What began in 2001 as an online community for beer pong enthusiasts has evolved into a brand selling a line of tournament-ready cups, racks, tables and balls, not to mention an annual event that attracts hundreds of players. And it is as legitimate as any other sport, says BPONG Founder and CEO Billy Gaines, who launched the first World Series of Beer Pong in 2006. Gaines spilled the tea (er, beer) to Connect Sports about the history of the organization ahead of the June 1-5 event at Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino, explaining why the game is more than a frat party staple.
When were you first introduced to beer pong?
I was in college in Pittsburgh and on the varsity swim team. Through that I got introduced to beer pong and spent a lot of time playing in college. It was an awesome game. It wasn’t the partying; it wasn’t the drinking. It was a game of skill. People in general, especially varsity athletes, are naturally competitive. That’s what hooked me. We not only got to know each other in the pool, but at the beer pong table too. It helped strengthen friendships and it was fun and competitive.
Why did you create BPONG.com?
We knew people were playing in Pittsburgh at house parties, but we didn’t know who they were. We felt there needed to be a way to unite all these people who have a common interest, just as swimming united us. That was the foundation of the website. The goal was never to create an event or products; the goal was to create a platform through which players could unite and upload pictures and stories. One of the ideas we had was to enable people to ask where they can find other people to play beer pong with.
How has The World Series of Beer Pong changed over the years?
You have to remember that back in the early 2000s the internet was very different. People used made-up screen names on online forums. We wanted to connect people, but it had this false sense about it. Beer pong is a real-world game. We felt we needed something to bring these people together into one place. The other thing that’s changed dramatically is, at the time, we didn’t feel like it would be easy to get a hotel for a big beer pong tournament because of preconceived misconceptions. About that time, a casino in Mesquite, Nevada, reached out to us. At that time, a $10,000 beer pong tournament was unheard of. A lot of people thought we couldn’t pull it off, but we tripled in size from year one to year two because we proved we were legitimate and able to execute an event like this. From there the event grew considerably. Our peak was 500 teams.
What challenges do you face?
One of our goals was to rip this drinking game out of the college environment and make it a mainstream sport. We were successful in doing that, but our next challenge is that beer pong has almost lost its edginess now. Now people are like, “My grandma plays beer pong.” How do we capture people and make it cool again and make it exciting enough again to make people travel a greater distance for it?
How do you make beer pong hip again?
We have to continue improving the event. Other events have surfaced that give out significant prizes, but they’re just beer pong events. Ours is more of an experience, where even when you’re not playing you’re having fun. This year, we’re looking at doing extra games and different events outside of the competition at nightclubs and pool parties. We’re looking at bringing in performers like aerialists and acrobats during the event. We’ve envisioned doing some type of concert alongside the event. We want to create a better experience so people keep coming back. Moving the event from January to summer has helped us. I’ve seen players who haven’t come for a couple of years come back.
Any hope the sport gets televised like poker?
We’ve been inches away from huge deals with Spike, for example. We’ve spent hundreds of thousands to help facilitate that effort. As some of our previous partners have said, it’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of time. We need to keep fighting. We’re starting to see it’s much easier to convince them it could turn into a TV show because the people who make decisions experienced beer pong growing up.
How do you plan to increase participation?
The third thing is generally rethinking about how we market ourselves, including the rebuilding of the website and possibly building an app to tie people together and motivate them. We always reward the winners, so a lot of our effort is [focused on] how to better encourage people to participate and not just win. Maybe we have an incentive for people who come to the most tournaments throughout the year.
What’s the overall vibe like during the tournament, and what do you do about security?
The head of security [at Flamingo Hotel and Casino Las Vegas] told us our group was better behaved and had fewer problems than most of their corporate conventions. [Our group] handled their liquor better. We hire our own outside security. The hardest part is the games are so intense that we have to prep the security and tell them it looks like these guys are aggressive and might rip each other’s heads off at any moment, but it’s just part of the game and they’re trying to distract each other. That’s one of our challenges for TV too. The instant the game’s over, they’re high-fiving each other. It’s insane seeing a grown man cry when he loses.