PAX: The Legacy of the Ball

The Penny Arcade Expo is like an underground meeting of a vast secret society. Rumors, legends, and other apocrypha pass through the convention halls like plagues. Supernerd Nick Martens witnessed the most storied PAX occurrence in person, and here reveals its details for the first time.

The Penny Arcade Expo might be the ultimate in-joke. PAX, as it’s called, is, in fact, a convention organized by a webcomic. What could be more obscure than that? This year, though, it boasted an attendance of 30,000. These nerds (in whose ranks I count myself) descended on the Washington State Convention Center to play games, to talk about games, and, mostly, to be gamers among gamers. This meant shirts with quotes you’ve never heard of, jokes about shows you never knew existed, and massive concerts featuring bands you’d never listen to. It’s the ideal breeding ground for nerd folklore.

Perhaps the most perplexing piece of PAX lore, more so even than the Hot Dog Fairy or this strip’s still-beating heart, is the Ball. Around the PAX floor, you will occasionally hear cries of “All hail Ball!” as an inflatable blue ball is tossed skyward. No, this is not a reference to a nerd’s usual difficulty in finding a mate. The blue ball, in this case, derives from blue Bawls.

At any PAX, the Bawls company is major, even fundamental, presence. Their highly caffeinated fruit soda is a staple of the gaming community, and the drink can be easily identified by its signature blue bottle. In a decision that would have among the most unexpected outcomes in marketing history, Bawls leveraged their brand by supplying a few sturdy, inflatable blue balls for PAX ’06.

Outside the main theater, before a Q&A panel with the Penny Arcade guys, a huge crowd gathered. The inexperienced convention organizers neglected to implement a strong line policy, and the crowd formed into an amorphous mass. A frequent concert-goer would be unsurprised that, at some point, a blue beach ball had begun to bounce around the mob. If you touched it, you would notice that it was not made of cheap plastic, but a tough synthetic fabric. By all accounts, a nice ball.

What happened next, though, surely must have been unprecedented. It could only have happened in a crowd of gamers. The panel-waiting crowd was crammed into a narrow corridor adjacent to the auditorium. Above it was a long second-floor balcony, a short third-floor overhang, and another long balcony along the forth floor. I don’t know the total height, but it must have been at least fifty feet, probably more.

It began after the ball reached the lowest balcony for the first time.

By turns, the crowd recognized the potential of the situation. There were four tiers, each higher than the last and each stocked with gamers. You could even call these tiers “levels.” It wasn’t long before calls of “Up! Up!” sounded from the swarm at the bottom. The goal must have been immediately clear to all present: get the Ball to the top.

Techniques for more efficient ball-launching were rapidly developed. A fierce volleyball-style bump was effective, but the tightly-packed crowd made it difficult to execute. Instead, a gamer specialty soon became the dominant method: the uppercut. A hard upwards jab could easily send the ball to the first balcony, and those folks had ample space to employ the full-armed bump needed to reach the highest level.

Still, though the proper combo had been discovered, the perfect execution was touchy. A sufficiently motivated first floor puncher had little ability to aim, and even when the ball did fly close enough to the first balcony to be bumped, there was no guarantee that the balconyman possessed the required gusto to achieve ultimate success. Perseverance was key.

However, all was not well for the ball-launchers. Pockets of dissent speckled the teeming throng on the ground floor. These were prickly folks concerned by the hazards presented by the ball. Perhaps they feared being struck in the glasses or having their DS smashed. I think it more likely, though, that the enemies of the ball were accompanied by rare females and that their protection instincts had been activated by the increasingly energetic mob. At one point, the Ball was held down for at least a minute before it was either relinquished or pried loose.

Though glee spread at the return of the Ball, the dissenters may have been onto something. The mentality of crowds was becoming more and more blatant among the ball-launchers. Nothing exemplified this more than the now-iconic chant, “All hail Ball!” Obviously, this was mostly meant in jest, but I was stuck in the middle of the Cult of Ball, and I cannot deny the irrational thrill that accompanied the chanting. I could also not help but feel that I was witnessing one of the most utterly fascinating social phenomena of my life. I was astonished by how quickly the rules of the game had been established and by how thousands of people had instantly become dedicated to the same arbitrary goal. Also, the chanting. That was pretty interesting, too.

The Ball was sent dizzyingly high a couple of times, but never quite to the ceiling. And, sadly, before the doors to the panel opened, the Ball got stuck on a high, inaccessible ledge. The game was over, and the mob was broken. The shattered Cult of Ball filtered into the theater, left only with bizarre memories. PAX’s line-management improved by the next Penny Arcade panel, and the Ball game was never reprised.

The Ball, however, lives on in its way. The genuine article was recovered and auctioned for the noble Child’s Play charity. The Ball’s purchaser, showing his philanthropic spirit, released it back into the PAX community at a Penny Arcade panel this year, although stripped of its magic it is now merely a nice ball. Chants of “all hail Ball” occasionally sounded throughout the convention, and controversy was stirred when a young man declared his allegiance to “the Square.” Other balls of various types manifested themselves at many large gatherings. At concerts and panels, cheap, inflatable globes were tossed about; fun, though noticeably less lustrous than their predecessor.

One such globe was even destroyed by an overly-protective nerd. It’s comforting to know that the inexplicable lunacy wrought by the original Ball will continue to resonate through the halls of PAX for years to come. The Ball is dead, long live the Ball.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.