Dodgeball: The Story So Far!
What do Greek poems, Ben Stiller, and Norfolk have in common? Besides being acquired tastes, they’re all key moments in the great, sprawling history of dodgeball.
For millennia, people have gathered together to enjoy the great act of trying to pelt each other with flying objects in a fun, friendly, sporting manner. In this abridged history of dodgeball, we’ll follow how the sport became what we know today in the UK, moving through ancient epics through to ball changes and national governing body dilemmas.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Antiquity – 1800s: from Episkyros to East Anglia
The exact origin of dodgeball is highly debatable, since the basic rules of it (two teams throw one or more balls at each other, with the aim of hitting one another) are pretty simple and universal. It’s very likely many versions have existed across history. Most articles online place the origin of dodgeball in the 1800s, but there’s a much older ancestor that fits the bill neatly: episkyros.
Episkyros was a ball game played by the ancient Greeks. What little is known about it mostly dates from an account from Julius Pollux, a scholar who lived in the 3rd century AD, though it is also mentioned in passing in the Iliad, which dates from 762BC, and covers the events of the Trojan War in the 12th century BC. This would place dodgeball at anywhere between two to three thousand years old!
Pollux’s account of episkyros describes a game where players are split into two teams on a court with a centre line and two back lines. The game starts with the ball being won by one of the teams, described as “those who have snatched [the ball] up first”, implying a kind of opening rush. From then on, how the game actually functioned is hard to pinpoint, but it involved throwing the ball back and forth between the two sides until the winning side “conquered” the other, by forcing all the losing players behind a backline. This may imply something of an outbox.
Other sports, most notably football, have claimed episkyros as their sporting ancestor. This is a bold and slightly odd claim, considering one of the only things known about episkyros is that it was played by throwing a ball with the hands, which seems to go against the basic descriptors of Foot-Ball. It might help explain the Hand of God incident of 1986 though.
The sport eventually died out with the Greek empire, though the Romans took the game and invented their own version, harpastum. They changed the rules to make it similar to rugby, and then mixing in boxing and wrestling rules to allow players to maul each other on the pitch. Surprisingly these additional rules have yet to be brought into modern dodgeball.
“Spartans” teams from Leamington, Bath, Bristol, and Vienna will also be pleased to hear that episkyros was very popular in Sparta, where they would host citywide championships of the sport, drawing in hundreds of competitors, both men and women.
The more formally recognised origin of dodgeball dates back to the mid-19th century, when Dr James Carlisle, a Christian Missionary, brought the sport back from Africa to St Mary’s College in Norfolk. That’s right – modern dodgeball, which is typically associated with North America, can be traced back to Norfolk and Africa, though which specific country in Africa has been lost to time.
Carlisle’s version of dodgeball was played outdoors, with small rubber balls (much like a squash ball). Players weren’t out when they were hit by a ball. Instead, it took beating a player with balls until they eventually crumbled to the ground, at which point they were out. In 1884, the sport found it’s way over to Yale, where the American version began to develop. By 1905, the more familiar version of the sport, based around “one hit and you’re out” and a “a catch brings a player back in”, was developed. Over the course of the 20th century, the sport would catch on across the North American continent, becoming a popular warmup and cooldown game in physical education classes.
2004: An Underdog Story
Though almost every dodgeball player will hate to admit it, the sport owes a lot to the 2004 comedy film Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. Leagues already existed in the US and Canada prior to the film, but it cannot be denied that the film’s massive success bolstered the sport’s image to new, international levels. The modern history of dodgeball was born.
The film Dodgeball revolves around a group of misfits from Average Joe’s Gym who join a dodgeball competition in Las Vegas in the hopes of using the prize money to save their gym ($100,000 – a little suspension of disbelief is needed here). It features a stellar cast, including Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller as the two leads. The film, though a little dated now in its casual sexism and biphobia, retains a 71% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was a massive hit, earning back its budget more than eight times over.
2005-2011 The Start of Dodgeball in Britain
The year after the release of Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, the UK’s first national dodgeball league organiser was established: the UK Dodgeball Association, or UKDBA. Established in July 2005, it was formalised more in 2006, with Pete Robson as the first Chair of the association and Nick Pinnock acting as Secretary.
From the start, mixed teams were not just allowed but encouraged. 6 cloth dodgeballs, 10in in diameter, would be lined up at the start of the match, with 3 balls sitting on either edge of a dead-zone in the centre of court. Games would last up to 5 minutes, or until a whole team had been eliminated. The length of matches is, curiously, left out of the official ruleset, but 15 minutes was standard.
The full rules make for an interesting read for modern players – remarkably similar to our current dodgeball, considering these rules are 15 years old, but still notably different.
The first dodgeball events were held in Milton Keynes in 2005, with the first leagues established in Milton Keynes and Northampton in 2006. Official information on these leagues is hard to come by as the UKDBA’s website is no longer live, and archived versions of the site are patchy up until 2008. Plus, tragically, they haven’t updated their MySpace page since 2007. We do however know that the first UK championship was played in 2007, with Leeds Met beating the Northampton Cobras in the finals. The 2007 Uni Championships, however, saw Nottingham Balls of Steel come away with the win. The first Women’s Championship took place on the 26th April 2008, with the Warwick Warriors clinching the win in a final versus Southampton Uni. Dodgeball was officially recognised as a sport by the UK’s sports councils (including Sport England) in 2008.
2011-17 The Rise and Fall of UKDBA
The next milestone for the UKDBA was hit in 2011, when it officially registered itself as an organisation, allowing it to start applying for funding and giving it some much needed professionalism. This decision was made alongside the appointment of Mo Islam as the Chairperson of UKDBA. He had been the Development Officer for London and the Southeast since 2009. Prior to Islam’s election, the Chairperson role changed frequently, sometimes on a yearly basis. Islam would hold the role until UKDBA’s dissolution in 2019.
Under this new setup, UKDBA became more structured and organised, increasing the number of events they ran and establishing a Premier League, with men’s and women’s divisions. Dodgeball in the UK at this time had evolved into three-ball dodgeball. Five-ball dodgeball did exist, but was labelled “international dodgeball”, as it was the form played in Europe and therefore at international competitions.
Three-ball had a couple major differences to five-ball. Firstly, it had two balls less. Bet you couldn’t have guessed that. But the way that affected gameplay was monumental. In five-ball, the ball divide tends to go 3-2, whereas in three-ball, it would be 2-1. This meant that counters, by nature, had to be done by single players, with no hope of backup. It also meant that throws tended to be singles, to retain a defensive ball. Three-ball was the game of singles, which meant it was slower, with more dodging, less catching, all leading to a dramatically less dynamic sport.
But it couldn’t last. And the history of dodgeball evolved once again. The reasons why the UKDBA started to flounder are complex, with myriad official and unofficial reasons leading up to its collapse. But the simplest version of the story is this: by the time the 2016-17 season rolled around, dodgeball had outgrown the UKDBA. The UKDBA was lagging; it was a framework through which leagues were organised, but as an organisation, it was doing little to encourage those leagues to persist and grow. The sport was full of energy and momentum – the community wanted to push the sport to new levels – and the feeling was that the UKDBA wasn’t doing enough to support that.
In the summer of 2017, British Dodgeball was set up, with a number of ex-UKDBA affiliated people making the shift over, including Ben Hoyle and Gareth Lewis. Of course, deciding to set up a new governing body is a bold stance when the old one is very much still present. It’s all very well deciding you’re going to run dodgeball within the UK, but to do that, you need players and clubs; you need the support of the community. The summer of 2016-17 was defined by each individual club deciding which organiser it was going to sign with: the old UKDBA, or the new, dynamic, exciting British Dodgeball.
If you haven’t worked out how this story ends by now, there’s not much we can do to help you.
2017 – Present: British Dodgeball
British Dodgeball brought with it the formalisation of the dodgeball we now all play and love: five-ball. The form that was previously relegated only to international players was now to be played at every level.
The joint change of dodgeball style and governing body led to massive growth. The immediate impact of standardising a ball type (down to what had been called ‘women’s balls’ under 3-ball – the 7-inch cloth ball) meant that integrated training sessions, with men and women playing alongside one another, were significantly easier to run. Mixed dodgeball has grown as a result. It had been very limited in three-ball, as three-ball uses two different ball sizes for men and women, making mixed a complicated setup. But in five-ball, all balls are equally sized, so mixed dodgeball doesn’t require special rules. British Dodgeball brought about the introduction of a mixed league system in 2018-19.
This also helped clubs establish women’s teams – no longer did you have to buy a whole new set of equipment for your women’s side, now you could all use the same balls. Prior to British Dodgeball, there were two leagues for women in total. These were both national leagues, leaving no options for university teams or youth. University women’s teams competed in community leagues, pitting the likes of Warwick Warriors and Balls of Steel against Meteors and Bedford Eagles on a regular basis.
Since 2017 though, the women’s game has grown massively. In the 2019-20 Season Report from British Dodgeball, there were 2,030 players formally registered with British Dodgeball, of which over 500 were women – and this doesn’t include unregistered, casual players who don’t play leagues. All this isn’t just down to ball changes improving accessibility and retainment rates. British Dodgeball has put in the effort along the way, encouraging the development of women’s, mixed, and youth dodgeball with funding, education, and movements such as the new Girls Dodge Too program.
Youth dodgeball essentially didn’t exist under UKDBA, but as of the 2019-20 season, there are 35 junior clubs, with approximately 500 registered players. This development is huge – even just comparing it to the previous season, which had 23 youth clubs.
We’ve long known that there’s a problem with drop-off in dodgeball: we all played it in primary school, even in secondary school, but how many do we lose in that jump to adulthood and formally organised dodgeball? Encouraging the growth of youth dodgeball is a very logical push. If you get more kids involved in junior leagues, you sow the seeds for university and community level growth in a couple years.
2021 – Onwards: Where are we going?
So we’re caught up to the modern day – where does dodgeball take us now? The next few years of dodgeball are certainly going to be exciting ones.
In the last few years, there has been tension on the global scene. Two competing governing bodies, with different rulesets – and, for the sport to really thrive, only one can keep going.
Wait, didn’t we already cover this?
No, we’re not talking about UKDBA and British Dodgeball, we’re onto the World Dodgeball Association (WDA) and the World Dodgeball Federation (WDBF). Another pair of companies that can’t agree whether the correct shortening of dodgeball is DB or just D.
Historically, the UKDBA and the EDF were aligned with the WDA, which represented cloth dodgeball on the global stage. But at the 2019 European Championships in Newcastle, it was decided that the EDF, and by consequence British Dodgeball, would align itself with the WDBF – which had, until then, traditionally represented foam dodgeball.
What does that mean for dodgeball in Britain though?
What it doesn’t mean is us switching over to foam and abandoning cloth dodgeball. The WDBF has made it clear that foam and cloth can coexist, at least for now. Right before the pandemic brought everything screeching to a halt, British Dodgeball, alongside the WDBF, organised the first ever international mixed-format dodgeball competition: the Atlantic Cup. The USA, Canada, Austria, and the newly formed Team GB competed in both cloth and foam formats, across men’s, women’s, and mixed dodgeball (only mixed cloth, as mixed foam isn’t played at an international level).
Over the coming years, we’ll see whether international dodgeball becomes unified behind one format. If it does, it’s unlikely it’ll be either cloth or foam as we know it, but rather some blend of rules. And if a unification doesn’t happen, the two forms will continue to coexist, and we can expect to see more events like the Atlantic Cup for years to come.
Dodgeball as we know it hasn’t even entered its second decade, and yet it has undergone countless rule changes, ball changes, court changes. The current most experienced players in Britain have been playing about as long as Immy Sharp has been alive, which may sound like a lot (especially if you’re Immy), but really isn’t that long compared to traditional, more settled sports, such as football. Around a quarter of registered players in the 2019-20 season had not been born when the first UK dodgeball leagues were started.
In that time, dodgeball has gone from a young, scrappy sport, with an ever-rotating cast of organisers and players, into the sprawling, countrywide hobby that we all know and love – a sport where we see constant new players, as well as our old friends, family that we’ve come to know over the last decade. It’s now possible to be fully employed working in dodgeball, something completely unimaginable not too long ago. British Dodgeball estimated there were over 665,000 people playing dodgeball on a fortnightly basis in 2019-2020. A far cry from the bunch of mates chucking a ball around in Milton Keynes circa 2005.
Dodgeball is building up to a furious pace. Give it another ten years and it’ll be changing history.
And that’s our version of the history of dodgeball! If you think we've missed something or have heard some other curious dodgeball origin stories, drop us a comment!