Two years ago, Antonio Arredondo came across a game you probably played as a kid. It involved him, his little sister Isa and younger brother Diego jumping, sliding and diving in their living room as they tried to stop an inflated balloon from hitting the ground. At first he didn’t think much about it, and it was all fun and games. But slowly it got intense and very, very competitive.
“This game takes a lot of risk,” said Antonio, a 21-year-old high school student from Oregon, USA. “You have to be able to dive, jump over furniture and put yourself in play,” he said.
All for a tasteless piece of puffy plastic.
For the Arredondo, also stuck at home, their “extreme” edition of don’t-let-the-balloon-touch-the-ground quickly came to life when it exploded on TikTok. “When I first posted the video in late 2018, it had about 11 views and no likes,” Antonio said.
Then a video everything changes.
In 2019, Antonio uploaded a video in which he and Diego are seen diving on furniture and skidding on the living room floor to play with the ball. The slow-motion effects fueled the drama.
He instantly exploded, holding on to 1.7 million likes at the time of writing this article. In his blog, Antonio called himself a “social media ball influencer.” In the months that followed, some channels and sports personalities also tweeted about it.
Among those who tweeted was Spanish celebrity streamer Ibai Llanos, a partner of the American streaming giant Twitchand professional footballer Gerard Pique, who was once called the best defender of all time in professional football.
In August of this year, Llanos tweeted the balloon video to his 6.1 million subscribers and said, “I want to buy the rights and have a World Cup.” Pique, in response, tweeted to his 20.1 million followers and promised that if his tweet got 50,000 RTs he would host a World Cup on October 14.
He got over 70,000.
On October 14, a simple family ball game became an international championship. It saw participants from 32 countries – from Mongolia and Peru to Russia and the UK – compete at an amusement park in Barcelona, Spain. About 400 people attended the event, according to the team.
On Twitch, the games are over 8 million views, culminating in over 600,000 concurrent viewers for the final, where Peru’s Francisco de la Cruz emerged victorious.
The moment even deserved a congratulatory message by Peruvian President Pedro Castillo on Twitter, in which he celebrated the achievements of 18-year-old De la Cruz as a “worthy representation” of the country. A press briefing called the championship a “kid’s birthday party meets FIFA World Cup”.
Visuals of the tournament went viral as players competed in see-through glass halls. Knockout matches were officiated by referees, who kept the scores in the same rooms as the players. These arenas were dotted with otherwise mundane household furnishings: bar stools, a table, sofa sets, and a pinball machine. One had a Volkswagen car parked inside, which was odd but understandable since every championship needs a sponsor. Players wore helmets, and if you’ve ever bumped into the edge of a dining table, you know it was a smart move.
Oriol Querol, general manager of Kosmos Studios, said they had three weeks to win the entire championship. The entrants were chosen after a call was posted online for aspirants to send in videos of themselves playing with the balls. “We have hundreds of videos,” Querol told VICE. “We picked the players based on how entertaining their videos were.”
As Antonio attests, there are quite a few skills required to excel at ball sports. “We didn’t focus on physical strength. This game can be played by young and old. It all depends on their tactics and agility,” Querol said. “At the end of the day, we had strong, tall guys losing to smaller guys.”
Being competitive is the best way to go about it, Antonio said. “This game may not be football or basketball, but you always play to win,” he said.
Sergio Mathias, the Championship’s legal director, and Fergus Dunn, its chief commercial officer, told VICE in a combined statement that they could not find any “sufficiently similar” existing sport or game as a benchmark for this game. so mostly tinkered in terms of the rules.
“It was possible that some situations would arise where the ‘correct’ application of the rules might not have been clear,” they said. “As a result, we placed great importance on referees to apply and interpret the rules using their experience from other sports.” Referees had previously worked in football, tennis and hockey.
This year, the winner walked away with €10,000 ($11,598) with two plane tickets to anywhere in Latin America, while the runner-up received €3,000 ($3,479.46).
The Arredondo brothers also participated in the games, representing the United States. But more than their participation, it was the manifestation of the event that upset them both.
“I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined that our balloon videos would have done this,” Antonio said. “The experience of competing here was surreal.” There are plans for a bigger second edition next year, but it’s unclear at this time.
Antonio’s friends and family initially thought the Balloon World Cup was a joke. “My dad, when I told him about the games, thought it was a scam. And I kind of agreed with him. He was really taken aback and said to me: ‘You are going to Barcelona because of Balloons?’ It was crazy!”
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.