgers (kickballs) at the offense. The goal: Hit the player with the volleyball, so he has to stop dead in his tracks, or else try to tackle the volleyball out of his hands and be ready for a fight.

Silliness intrudes into the game via the character of the Golden Snitch, whose capture ends each match. Instead of flying around on wings, as in the books, the Snitch is held on the waist of a yellow-clad "Snitch Runner," a strange mix of rodeo clown, Harlem Globetrotter and hip-hop hype man. He revs up the crowd and teases players, all the while giving the occasional body slam to those who attempt to capture him.

Muggle Quidditch began in 2005 on a lazy Sunday at Middlebury College in Vermont, and last weekend's Cup was the sport's coming-out of sorts — the first championship decided outside the confines of Middlebury's bucolic campus. Though Harry Potter fandom ruled supreme in the spectator gallery, what was perhaps most surprising about the World Cup competition was how little Potter seemed to register in the minds of those on the field of battle. TIME interviewed a handful of players during the competition, and J.K. Rowling seemed to be an afterthought, about as important to a Quidditch crew as James Naismith would be to a basketball team embroiled in the Final Four. In the huddles, it was all business: strategy, matchups and bracket seeding. Not one mention of magic; not one Felix Felicis steroid joke.

As with any sport, a variety of Quidditch styles have emerged among the top teams. Vassar College employs a finesse passing game, seemingly fueled by the power of positive thinking; co-captain Nathan Hoston attributed the team's success to "communication." Tufts, which upset a trio of top-seeded teams to earn a surprise championship berth, relies on a surprising fast-break offense centered on their Chasers' ability to weave through traffic. But the most dominant team by far is Middlebury, winner of every previous Cup and a team so confident of victory that it could afford to be gracious. ("There are a lot of great teams here," said Middlebury Beater Andy Hyatt. "We're going to have to lose eventually — we can't keep winning forever — but we hope it's not this year. Or next year.") Out on the field, Middlebury simply outran and outmuscled the competition, steamrolling its way to the finals, where the squad slowly bled Tufts dry. The team celebrated its victory by dancing to a rap song celebrating Middlebury's charms. Yes, it included a verse about Quidditch.

Most surprising to first-time Quidditch spectators is the physical nature of the sport. The aggressive style of play employed by Middlebury, Tufts and other teams led to a rash of injuries, none of them easily healed by a Brackium Emendo spell. "It's frustrating that a lot of the teams play really violently," said Vassar co-captain Molly Cohen. "The newer teams that are learning from the World Cup what Quidditch is are taught that Quidditch is this angry sport." Though this year was relatively tame compared with last year, when one player fractured a collarbone, the weekend still saw a dozen players be helped off the field by medical staff.

Cleaning up the rule book and instituting tougher rules against roughness will be instrumental if Quidditch, as rumored, expands to become an NCAA sport. But while some consider it an interesting prospect (the institutionalization of a childhood fantasy sport), most of the Quidditch community is worried that going mainstream will strip the sport of its appealing quirks — like, say, the announcers from Middlebury's improv clubs who call the match in Parseltongue. "It would discourage so many people from coming out," said Vassar's Cohen. "We try to be really warm and inclusive. It would lose that if we turn it into some jock varsity thing."

Fortunately for those who want to keep Quidditch weird, the sport's governing body has no plans to campaign for NCAA recognition. "That's not a company objective," said Alex Benepe, commissioner of the International Quidditch Association (IQA). "The IQA is self-sustainable. We've got so many teams that are emotionally invested in this."

The final Harry Potter film is scheduled for release in 2011; after that, for the first time in 13 years, there will be no new Potter content on the horizon. Where will this leave Muggle Quidditch? Only a talented Divination professor would know for sure, but Eliza Farrell of the club team New York Badassilisks isn't worried: "As long as Harry Potter is popular — and it still is, each generation is reading it — Quidditch is going to be here. People are going to accept it, and it's going to be fabulous."