Not Sports

An obscure German game is now played by 80,000 people. Here's how it happened.

"I'm one of the worldwide leaders of how to create a trend in the sports industry."

The biggest mistake that beginner Headis players make is that they take their eye off the ball. It’s shocking that it happens — it is a sport that’s played entirely with your head — but it does, and it can cost you the game.

Headis is an amalgamation of ping pong and soccer. Players are only allowed to touch the ball with their heads, but climbing and/or flipping over the table is fair game. The first player to reach 11 points wins and games consist of two sets.

Headis videos are a consistent submission to Reddit’s r/TheOcho. It has appeared on German TV, in shows in Las Vegas, and is now played by 80,000 people on every continent (including Antartica). That kind of attention is all part of founder René Wegner’s plan. Wegner has his Ph.D. in sports science and his goal is to create a brand-new massively popular sport.

Wegner wants to take headis to the mainstream. Part of that is a sport-specific ball.picture alliance/picture alliance/Getty Images

Once described as a “young German trendsport” (trendsport translates to “trendy sport”) Headis has leaned into extremely-sharable antics to establish itself and build its reputation on the entertainment side of the sports industry. Wegner is using that reputation to take Headis as mainstream as he can. Ultimately, it makes for a masterclass in how to create a new sport in 2020.

"I'm one of the worldwide leaders of how to create a trend in the sports industry," Wegner says. "It's our goal to be basically a sport, which is on a regular basis brought to a wide, wide audience."

Highlights from the 2019 Teatime Madness Headis Tournament Youtube/Headis

What makes Headis a sport – Headis is a sport (and not a show) because it treats itself like one.

Wegner has been careful to ensure that Headis has the air of legitimacy to accompany their tournaments, which he describes as "festivals." He’s declined opportunities to join the International Table Tennis Federation in lieu of shaping that vision alone.

The vision begins with the ball. Soccer balls, Wegner discovered, weren't bouncy enough, and a kickball didn't evoke an air of seriousness. Early on, he pitched the idea of Headis-specific ball development to several large-scale manufacturers. They were unsure his vision had any legs.

“It's a lot of convincing that your idea has the potential of becoming what you you think it can become,” Wegner says.

He finally found someone ready to workshop it with him, and they settled on a 3.5-ounce ball with a flying curve — a ball that signaled that it was used for "real sports,” Wegner explains.

Wegner also aspires to bring Headis into the fold of established sports leagues. The highest level of Headis is based on a ranking system: There are 15 major tournaments each year, the most important of which is the World Championship, and players accumulate points according to their performance at each tournament.

"It's a lot of convincing that your idea has the potential of becoming what you think it can become."

That’s a start, says Wegner. He would also like to see the sport develop a club culture, intrigued by soccer clubs that also support FIFA gaming teams like AFC Ajax esports, a gaming team that’s one division of Ajax, the Dutch professional soccer club.

“At least in Europe, it's a big thing right now. So, that could be a type of way that we go as well,” he says.

Uniting with a European soccer club may sound like a stretch, but Wegner is already forging those connections. According to their website, Headis was played at the German soccer club 1. FC Kaiserslautern summer training camp ahead of the 2010/2011 season. The site also features a strange endorsement of the sport from Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp, who Wenger met at a networking event in the sports industry.

“I am sure that Headis improves the header as a playful part of soccer,” Klopp reportedly said.

The Michael Jordan of Headis – Mediocre or beginner Headis players take their eyes off the ball, or they focus too much of their efforts into the head or upper body. The most powerful headers come from the legs and torso, Wegner advises. That’s the fundamental motion of the soccer header, so it’s probably no surprise that the best player in the sport is a soccer player himself.

Headsinfarkt makes a point-winning move at a 2019 headis tournament.

Cornelius Döll aka "Headsinfarkt "is the Michael Jordan of Headis, according to Wegner. (Most Headis players go by nicknames, like Headi Potter).

Off the court, Döll is a scout for a professional soccer team. On the court, he defines himself by non-acrobatic, solid fundamentals, and steel nerves. Wegner calls him "the best to ever play the game."

"He just has the nerves I guess, because there are others definitely at the same skill level," Wegner reflects.

By contrast, Wegner says personally he “likes to play spectacular.” He jumps on and off the table and flips around. He’s bad at tournaments, he says, but winning was never his goal in the first place. The crazier he plays the more popular the sport gets.

“At the shows and demos, and then it's good to play like that," Wegner explains. "But it's really bad in the tournament because then that's when you lose."

The spirit of Headis – Yes, Headis is a sport. It’s also unabashedly a show.

It’s fitting that the moment in which Wegner felt like Headis made it big was its first primetime TV show appearance in 2014. The sport had caught the interest of German entertainer Stefan Rabb (Wegner likens him to a German David Letterman), who agreed to help shape the sport for television.

The logo for Headis' first primetime TV appearance with Stefan Rabb.TV Total/My Spass

"The lights go on, and the whole studio is filled with people who travel from different countries in Europe, only to be there to see that show recorded," he says.

That's when Wegner realized the sport might actually make it.

"That moment was, for sure, a very special one."

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