The players took their positions. The referee blew the whistle, and red, blue and green balls began to soar through the air. Though the players tried to dodge the projectiles, no one could miss the telling plunk of a well-thrown tennis ball striking a thigh.
The whistle sounded again.
“Blue team wins!”
It was hard to tell who was on the blue team because both sets of players were smiling and laughing as they exited the roped-off playing field on McKeldin Mall on Friday. The students were playing pro-bending, a dodgeball-style game based on the sport from The Legend of Korra, which concludes its second season Friday.
The university’s pro-bending league is one of only a handful of its kind, created by fans of the TV show who wanted to transform the fictional sport into a game playable in the real world.
On the show, the players are “benders” who can control the elements of fire, water or earth. Though bending was also prominently displayed in the original Avatar: The Last Airbender series, The Legend of Korra shows how bending has evolved into a form of mass entertainment in the Avatar universe.
As a campus sport, pro-bending has happened every Friday from noon until 2 p.m. since Oct. 4, thanks to freshman architecture major Lydia Ginter. A longtime fan of the Avatar series, Ginter was inspired to start a pro-bending league after watching the first season of The Legend of Korra in early 2012.
There was a movement of fans who adapted the pro-bending rules from the show in the same spirit as Harry Potter fans embraced Quidditch, but in many cases, the game failed to take off, Ginter said.
She tried to persuade people in her high school to play last year, but after a few games, enthusiasm waned.
The summer before coming to this university, Ginter tried to gauge interest on Tumblr for a pro-bending league on the campus, she said. Tori Buckshaw, now a junior Arabic major, responded excitedly.
Through the combined recruiting efforts of Ginter, Buckshaw and others, the pro-bending Facebook group now has about 30 members, with an average of about 12 players each Friday.
The game on the show features two teams of three players each: one earthbender, who throws discs made of clay; a firebender, who shoots controlled bursts of flames; and a waterbender, who manipulates small quantities of water. The two teams try to knock each other out of bounds, meaning out of their individual sections, or off the raised playing field into the water below.
The pro-benders at this university sport red, blue or green bandanas to indicate their chosen element and each use six tennis balls wrapped in fabric that matches their headgear.
Ropes provide the boundaries, forming a large oval divided into six sections. The two teams face each other in the two center sections. When the whistle sounds, players throw their balls at the opposing team. If a player is hit, he or she must step back into the next section. If all three players of a team are hit, the opposing team may advance forward a section.
The game is over once an entire team is knocked back out of the ring or when two minutes are up. The players switch in and out of the games so everyone can get a chance to play, Ginter said.
Though most of the regular players are fans of Avatar, the game has drawn attention from passersby on the mall.
“Last match we had three guys who had never heard of Korra wanting to play,” Buckshaw said.
Freshman Chinese and communication major Genna Godley heard about the game online but didn’t initially get involved on the campus. She first saw the players on the mall walking back from class one Friday. When she stopped to talk to the players, they invited her to play a round with them.
“It’s that easy to get involved,” Ginter said.
Though Ginter and Buckshaw hope to launch a tournament in the future, their next step is to obtain a faculty sponsor for the league.
“We’re working on becoming a real club,” Buckshaw said.
Until then, the players seem content to get some exercise and relax together at the end of the week.
“Whether or not you play, you hang out and have fun,” Godley said.