The World Series, and beyond
Don’t tell Billy Gaines that Beirut is a juvenile pastime. In 2003, Gaines graduated from Carnegie Mellon with an engineering degree, and he set about finding a way to combine entrepreneurship, his competitive streak (he swam for the Tartans), and his love for the ball-throwing, beer-drinking game he encountered for the first time at his alma mater. He wanted to help it grow.
“My Indiana buddies didn’t see beer pong until around 2003,” the Indiana native told Thrillist in a recent phone interview. The game was still cornered in the Northeast. But “something connected me with beer pong,” Gaines said. He thought it could be bigger. So he and some partners founded BPONG.com to serve as an online community for the drinking game.
Gaines told me that the site’s original goal “was to create a platform that didn’t try to define the game, but respected… and gave people a common place to discuss it. We had a problem though. Beer pong is a very real-world game.” To bring the BPONG.com community into the real world, they launched the first annual World Series of Beer Pong in Mesquite, Nevada, in early 2006.
People laughed. “When we announced the $10,000 grand prize, it was so distant from anything else people had done that no one believed it would happen.” Beer pong was the Big Game on Campus, sure, but would adults pay money to throw balls at cups of light beer in a convention center 80 arid miles northeast of the Las Vegas Strip?
Of course, the answer was yes. Eighty-three teams registered for WSOBP 1. About 280 registered for the same event next year. At its peak in 2009, that number exceeded 500. Lawyers, bums, wives, college kids -- everybody wanted to see if their skills could go the distance.
Gaines estimates that his company has handed out “over half a million dollars” in prize money to date, as well as sold $100,000 in branded tables, cups, and other merchandise. In 2010, Forbes cited the website’s annual revenue at $3 million.
When I spoke to Billy Gaines, he was in Vegas, preparing to announce another tournament and optimistically navigating the choppy waters of a TV deal. “I used to travel, and a 60-year-old would ask what I’d do,” he responds when I inquire his opinion on the throw game’s future. “They’d be puzzled when I told them. Now, they say ‘Oh yeah! I’ve played that with my grandchildren.’ It’s not just frat kids anymore... it’s about people having fun & doing something together.”
That’s what it’s all about, really. Prize money or not, as long as there’s beer to drink, there will be drinking games to play. Thanks to generations of college students, and Ronald Reagan (sort of!), the game America plays is beer pong. Except in Hanover, New Hampshire, where they simply don’t play that kind.
*The etymology of this game is a hotly contested point. Some call it “beer pong” or “pong," and others insist it’s “Beirut." For clarity, we used the first term (or “the paddle game”) to mean a game played by paddling a ping-pong ball into some number of beer cups; and the latter (or “the throw game”) to signify a game played by throwing the ball into those cups.
**Names followed by asterisks were changed out of respect for that source's desire for privacy.
Note: This piece was originally published in 2014, and re-edited for length & clarity in August 2016.