HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s national pastimes are decidedly influenced by its history as a British colony. The British gave the city rugby and horse racing. Soccer is an obsession among schoolboys. Hong Kong hosts an international cricket tournament and a big annual squash event. Most local kids know how to play badminton, another British invention. But now, a relatively green sports league hopes to establish into a national sport an American childhood game that has never been heard of by the vast majority of Hong Kong. In fact, until recently, even Americans would not consider it a sport.
Brian Li, born and raised in the U.S., is unequivocal in his belief that someday, dodgeball will be played in major sports events like the Asian games, and possibly even the Olympics, and Hong Kong will have had a big part in making that happen. “Before it was just a game, but Hong Kong made it a real competitive sport,” Li said.
Thirty-four-year-old Li, who works in a hospital by day, runs the Hong Kong Dodgeball Association, a hyper-organized entity that overseas hundreds of matches per season among four divisions of teams. A Division 1 match is intense over its 40 minutes of play. Six players on each side of the court, usually wearing formal jerseys, work together to strike out opponents by throwing balls at them while ducking from balls being thrown in their direction. “You watch people evolve from Division 3, chucking balls everywhere, to Division 1, where teams are strategic,” said Kevin Burns, a native of San Diego, Calif., who is the league’s top player.
Most people don't associate dodgeball with strategy, but that's how the game is approached here at the upper levels. The league also strives for professionalism: two referees hired from outside officiate each match, time is kept on a clock glowing red digits and, most impressive, every match is video recorded and uploaded to the Internet. A paid employee of the league — which is not for profit — reviews every video and takes stats for each player.
Dodgeball began as a league for hedge funds, allowing high-powered finance guys with inflated egos to smack each other in the face with balls. As with many leagues in North America, this one was formed in 2004, after the release of the comedy Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story featuring Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn. The league fizzled out after one year, but Li decided to take over and revive it, expanding it from four teams to its 40 today, which include 600 players.
About 90% of the league’s players have lived in a Western country, Li said, which is where most of them were first introduced to dodgeball, often in elementary school gym class. The U.S. and Canada have numerous adult dodgeball leagues, but competitiveness often take a backseat to hokey costumes and entertainment. While costumes and themed games can be found in Hong Kong’s league — which has teams with names like the Incrediballs, Natural Knockers and Ballzilla — the players tend to take the sport seriously.
And Li’s efforts to transform the league and raise its profile as a legitimate sport have had a global impact. In his efforts to establish rules down to the minutest detail, he has set the standard that is now being used throughout Asia. Li also designed and manufactured a foam-and-plastic ball deemed optimal for the sport — not so hard that it could break noses or fingers, but still travels fast — which is used when Asian teams play one another. “In the U.S. they typically play with rubber balls. The problem is they can really freaking hurt,” Burns said. “If I hit you in the face, you’ll bleed.”
It might seem unlikely that dodgeball has taken off in Asia of all places, but Li said it’s a natural fit. “It’s such a great sport geared toward Asians. You can’t tell who’s a good athlete or not [based on appearances],” Li said, emphasizing that physical heft is not an advantage because it makes the player an easy target.
Instead, he said, the more important measure of skill is players’ size-to-power ratio — being small while still having a strong throw — and optimally using the strengths and weaknesses of the players on each team. “I’ve seen teams six feet tall, six packs, that haven’t won a single match. It’s a team effort,” Li said.
Last month, a Hong Kong all-star team went to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to play in a tournament against teams from Malaysia, Singapore, the U.S., Canada and New Zealand — and Hong Kong emerged as champions, surprising even Li, who played in the event.
Winning, especially beating U.S. and Canada — reputed to have the best players in the world — was an important feat that gives Li greater hope of turning dodgeball into a national sport in Hong Kong and could help the league receive funding from the government. After the win, Burns said, “We can’t be overlooked anymore in terms of the best talent in the world.” The success of the six-country tournament also lends to the sport greater credibility to push for a presence in a major international event like the Asian Games, which is like a regional Olympics.
But players don’t get detracted from the fun and social aspect of dodgeball. Li describes the league as a fraternity on some level, where players from similar backgrounds are able to meet and go have beers after matches. Other than the heavy expatriate representation, many players have similar jobs as bankers and lawyers, and the age range is narrow, spanning 25 to 35 years old.
Burns said it’s the serious, competitive nature of the league that makes it fun. “It’s not dodgeball. It’s the league in Hong Kong,” he said. “We’ve got a clock. We’ve got two referees. They record everything. It’s the league itself in Hong Kong that has made it so much fun.”
Photo: Brian Li