Quidditch World Cup Diary: Day 1

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A small block of Manhattan has been transformed into something more like Diagon Alley this weekend, as the 46 teams of muggles competing in the fourth annual Quidditch World Cup took over DeWitt Clinton Park on the far West Side. Day 1 was taken up by the group stage: Each team played three matches, the results determining the 24 teams who will earn a spot in tomorrow’s single-elimination bracket stage. Techland had reporters on the ground throughout the day. Here’s what we found:

(More on Techland: This Weekend’s Big Sporting Event: The Quidditch World Cup)

The teams: The tournament got underway this morning with an opening procession, allowing all the teams to show off their wizarding spirit. (Making new Harry-Potter-specific lyrics to Disney songs was the most popular way to display spirit.) We were expecting a parade of nerds — and, yes, there were a lot — but we were struck by the amount of diversity amongst the 46 teams. From Ivy Leaguers (Harvard, Yale) to liberal-arts colleges (Middlebury, Carleton) to cooler-than-thou art schools (NYU, Emerson) to traditional sports powers (LSU, MSU) to small local colleges few people had heard of (Chestnut Hill, Transylvania) to Canadian colleges no one had heard of (sorry Ryerson): all had come to seek the eternal glory of the broom-sport champion.

We quickly found, however, that our outside prejudices were turned upside-down in the Quidditching world. This is a sporting universe where Middlebury (a tiny college in Vermont) and Emerson (a performing-arts school in Boston) are the Goliaths that no one wants to face, and LSU and Ohio State are the upstart Davids seeking to prove themselves. We quickly had to adjust our ideas of which teams would be contenders.

The sport: Muggle Quidditch is played with a remarkable fidelity to the rules outlined by J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series. Teams are still divided into Seekers, Keepers, Chasers and Beaters, with all the same responsibilities: Chasers aim to throw a ball into a goal guarded by the Keeper, Seekers attempt to capture the elusive snitch and Beaters try to disrupt the opposing team’s Chasers and Seekers. The main differences lie in transferring a magical sport into the human world. Athletes of course do not fly, but merely run around holding a broom between their legs. (They are still remarkably effective at their tasks with only one hand to work with.) Regular balls are used instead of magical ones: a volleyball as the scoring Quaffle and dodgeballs as the beaten Bludgers. Scoring is slightly different as well. To increase the importance of the Quaffle, the International Quidditch Association has lowered the points awarded for capturing the Snitch to 30, down from 150 in the books.

The rule change that gives muggle Quidditch its character, though, is that of the all-important Golden Snitch, whose capture ends each match: instead of flying around on magical wings, the Snitch is held on the waist of a yellow-clad Snitch Runner. The Snitch Runner, who does not belong to either team, is a strange mix of rodeo clown, wrestling heel and hip-hop hype man: He disappears into the scenery, returning intermittently to rev up the crowd, taunt the players and (if they get too close) attack the Chasers with wrestling moves. (Original Snitch Rainy Johnson, a former high-school wrestler, gave each Snitch Runner a quick tutorial on the finer points of that sport.)

The atmosphere: It only took the better part of one match for us to realize that, despite its nerdy origins, Quidditch is seriously physical sport. The best athletes at the tournament are as fit as lacrosse players, and many of them play with a footballer’s intensity. Chasers make diving throws into the goal, Seekers get body-slammed by the Snitch Runner, and some Beaters have no compunction about using shoulders instead of Bludgers to take out their opponents. IQA rules require each team have at least two female players on the pitch at all times, and many teams don’t go easy on the girls.

More on TIME.com: The top 10 nerdy competitions

It’s worth noting that, of all the players and organizers we spoke to today, when asked how they would best improve the sport, nearly everyone brought up the need for clearer rules and better officiating to reduce the violence. Last year’s tournament saw missing teeth and broken clavicles. Despite this year’s focus on player safety, today alone two women players were carried off the field in stretchers. This is a real sport.

The results: We attached ourselves to three different teams, to get a sense of the tournament from multiple sides:

Middlebury, the reigning world champs, are the stars of the tournament. As the college where IQA Quidditch was invented and where all previous World Cups have been held, they attract more media attention than all the other teams combined almost. (We didn’t get as close to them as we did the others, partly because we were so intimidated.) They play a precise, error-free version of the sport that allows them to dominate with sheer athleticism. They are the New York Yankees of Quidditch, or perhaps the 2007 New England Patriots: their second match of the day, against Franklin & Marshall, saw them go up 100-0 in the first five minutes. They won all three of their matches today and are a lock to move on tomorrow.

Vassar, who have been playing Quidditch nearly as long as Middlebury, are probably the touchiest-feeliest team in the tournament. Their captains emphasize playing the game “the right way” and lead a post-game “family time” where players can talk about what went right and what went wrong in each match. Despite what their reputation may suggest, though, Vassar is also very good, with deceptive speed and a finesse passing game that allows them to go on 40-point runs without anyone exactly realizing. They went 2-1 today, with the loss coming in an odd match against Harvard in which Vassar apparently won too early, felt bad about it, and called for an immediate re-match: the second match began in confusion, which allowed Harvard to snatch the Snitch in about a minute.  Vassar took the high road accepted the result without complaint; the traditional post-game handshakes turned to hugs, which led to everyone singing “Kumbaya.”

Transylvania, a small university in Kentucky who were playing their first Quidditch tournament, were perhaps our favorite team. A classic underdog whose name was mistakenly thought by everyone else to be a joke (it’s not), Transy came to the World Cup with a small team composed nearly entirely of freshmen. Their secret weapon, they said, was “enthusiasm.” After losing their first two games in a sluggish fashion, the team came out for their third match — the last game played today — determined to not waste their opportunity. As the game started, with few spectators and no announcers (all of whom watching Harry and the Potters set up for their post-tournament concert), Transylvania unveiled a revamped defense that frustrated opponent Charleston into sloppy passes and off-kilter shots. As the heated match drew in more spectators and — finally — an announcer, it looked like Transy could hold on. But the emphasis led defense led to a timid offense, and by the time the Snitch re-appeared, Charleston had a comfortable lead and was able to capture it easily. Though they had gone 0-3 in the World Cup, Transylvania’s players seemed re-energized by the effort. “That was fun,” they kept repeating.

In a post-game wrap-up, one player explained to us, “A lot of us are from small towns. Now we’re in New York, at the World Cup. We would never have been here without Quidditch.” Day 1 ended with smiles all around, even on the faces of a few hardened journalists.