COLUMBIA — Before every MU football home game, Steve Winters sets up a long wooden beer pong table in the Reactor Field parking lot.
That’s his portable one. At home, he has a bigger stationary table, along with a stash of table-tennis balls and 16-ounce Solo plastic party cups.
Winters, 21, knows it might seem crazy that he spent weeks building and painting his two tables, but it is his way of keeping up with the growing beer pong culture.
Many college students have their own customized beer pong table, Winters said.
“I have two,” he said. “Mostly, I just play for fun and to drink.”
In case you haven’t heard, beer pong is a drinking sport where players sink balls into an opponent’s cup of beer.
With every sink, the opponent must drink the beer and remove the cup from the table. To win, a team must eliminate all the opponent’s cups.
Although beer pong was once associated with makeshift Ping-Pong tables and fraternity parties, players such as Winters are turning the game into an industry for beer pong tables, accessories, social networking sites, tournaments and even statistic-tracking software.
At the most extreme level is the World Series of Beer Pong, where last year nearly 600 players competed for $50,000 in Las Vegas. It’s a hefty prize for being the best at tossing table-tennis balls, but it doesn’t come cheap. Beer pong partners who want to compete in the 2009 tournament in January must pay at least $500 each if they have not won a free entry through a satellite tournament.
Even less dedicated players are shelling out money for accessories such as standardized 8-foot aluminum beer pong tables, branded Ping-Pong balls and ice racks that hold cups in place while keeping the beer cool.
“It’s gotten to a point where groups of people want to play beer pong more than just for the fun of it,” said Robert “Ziggy” Ziegler, owner of the Midwest Beer Pong League in St. Louis.
“Before, there was never the ability to play for anything but pride or a drunken stumble," he said. "For the past 10 years, the game has just grown and grown, and now someone started marketing it.”
The precise origins of beer pong are hazy, but it's likely a modern version of a game, sometimes called Beirut, that began in northeastern colleges in the 1980s.
Originally, Ping-Pong paddles were used. They disappeared when players began to use their hands to toss table-tennis balls at an opponent’s cups.
At Reactor Field on a recent game day, Winters took a moment to eye the bowling-pin arrangement of cups at the opposite end of the table. The 30-degree temperatures had sidelined most beer pong players, but not Winters. He selected a target, arched his hand and released the ball.
“Usually I have better technique,” Winters said as the ball hit the edge of the table, missing the cups. “But my hands are so frozen.”
Winters and his friends play beer pong whenever they hang out, almost always in someone’s garage. When more than 30 people show up, they create a team list and bracket on a chalkboard.
As beer pong heads into the mainstream, critics warn the game might lead to binge drinking, alcohol poisoning, drunken driving and sexual assault.
Beer pong is not prohibited at MU, but some universities have banned drinking games and their paraphernalia. MU police Capt. Brian Weimer said there is no way for MU police to track how many alcohol-related offenses, such as underage drinking, involve beer pong or other drinking games.
Concerns about beer pong don’t surprise Ziegler, who agrees that beer pong might be an outlet for underage students to binge drink.
“Back in the day, that really was it,” Ziegler said. “It’s kind of evolved since then. A lot of people do consider it a sport now. But anyone who has not played and has only heard of the concept would have no rational idea about that.”
Competitive players believe the misconception is unfair. For Tyler Blickhan, 23, of St. Louis, beer pong involves skill and practice. He and his beer pong partner, Piotr Wianecki, 24, won a 64-team tournament, which was held at four different homes earlier this semester in Columbia. They also won a recent satellite tournament in St. Louis that will pay for their World Series of Beer Pong entry fee.
"People who actually get into beer pong don't look at it as a drinking game but as just another competitive game to play with your friends or even complete strangers,” Blickhan said. “The mainstream perception, however, is overshadowed by people who use it as an excuse to drink too much.”
Ryan Calvin, 22, of Columbia says he plays beer pong about twice a week, usually at friends’ homes. Although he’s never played in a big tournament, Calvin said he’s seeing more competitive teams sprout up in the area, and he’s noticing that many players are cutting back on their drinking.
“A lot of times we play with water in the cups and drink a beer off to the side,” Calvin said. “There’s an incentive for restraining yourself from drinking too much. You want to win. Once you get past a certain point, you become incapable.”
Concerns about the pressure to binge drink are important to Ziegler, who began hosting beer pong tournaments as his full-time job in March. Based in St. Louis, Ziegler works with bars to arrange two to five free tournaments a week.
His tournaments use cups of water instead of beer because state alcohol regulations might forbid bars to sponsor games where alcohol is involved. Ziegler said participants often choose to drink while playing but do not feel pressured to do so.
“A lot of this game has to do with how smart you are not to just get obliterated,” he said.
When Calvin and his two other team members walk into a party, they don’t immediately look for the beer; they size up the competition. They watch teams play and look for ways they can exploit their weaknesses, as any other athlete would do, said Calvin, who is also competitive in backyard football, clay pigeon shooting and video gaming.
Beer pong also offers players a chance to meet new people, which Wianecki is hoping to capitalize on through Pong Tracker, a Web site that he envisions becoming the Facebook of beer pong.
The site, which he created two months ago, helps connect beer pong players, allowing them to form leagues and organize tournaments. It also has a statistic-tracking feature, which allows players to record their wins, losses and even shooting percentages.
“People like to boast about their skills, but there was no real way to compare their skills,” Wianecki said. “I believe the next phase of beer pong will be players focusing more and more on statistics.”