Mark Acomb remembers the moment when he fell in love with dodgeball. He was in the first grade, running around the court like all the other kids, and his P.E. coach kept throwing and couldn't hit him.
"He was so frustrated," Acomb says with a smirk as he deflates a bright yellow dodgeball. It hisses and he grabs another ball, adding, "It was one of those moments that I realized, 'Hey, this is something I'm pretty good at.'?"
The founder of the Elite Dodgeball Invitational is sitting on the bleachers in the Echo Park Community Center on a Wednesday evening, inflating and deflating roughly 80 dodgeballs — breaking them in for the Elite National Championship tournament, held in Las Vegas in late August.
Acomb's dodgeball league consists of 54 teams throughout the country and has so far hosted 14 tournaments in 12 cities in 2014. He calls it "the most competitive dodgeball league in the nation." The national championship it's hosting will be an opportunity for Elite teams to play for money and, of course, bragging rights.
The team Acomb plays for, Riot, is on the basketball court. Their shouts and laughs echo off the walls, their shoes screeching as they dart back and forth, lobbing playful shots at other Elite teams who are milling around, waiting to start practice. No one's throwing hard yet, which is a good thing: Most of the players, says Acomb's teammate David Benedetto, who starred on Game Show Network's Extreme Dodgeball, have a mean arm.
"Some of us can throw 60 or 70 mph," Benedetto says. "So imagine yourself standing on the freeway, and a rubber ball that's going down the carpool lane hits you in the face."
As practice starts, more than two dozen kneepad-wearing players, both men and women, with taped-up fingers and bandanas wrapped around their foreheads, form their respective teams. Acomb calls forward two teams, and the game begins.
For most, dodgeball is a purely nostalgic activity. It's practiced by amateur, collegiate and recreational leagues throughout the country: Leagues such as WeHo Dodgeball or World Dodgeball Society (WDS) focus less on competition, and more on social interaction.
"It's something you can do to go back to your youth," says WDS founder Michael Costanza. Elaborate costumes (one player wears a distracting "dancing devil" outfit; others wear colorful tutus and goofy tights) are common, even on the court. Costanza's league doesn't want to take the game too seriously.
Elite has a different idea. It's one of a handful of dodgeball leagues trying to elevate the game to a professional-level sport (another is the National Dodgeball League, or NDL).
When Costanza comes across L.A. players who are a bit too competitive for his league, he points them in Elite's direction. "We're the shallow-end, the kiddie pool," he says. "If you want to go to the deep end, you go to Elite."
Now 29, Acomb began to play dodgeball regularly six years ago. He works in the film industry ("pretty low on the totem pole," he adds), and during the Writers Guild strike he needed to kill time. Remembering his childhood love for dodgeball, he joined WDS.
Acomb enjoyed the league but found he needed something with a little competitive edge. (He used to race motocross, play rugby and wrestle, he says by way of explanation.) He gathered some new dodgeball friends, studied regulations from other leagues and began a competitive league of his own.
While Acomb originally started Elite so he and his friends could play more competitive dodgeball, as its teams traveled to compete in other open dodgeball tournaments, the league gained a reputation for winning. Dodgeball lovers then contacted Acomb to start Elite teams in their own hometowns.
Next page: Elite becomes a national phenomena
Many recreational leagues play on large courts with no-sting soft balls and teams of up to 20 players. Elite plays six-on-six, on a court that's 50 by 25 feet. Old-school rubber dodgeballs are employed and, unlike most leagues, head shots are allowed. The teams practice techniques including fake-outs, hip shots and leaping jumps. They play five or more hours each week, and players often watch game or practice footage (a teammate usually hovers around the court with a GoPro) and discuss strategy during team dinners.
Other leagues are taking note. Sky Zone, an indoor trampoline park company, began hosting the Ultimate Dodgeball Championship in Las Vegas in 2012 — it's basically dodgeball on trampolines. This year, 528 teams from across the nation entered the competition. Five Elite teams made it to the top eight this year, with reigning Elite champ Team Doom claiming the $20,000 first prize — its third consecutive win in the tournament's three years.
Ultimately, Acomb would like Elite to become a truly professional league: he wants sponsorships, more cash prizes and nationally televised games. "There's no reason why this can't be the UFC," he says. "We've seen broken noses, broken fingers, blown ACLs. What's to stop this from being in a cage?"
Elite players share an intense love of dodgeball: the strategy, the competition, the excitement of pummeling other players "I have an opportunity to dominate here," says Benedetto, which seems to summarize things.
"After six years," Acomb says, "I still step on the court and it gives me a rush."
Elite hasn't accomplished its official paid-to-play goals yet. Acomb's concentrating his efforts on keeping costs low for the players and making sure there's money for good cash prizes at Elite tournaments (they typically range from $700 to $2,000).
While many players want to play professionally, they're not quite there. Vince Marchbanks, one of the stars of Team Doom, says he often feels pressure from family for dedicating so much time to dodgeball. Stripping his tape from his fingers, he explains, "I studied to be an architect. I spent a lot of money at USC to be one, and there's a lot of pressure. I'm good, but there isn't that much money in dodgeball yet. I still can't pay the bills off that."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Acomb feels the pressure, too. "My fiancée, God love her, hates this," he says.
The two-hour training session is winding down. Players, dripping sweat, begin to move slowly off the court and pack up their gear.
One of the players walks up to Acomb and asks for the time. Acomb says they need to wrap up. "You get enough in?"
The man laughs, breathing hard and shakes his head, "No. But that's all right."