Two years ago, Antonio Arredondo stumbled upon a game you probably played as a kid. It involved him, his little sister Isa and younger brother Diego jumping, sliding and diving across their living room as they tried to keep an inflated balloon from touching the floor. In the beginning, he didn’t think much of it, and it was all fun and games. But slowly, it got intense and very, very competitive.
“This game takes a great deal of risk,” said Antonio, a 21-year-old college senior from Oregon, U.S. “You have to be able to dive, jump over furniture, and put yourself on the line,” he said.
All for an insipid piece of inflated plastic.
For the Arredondos, who were stuck at home too, their “extreme” edition of don’t-let-the-balloon-touch-the-ground soon took on a life of its own when it blew up on TikTok. “The first time I had posted the video in late 2018, it’d got like 11 views and no likes,” Antonio said.
Then one video changed everything.
In 2019, Antonio uploaded a video in which he and Diego are seen diving over pieces of furniture and skidding across the living room floor to play with the balloon. Slow-motion effects added fuel to the drama.
It instantly blew up, standing at 1.7 million likes as of the writing of this article. In his blog, Antonio called himself a “balloon social media influencer.” In the months that followed, some sports channels and personalities tweeted about it too.
Among those who tweeted were Spanish celebrity streamer Ibai Llanos, a partner at American streaming giant Twitch, and professional footballer Gerard Piqué, who was once called the best defender of all time in professional football.
In August this year, Llanos tweeted the balloon video to his 6.1 million followers and said, “I want to buy the rights to this and set up a World Cup.” Piqué, in response, tweeted to his 20.1 million followers and promised that if his tweet got 50,000 RTs, he would organise a World Cup on October 14.
He got over 70,000.
On October 14, a simple family balloon game became an international championship. It saw participants from 32 countries – from Mongolia and Peru to Russia and the U.K. – competing at an amusement park in Barcelona, Spain. Around 400 people attended the event, according to the team.
On Twitch, the games got over 8 million views, peaking with over 600,000 concurrent viewers for the finale, where Peru’s Francisco de la Cruz emerged the victor.
The moment even warranted a congratulatory message from Peru’s President Pedro Castillo on Twitter, in which he celebrated 18-year-old De la Cruz’s accomplishments as a “worthy representation” of the country. One news outlet called the championship a “kid’s birthday party meets FIFA World Cup.”
The visuals of the tournament went viral as players faced off in transparent glass-encased rooms. The wild knockout matches were officiated by referees, who kept scores within the same rooms as players. These arenas were dotted with otherwise commonplace household furniture: bar stools, a table, sofa sets, and a pinball machine. One had a Volkswagen car parked inside, which was weird but understandable since every championship needs a sponsor. The players wore helmets, and if you’ve ever banged yourself against the edge of a dining table, you know that was a smart move.
Oriol Querol, managing director of Kosmos Studios, said they had three weeks to pull off the whole championship. The participants were chosen after an online call was posted for aspirants to send videos of themselves playing with the balloons. “We got hundreds of videos,” Querol told VICE. “We chose the players on the basis of how entertaining their videos are.”
As attested by Antonio, there’s a fair bit of skill required to excel at balloon sports. “We didn’t focus on physical strength. This game can be played by the young and old. It all depends on their tactics and agility,” Querol said. “In the end, we had strong and tall guys losing to shorter guys.”
Being competitive is the best way to go about it, Antonio said. “This game might not be soccer or basketball, but you’re still playing to win,” he said.
Sergio Mathias, the championship’s legal manager, and Fergus Dunn, its commercial manager, told VICE in a combined statement that they didn’t find any existing sport or game that was “sufficiently similar” as a reference for this game. So the team went mostly DIY in terms of rules.
“There was potential for certain situations to arise where the ‘correct’ application of the rules may have not been clear,” they said. “As a result, we placed a large emphasis on the referees to apply and interpret the rules using their experience from other sports.” The referees had previously worked in football, tennis and hockey.
This year, the winner went home with €10,000 ($11,598) with two plane tickets to any destination in Latin America, while the runner up got €3,000 ($3,479.46).
The Arredondo brothers, too, participated in the games, representing the U.S. But more than their participation, it was the manifestation of the event that overwhelmed them both.
“I never, in my wildest dreams, could have imagined that our balloon videos would have done this,” said Antonio. “The experience of competing here was surreal.” There are plans for a second bigger edition next year, but it’s unclear for now.
Antonio’s friends and his family initially thought the Balloon World Cup was a joke. “My dad, when I told him about the games, thought it’s a scam. And I kind of agreed with him. He was really thrown off-guard, and was like, ‘You’re going to Barcelona because of balloons?’ It was crazy!”
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.