The Game

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The most exciting sports event in the world was about to begin. A Child’s game was about to draw the attention of millions of avid fans, while teams from every nation gathered to compete in a quantum mechanical experience unlike any other, and my favorite team stepped forward.

When I took the job, I had no idea what kind of journey I was embarking on. The weird and strange world of professional Quantum Tetherball would consume my life, and soon I’d be avidly following a team of kids from Dayton, Ohio, in a surprisingly daunting task to claim the title of Tetherball Champions. The game is simple, a two-meter tall rod of steel stands in the center of a court, while two players stand at either end of the circular field. The players are decked out in VR gear which allows them to see and ‘feel’ the virtual ball as it is hit. The goal is for one player to get ten complete orbits of the ball in the given direction. So far so schoolyard.

The challenge and difference come in the expensive virtual gear: The computer simulates the players batting the ball between them, however every time the players make contact with the ball, the computer uses a simulation of so-called “Quantum Tunneling’ to determine if the ball is going to pass entirely through the player’s hand. So every player must approach the ball with the mindset that they cannot be certain of how the ball will react.

Some might say that this difference is slight. There are only two possibilities: yes or no. The ball will either pass through their hand or not, how could that add any real element beyond the random chance to the simple game? Well firstly because how one adapts to a ball suddenly teleporting past your hand is the definition of athletic ability. Further, the ball does more than just phase through hands. Occasionally the line that determines the ball’s orbit can change in length.

It is sports most uncertain activity. It captivated me when I watched my first game. Being a reporter, I leaped at the chance to follow the team on their journey to win the coveted chance to be America’s representative.

Now the team: William ‘Billy’ Hanson; Charles Winter; Vincent ‘Vince’ Ricci; Cecilia Robinson; Patricia Humboldt; Maya Young; and Rebecca George. The Dayton Dragoons had worked years to be recognized as a pro-team in this tiny niche sport. They had sacrificed to get where they were. All the ridicule, all the halftime-jobs, the small-time tournaments. The community built around the doughty team, but there were costs. The quest had cost all of them, but they bore those scars proudly. They were badges of honor, a rite of passage to finally step forth onto the professional stage.

The stage was set, and as the team filed into the box, I could feel the tension in them, for better or worse, everyone watching was watching the new team and not the veterans. There is some slight strategy to Quantum Tetherball, in choosing the order of play. There are many theories on which player should play against which player based on relative strength with the team. But ultimately it comes down to

First up was the Dragoon’s Captain vs. The Atom’s star player Thomas ‘Monty’ Montmorency. The two took their position opposite each other. The glass behind which the audience sat gave us all the perfect view of the digital creations. The ball is randomly awarded to Young, who lifts the ball and sets the game in motion by smacking it low and fast with an upward spiral towards Monty’s head. A fast reply began a spirited volley between the two, though Monty sent the ball flying high with a wicked curve to finish the first set. Atoms 1, Dragoons 0.

The next three sets were much the same. Monty had control of the ball, and he seemed able to predict the unstable nature of the ball, twice the ball teleported straight behind his hand, only for Monty to save the day with a well-aimed kick or spinning backhand. However just as things seemed set to follow a tragically disappointing course, a lucky hit from Young managed to send the ball flying towards Monty, only for the ball to change orbits, missing Monty’s outstretched fingers by what seemed like millimeters. After that everything changed. Young had the confidence and the determination, the two duked it out, but in the end, Young emerged victoriously.

Young won 10-9, Hanson won 10-6, George lost 9-10, Ricci lost 4-10, Winter won 10-9, and Robison lost 9-10 in a bitterly fought contest that saw no less than 27 tunneling events, a record for the box. Finally, it was all down to Humboldt vs. Gregory Ranson. By this time the crowd was going nuts, I along with them. No one expected such tightly fought volleys. At this point it was beyond respect or proving oneself, it was an unquestionably stunning display of athleticism on both sides.

And the final bout did not disappoint. Another nail-biter, which meant most people had no fingernails left. Ranson sent the ball around in one of his trademark loose and slow orbits, so deceptively difficult to hit, 9-9, the orbit to win the entire event. Humboldt swung, the ball flickering around her hand, she spun wildly, in a tornado of flying limbs, catching the ball with the top of her foot, sending the ball low back to Ranson. It was such a shallow arc he dove forward, nearly to the base of the post. But he misjudged the curve, no tunnel needed, he missed the ball by inches as it sailed gracefully past him, to finish the orbit and catapult the Dayton Dragoons into victory.

The rest of the season was no less spectacular, rags to riches story, whose results are within the very uncertainty between luck and skill.