Recent years have seen a surge in adult-recess leagues across the United States. By some estimates, there are now 1.6 million grown-ups participating in these leagues across the country, and they’re only growing more popular. Today’s adults are seemingly desperate for more playtime—and so we’re eagerly bounding outside after work for all kinds of kid-style activities, from kickball and flag football to capture the flag and cornhole. But it’s not all fun and games: some of the leagues are highly competitive, with team names, uniforms, and strict scheduling. To find out what’s really going on, reporter Mimi Montgomery and producer Alex Ward visit rec fields in Washington, D.C., and Portland, Oregon, to observe grown-ups at play.
Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, these are dispatches: stories from our writers in the field.
Peter Frick-Wright (Host): So recently, Alex Ward, one of the regular contributors to our show, and my neighbor, came over to discuss a burning question.
[Cut to conversation between Frick-Wright and Alex Ward.]
Alex Ward: Yeah. Do you think chess is a sport or a game?
Frick-Wright: A game.
Ward: Instant answer why?
Frick-Wright: Because you play it on a table. Um, it’s… there’s little pieces. You move them around an arbitrary board, much like.. You may call it one of the original board games.
Ward: Maybe THE board game.
Frick-Wright: Maybe. Yeah. In terms of...
Ward: The... the ultimate expression of a game.
Frick-Wright: What was really bugging Alex, though, was a much bigger question: the difference between a game and a sport. Alex had recently read about research on elite chess players, and what they go through physically during competitions. As it turns out, playing serious chess is a lot like playing a serious sport.
Ward: If you're measuring the heart rate of a high-level chess player in a tournament, they're basically burning calories on a level with, say, Roger Federer in a chess match. It’s pretty close. In fact, one grand master in two hours in a chess match burned the same amount as Roger Federer at Wimbledon during a game.
Ward: Which really got me thinking, if a game of chess really takes that much endurance and stamina to play at the highest level, why don’t we consider it a sport? It’s one-on-one, just like tennis, the winner’s going to win considerable prizes, glory, all sorts of the same things you’d associate with sports. And there’s a physical aspect to it. There’s a lot—you have to be in shape to play.
Frick-Wright: Maybe we don’t call it a sport because you play it completely stationary?
Ward: Right, Anyway, all of this set me down this path, because I just started thinking: Alright, well, what really is… what’s the difference between a game and a sport?
I’ve talked to a lot of people. A lot of people have strong feelings about it. They have different answers for this. And I really didn’t even quite know where to start. But I thought: You know what, no one’s going to answer this question. I have to find the definitive difference between a game and a sport.
Frick-Wright: So, we sent Alex off to find out. Here’s Alex.
Ward: Something I noticed is that if you talk to sports people, they frame sports as a thing that matters a little more. If you talk to games people, it’s clear they prefer games. Based on who is answering, one of the two tends to be slightly dismissed.
Now, I love both games and sports dearly. I think they’re important for a healthy society, much like physical play is important to someone’s well-being.
So for me, figuring out how and why we define them matters. Anyway, lucky for me, writer Mimi Montgomery has been reporting a story for Outside Online about something that finds itself squarely in the middle of this debate.
[Cut to interview with Mimi Montgomery]
Ward: So tell me about the story you've been working on.
Mimi Montgomery: Yeah, so I have been working on a piece for Outside about the growing trend of adult recess leagues across the country.
[Sounds from Portland kickball game fade in, with the sound of the ball being kicked]
Ward: Ah, recess. What better place is there to figure this out? After all, I’d argue that the playground is ground zero for where we start dividing games and sports.
Think back to grade school. When those school doors fly open after lunch, some kids rush for the kickball field. Others head for the 4 square court or hopscotch. And some kids are content to just play with their imaginations, making stuff up as they go along.
But this is not about kids. Unlike me, they have no need for academic definitions of games. This is about how—and why—grownups need to play.
[Sounds of cheering and yelling in the background]
[Upbeat music begins]
Montgomery: It's sort of more of like a fun way for people to get together after work and blow off steam, and play kickball or dodgeball or, like, glow in the dark volleyball and all these kinds of different things.
Ward: To be clear, when we say recess leagues, we’re not talking about groups of adults rushing outside to play tetherball on their lunch break.
We’re talking organized, often-competitive rec leagues with team names, schedules, and coordinated clothing. They’re similar to recreational soccer or softball leagues, except they involve activities that most folks would classify as a game versus a sport.
Montgomery: And they tend to be run by sort of like bigger, for-profit groups as opposed to, you know, just doing something through like the parks and rec league, or something that folks used to look to for these kinds of activities.
Ward: Maybe you’ve seen or even played in a league like this where you live. They run the gamut of activities, from kickball and flag football to shuffleboard and cornhole leagues. Some leagues are competitive, others are just for fun. And they play in places like public parks, school gyms, and pubs.
Recently, Mimi went to an event in Washington DC, where she’s based.
[Ambient sound from a dodgeball game]
Montgomery: Yes, I went to a dodgeball match last week on a Thursday night after work. Um, and people were really into it. It was a big deal. It was indoors at a community center here in the city.
Ward: The group putting on the event is DC Frey, a huge organization with multiple sport offerings.
There’s actually Frey leagues in other cities across the country, each with their own unique communities and games. Denver, New Orleans, Jacksonville. And Frey isn’t the only outfit doing this: Mimi estimates that just in the DC area alone, there’s at least 10 different companies offering adult recess games.
In the last decade or so, there’s been a huge uptick in these leagues nationwide. The Sport & Social Industry Association—which is a trade organization that connects recess leagues to share knowledge, gear, and sponsorships, stuff like that—they estimate the number of active players to be around 1.6 million people. And they’re only growing in popularity.
Montgomery: People were, you know, getting kind of competitive, and not too competitive, and they had like referees there, and it was just like such a production. I was like pretty surprised that, um, you know, there was, there was so much going on when it came to these activities.
[Ambient sound during a dodgeball match]
Montgomery: And actually, funnily enough, outside of the building, another league was hosting a kickball event. So there was just like adults playing everywhere.
Ward: Adults playing everywhere. To some, this might seem like the worst stereotypes of millennials on full display. But I don’t think it’s fixed to any generation. Adults have been playing things together for a long time.
Think about how long something like bowling leagues or pool halls have been around. These organized playground games are just an evolution of that.
Montgomery: Your grandpa might have had a golf league that he hung out at, or your grandma might have gone to play bridge like once a week with her friends. So what is it that is making this different, you know, as far as us focusing on like you said, these playground games?
Colleen: Finn: You know, any opportunity for someone to get together and meet new people, whether it's ping pong, or kickball, or shuffle board. I mean, anytime, you know, I think it's when you're having fun and keeping score.
Ward: That’s Colleen Finn. She’s the founder of Recess Time Sports in Portland, OR. They got started around 2003 as a pickup dodgeball league. Back then, all the recruiting was done in person, in bars, or with community posts on Craigslist.
But luckily for her, this was around the time a certain movie came out that helped propel her league into a business.
[Clip from the film Dodgeball begins]
Ben Stiller: Oh! You’re out, four eyes!
Ward: That would be Dodgeball, the 2004 comedy starring Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughan. A movie that’s funny because of how seriously grownups were taking dodgeball.
When the movie came out, some news outlets wanted to talk to people who were running actual dodgeball leagues.
Finn: Because of that, we were interviewed by, you know, the AP, and various things. And it just blew up.
Ward: The thing is, while the movie used dodgeball to parody sports movies, it also reminded a large audience just how fun it was to play dodgeball.
Colleen: The most feedback I get is how happy it makes people feel to play these games again, and how much people are like: Oh, that sounds so fun. I really want to do that. That sounds really fun. I really want to play.
Ward: I attended some kickball games with Colleen on a cold, rainy Sunday in Portland. Initially I thought the weather would have scared some people away, but I was wrong.
The rain seemed to amplify everything. The mud, the sliding, the music bumping. This was a party.
[Ambient sound of dodgeball game, with cheers]
There were three games going on in the park fields. One was a fast pitch, competitive game, the other two were slow pitch, more casual games.
It was right here in front of me: some people are playing a sport, and others are playing a game.
But no matter the intent, one thing is abundantly clear: people are committed to kickball. Especially the team over there wearing onesies.
Finn: You know, one team is called the onesies and they're one of the best teams in the league and they all play with onesies on.
Ward: I was going to ask, I've seen three different people wearing onesie costumes. What's up with that?
Finn: Yeah, it's the team called the Onesie Kick Wonders.
Ward: And they just wear…
Finn: They just wear onesies and they're, they're a very good team. But they have yet to earn their stars. So we, uh... if you win a championship, you can see that that guy over there, he's got two stars on his shoulder. That's because his team keeps it tight and has won a championship twice. So their jerseys, every season we'll have stars for however many stars that they've won.
Ward: Onesies. Gold stars. Kickball. Geez, maybe my generation is stuck in adolescence.
Ward: That kinda brings up something of how maybe older people view this of like, this is childish.
Finn: Right. Yeah.
Ward: Like, this is delayed adolescence.What's your, what's your take on that?
Finn: Um, you know, I think that, I don't know. I mean, I've had various, um, issues. I have to take this, I'm sorry. There’s a problem on another field.
Ward: As if on cue, right when I want to talk about our generation is soft, Colleen gets a call. Someone on another kickball field has dislocated their shoulder making a play.
And she tells me that’s far from the worst injury she’s seen.
Finn: Either mine, or… I mean, I broke my femur and blew out my knee. That was pretty…
Ward: In Dodgeball?
Finn: Yeah, dodgeball. Jumped into the splits and came down. There was a ball that trailed, and so my leg basically bent sideways and my femur came down and hit my tibia and my femur won or lost that battle. I mean, you know, you do… There’s lots of… If you meet Angie, over there, she’s on the Onesies. Angie! Angie!
Ward: Angie comes running over. One of her fingers is permanently bent at a slight angle from a dodgeball injury.
Angie: That one used to go straight up. Um, and then I broke my ankle playing kickball, sliding. So yeah, not too terrible. [Laughs]
Finn: ACLs, ankles, shoulders...
Angie: Oh man. The ankle break, though? That went the wrong way.
Finn: Oh, that one! I forgot about that one. That was gnarly. I was reffing that game. Let's just say, where your foot should be. His ankle was basically on the front part of where your foot is supposed to be and his foot was the other way and his leg was straight. So he wanted to walk, he said: Just bring the car over and I’ll hop over. I was like, well, I think we need to call an ambulance. This is a big deal. But he... and he healed and is fine.
Angie: Yeah. I mean everybody's fine now. [Laughs]
Ward: So, cold rainy weather and occasionally, paramedics. Not the best selling points. But that stuff doesn’t seem to matter.
How would you explain over the last 10 years of just the rise in the popularity of these leagues?
Finn: I think that there's something about the organic growth of friendship circles that comes with it. You know, if like, one person is talking to another person, like: Do you wanna come play on my kickball team? And then that turns into, like, another team, and another team. And then your friends with another team, and...
Why do people kind of do anything? Well, they want to have fun, and a lot of times it's social interaction and meeting people. That's the real beauty that I find in recess time, is connecting people. I was thinking this the other day. Like I literally do not have to ever leave my house if I don't want to. Right? Like, you can get a job and work online. Um, you can use Postmates or Caviar or whatever. Like pretty much everything you can not really have to do anything to do. And interact with people online. And this is just sort of proof of what was like, like an analog human interaction, right? You know, just a good, old-fashioned people hanging out and having a good time.
Ward: Colleen’s right. Staying indoors and not interacting face-to-face is getting much easier as time goes on. We’re seeing changes in how we work, how we make friends, how we date, and how we play.
But to understand why some people play kickball and dodgeball as a sport and others as a game, we need to understand why humans play at all. More on that after the break.
Ward: So, let’s pick back up with Mimi, who started looking behind the curtain of our need to connect with others. It turns out, there’s been quite a bit of research on humans and our propensity for play.
Garry Chick: Part of what we think about is the distinction between what you might call on one hand play, and what you would refer to on the other hand as playfulness.
Ward: That’s Garry Chick, a professor emeritus at Penn State University.
His background is in recreation management and anthropology, and he started studying play theory back in the mid 70’s as part of an anthropological study. I sat in on his conversation with Mimi.
Chick: Why do adult humans play at all? That question is interesting because if we think about it and think about all the data and information about play that we have available to us, what we discover is that play is actually very rare in the animal world.
Play among adult animals is much more rare than it is among juvenile animals. Any play that adults engage in is usually done in concert with juveniles.
Ward: Young animals will almost always be the ones initiating play, and adults will indulge them as needed. But between adult animals, play doesn’t really happen. Except in animals that humans have bred and domesticated.
Chick: We have, uh, a yellow lab downstairs and she's five years old and she's playful as the Dickens and she has floppy down ears and like, like most dogs do have, she has a shorter muzzle than wolves.
Um, she wags her tail. She brings a ball to me. Obviously she wants to engage in play and so forth. So there are both morphological or physiological characteristics that distinguish her from wolves and behavioral characteristics. And, as it turns out, humans are the same.
We have physical characteristics that differentiate us from chimpanzees, for example. We have much-reduced brow ridges, our jaws are reduced. And we tend to be playful into adulthood. And we play not only with children, but we play among ourselves. So one might argue, and I think that it's become recently argued by several researchers, that in fact we have bred ourselves to be playful as adults.
Ward: Garry asked us a simple question during the interview: do you like playful people or not playful people? We both said playful. And if we were to choose a life partner, would you rather they be playful or not? Playful, of course.
Garry: Okay. This is called assortative mating, and we've done some research—we meaning me and a couple of my colleagues—on whether or not people who at least claim to be playful themselves also indicate that they would prefer to have mates who are playful. What appears to be the case is that that playfulness is a desirable characteristic in potential mates.
Ward: This came up a lot between everyone we talked to for this story. The romance side of things. I mean, playing games with other people is a great way to make friends. But an even greater appeal? The chance to meet a potential partner.
Montgomery: Folks want to try to date people like, outside of Bumble. [Laughs] Or find like a significant other outside of, um, the internet. Which, I mean, that sounds great to me. It makes sense. Like, you know, obstensibly want to be with someone who shares the same interests as you do and is like playful and fun. So like what better way to find someone than like a league that is dedicated to adults having fun.
Ward: Okay, one small problem here: if we’ve gradually bred ourselves to be more playful, then everyone would play everything for fun, right? We’d all be rolling around in the grass looking for a mate.
But sadly, that’s not the case. Some people aren’t here to play games. They’re here to play sports—and to win. So what about them?
Stuart Brown: You know, ping pong at noon is not for everybody. Uh, we have our own individual kind of play profiles that work for us.
Ward: Stuart Brown is the founder of the National Institute for Play. He’s a trained physician and a former research professor of psychiatry.
Mimi: He actually classifies a lack of play as like a public health issue, which was something that I hadn't necessarily considered before.
Brown: So when you look at the natural history of play, both in animals in a laboratory who are being studied for their play behavior, or, as best one can, look at the educational establishment, one sees that increasing mastery and a sense of accomplishment are usually associated with play behavior. So it's not something that is frivolous or just something you do when you haven't got anything better to do, or as an escapist. It really has its own process and its own profiles.
Ward: For those not inclined to pointless play, those that like to train hard and accomplish and take a sport seriously, they’re actually still engaging in a very important type of play. One that provides a sense of self and a sense of purpose.
Stuart first got interested in researching play after a string of notable crimes in the late 1960’s. He was asked to see if he could find some commonalities between criminals.
Brown: I had a little more specific look at particularly young murderers and felony drunken drivers and their histories. And lo and behold, we found that in those populations, they were non players as compared to a comparison group.
Brown: Well, I think if you look at play deprivation in a parallel way to sleep deprivation, although it's not as quantitatively measurable, there is evidence that severe play deprivation is associated with a small ring depression, ideologic rigidity, a lack of optimism, a feeling that: Why am I putting one foot in front of the other today? For what, what's the purpose of it all? That part of the necessity for play is to maintain a positive outlook in a chaotic and difficult world.
I think play itself provides an adaptive means to where we have tolerance and compassion and empathy for other individuals. So that’s why at this age I’m having a good time hanging in there with play theory and play practice.
Ward: If you consider some of the problems we face in our increasingly digital culture—political polarization, cyber bullying, and just plain loneliness—adult rec leagues are a force for good.
For lots of people, they’re a much-needed social outlet: whether its for the fun and games or the serious sport.
Montgomery: You're always going to have those like three people that are really competitive and are really getting into it. And there definitely were like a couple of folks who were like doing backbends and sort of like matrix-like moves to get out of the way of the ball. And they were just like really into it. But, the overall mood was that like, no matter who wins at the end of this day, like, it was just like really fun and we're going to go like, drink some beers and like hang out.
[Ambient sound of dodgeball game]
Ward: Okay, so I told myself I’d come out on the other side of this story with a clear cut answer for the definitive difference between a game and a sport. And after learning about recess leagues and the roots of why people play, I think I’ve got one, so here goes:
I think both sports and games are simply modes of physical play. The key difference comes down to process versus goal.
A sport is primarily focused on competing to win: the goal. A game is focused on competing as a source of play: the process.
If you are way into a sport, you might value the win over everything else. And if you’d rather play a game for the sake of fun, you value the experience.
Now obviously, people are more complex than this and we can like doing both things. Play is a spectrum, it’s not an either/or.
But at the end of the day, I think it sheds light on a deeply human desire: we need both types of people in the world.
On one hand there’s people focused on getting us from point A to point B, achieving the goal. On the other are people that are focused on making that journey worth our while. Both kinds of people are valuable, and we all play both roles from time to time.
So it should be no surprise that adult recess leagues are a growing trend. Maybe you want to train hard and win the league championship. Or maybe you’re hoping make friends, to meet someone you might marry. Maybe both. Either way, there’s a spot on the team for you. And a onesie, if you want.
Frick-Wright: That was Alex Ward. This episode was produced by Alex and edited by Michael Roberts.
You can read Mimi Montgomery’s story about adult recess at OutsideOnline.com.
This episode was brought to you by LL Bean. Reminding you to be an Outsider.
The Outside Podcast is a production of Outside Integrated Media, and distributed by PRX.
We’ll be back next week.
QUESTION TO ANSWER:
What adult recess teaches us about the human need for play and competition
Games vs. sports (play vs. battle)
The need for community
Is fitness a motivating factor?
Process vs. goal
People want sports minus the sports
Anecdote to stress of the generation (related to work security and screen time)
A non-app way to meet people & potential partners
Play is rare in the animal world, play is always initiated by juveniles
Dogs/cats are exceptions, along with humans
We have bred ourselves to be playful
It’s like creating a bar to go to after work
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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.