Sarah Merriweather of San Diego took to vaping as a means to quit smoking. A couple of months later, she was doing it competitively.
Merriweather became one of the first to join a now booming subculture of competitive vaping, complete with teams, contests, sponsors and prize money. Participants in this extreme sport are called “cloud chasers” and the viewers and fans, “cloud gazers.”
Exactly when competitive vaping began is unknown, but most vapers who went “pro” say that it became a phenomenon around 2012. “I took up vaping to get off cigarettes. Then vape shops around town started organizing competitions and I was like, you know what, I’m going to give this a try,” said Merriweather. She has since won several small and large scale competitions.
Vaping became mainstream in the U.S. around 2004 and its popularity has grown exponentially over the years. According to a 2016 article by Quartz, in 2016, there were 10,591 shops were listed on Yelp as “vape shops” in the U.S., with the numbers being higher on the West Coast.
Tyler Bjorge, another cloud chaser, attributes the sudden rise in popularity of this sport to the social media presence of many trick vapers in Southern California. “These tricksters would do crazy things with the vape and from there it blew up with their posts on Instagram and other social media. That’s what made it a lot more popular than what they already had,” said Bjorge.
For some vape enthusiasts like Jonathan Gromis and Isaac Perez, doing tricks with vape and hookah and posting it on social media eventually led to a career in the vaping industry. Their followers soon grew and they went on to form the first ever trick team in the U.S. They now are part of a company that makes e-liquids and vaping devices and Gromis and Perez are two of the most sought-after judges at cloud and trick competitions in the country.
The biggest tool in this game is of course the e-cigarette. Inhaling on the devices cause the “juice” or e-cigarette liquid to vaporize. The atomizer, a small heating element inside the device, draws the liquid into the coil and vaporizes it. The lower the resistance of the coil, the better and denser the smoke.
Vaping contests are simple. There are two categories – cloud and tricks.
In cloud contests, two participants are chosen at random. They then stand with their backs to each other as a countdown timer starts. On the mark, they inhale deeply and blow out a single, dense plume of foggy cloud. It is then judged on the length, cleanliness and density. Whoever blows the longest, densest and cleanest cloud gets to move on to the next round. Winning clouds resemble cumulonimbus clouds in the sky right before a thunderstorm.
“It has to go straight and there should be no excess vapor blowing off from the sides,” said Gromis, who regularly judges vaping contests. Regulated contests require cloud chasers to have their device resistance set at a particular number of ohms, while unregulated ones are more lenient about the device specifications. All of them need to be in rooms without any source of airflow. Despite the heat and stuffiness, vapers prefer it that way so that unwanted airflow does not affect the shape and density of the clouds.
The other category is more visually appealing and involves tricking with smoke. Participants usually get one minute to show off their best tricks. A panel of three to five judges decide who has the most creative, clean and consistent tricks and qualify them to compete in the next round. The eliminations continue until there’s a clear winner. “Tricking is usually more difficult than cloud chasing because it involves manipulating your body parts to create different shapes,” said Perez, a competitor-turned-judge.
There are different kinds of tricksters – the Bender, the Runner and the Spammer. Benders stay static in one position and use their body parts to manipulate the smoke they blow into different shapes. Runners usually do not stay static, but move towards the direction of smoke in order to be able to create shapes from it. Spammers are known for their multiple O's. Their specialty lies in being able to create multiple stacked O's by gently tapping their cheeks.
A lot of thought and time goes into perfecting these tricks. “They usually start off as an accident and then people try to recreate it. There have been several times in the past where all of us were like this [tricking] is pretty much coming to an end, until some new person comes up with a crazy new trick and everybody recreates that new trick, so it opens up a lot of different options,” said Perez.
“We have informal names for the tricks as well,” said Gromis, who was part of the first trick team in the U.S. There’s the “jellyfish” earlier known as the “force field” where two Os wrap around each other to create a jellyfish-like figure. In a “‘shark split’,” the trickster blows out an O and inhales the side of the O by whipping the head around it – it expands the O into a figure eight and they split off into two. Then there are the Cheerios, named after the popular breakfast cereal, which look exactly like that – baby Os blown one after the other in quick succession. The Lasso is a nifty little trick where one O is blown through a larger one and the second one wraps back around it. The slower one blows an O, the thicker it is.
While it’s not commonplace to have a preparatory routine before competitions, it helps to practice deep breathing, many long-time competitors said. “You don’t have to stretch before a competition, but it’s good to do warm up and practice your tricks beforehand,” said Gromis.
Most competitive vapers said that competitions at a local vape shop are a lot more informal than ones at vape conventions. Vape conventions see a lot more footfall, with participants coming in from all over the country and sometimes from outside the country too. “For the smaller competitions, it’s more like seeing new friends, meeting people. You’re just hanging out. The conventions are a lot more nerve-wracking. There are lot more people watching you. Sometimes they are even live streaming, so even more people,” said Merriweather, who has competed at both local and convention levels.
Prizes at vape contests are usually samples of vaping gear or cash. Vape Capitol Cloud Championships, one of the biggest vaping contests in the U.S., toured in 29 locations all over the country before organizing its finals in Orange County, California, on Aug. 27, 2016. They had $10,000 for two grand prize winners and smaller cash prizes for everyone till the 10th place. The cloud competition at VapeCon in July 2016 in Visalia, Calif., had a grand prize of $5000, and second and third prize of $500 and $250 respectively.
The prize money is usually sponsored by the organizers, for whom conventions are a great way to promote their products. Some organizers even sponsor winners of these contests to participate in other conventions. “I do both competing and business. Sometimes the company I’m working for will sponsor me to go to these conventions all over the country and do business,” said Bjorge.
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Kilo Premium E-Liquids went the extra mile to host a one-of- a-kind online cloud competition. League of Clouds, a virtual trick competition, that took place earlier this year. The event involved people livestreaming the performances of participants on camera at a set time, while judges at different locations would make their decisions online. “This allowed a lot of people to participate and do tricks from places where they were most comfortable, like their house,” said Gromis. They are currently registering for a second season.
Most vapers we interviewed seemed hopeful about the future of competitive vaping. “I think it’s going to grow. From the first competition I judged people weren’t really too advanced with their tricks but now when I judge, people are just insane and it’s awesome to see how people have evolved,” said Perez.
Others like Merriweather are concerned about the industry given the new FDA regulations that will, among others, make it difficult to market e-liquids without going through an expensive, time-consuming process called the Premarket Tobacco Application. Since the application process is expensive, there remains a possibility that prices of e-liquids which do get registered to stay on the market will go up. The brunt of registering multiple e-liquid flavors might, in the long run, have to be borne by the vaper. Whatever the consequences, these vapers are pretty sure they will continue with their game.