By SAM SPIEGELMAN
COLLEGE PARK, Md.—After Austin Lanham injured his knee playing rugby at the University of Maryland in 2004, he devoted his attention to another big "sport" on college campuses.
Not football or basketball, but beer pong.
What started as a simple drinking game requiring players to throw ping pong balls into cups of beer has become increasingly professionalized over the last decade, with international player rankings and a World Series in Las Vegas.
Lanham is one of Maryland's best beer pong professionals, ranked second in the state by the National Beer Pong League.
"Beer pong was the only thing I could do for a year," said Lanham, of Baltimore. "The game that I started playing in college—that's all I had for a year."
Beer pong is a simple game, a critical feature since players often participate while drunk. Opposing teams of two line up across a long table, with cups of beer arranged in a pyramid pattern on the table.
The teams take alternating turns, attempting to land a ball in an opponent's cup. If they sink one, their opponents must drink the contents of the cup. If a team loses all six cups, they lose the match and must drink the contents of their opponents' remaining cups.
Like many professional beer pongers, Lanham now plays with water instead of beer to keep sharp during matches. Drinking alcohol during professional matches is allowed, but not required.
Lanham didn't start out playing with water. He honed his game as an undergrad at Bucknell University, where his fraternity played a lot of beer pong.
"Beer pong was my social outlet," Lanham said. "I lived and died with beer in my cups."
He devoted a lot of time to the game and, when he turned 21, he started playing in tournaments at bars.
"I just found that I was never really losing," he said. "I was beating everyone I'd play."
After coming to the University of Maryland to obtain a graduate degree, he tore his ACL playing rugby.
With rugby out of the picture, he devoted his time to improving his beer pong skills. After graduation, he got more serious, setting up the Maryland Beer Pong league with a former roommate in 2005.
"We started Maryland Beer Pong because we wanted to compete, and there wasn't any real way of competing with people at a high level," Lanham said. "Once we started (Maryland) Beer Pong, and at the state level I was beating everyone—that's when I got the idea that I was pretty good."
The league thrived because it welcomed everybody, with little athletic skill required.
"There's nothing that separates a great player from a mediocre player from a physical standpoint. It's something everyone can do," Lanham said.
More than 2,900 beer pong teams have played in the league since it formed in 2005.
Maryland Beer Pong has year-round leagues. Each league lasts six to 10 weeks and culminates with tournaments, including a statewide one.
The league competition has helped put seven Maryland players in the top 51 of the international beer pong rankings.
"Getting that confidence that you can succeed at a high level, getting that experience, knowing how to play in a tournament, knowing how to carry yourself, having the support of other great players from your area—that's why Maryland keeps doing well on the national stage," he said.
Jordan McAllister, fourth in the country in the National Beer Pong rankings, is the highest-rated player from Maryland. Right behind him at fifth is Lanham, followed by Sean Foster (8), Deryck Weaver (27), Bunky Weichert (32), Ryan McAllister (41) and Adam Darvick (51).
In the early days of Maryland Beer Pong, players said it offered a nice balance of competition and fun. That changed with the creation of the World Series of Beer Pong in 2006. The shot at winning an international competition—which now has a first prize of $50,000—convinced players to take the game more seriously.
For the competitors, Maryland Beer Pong keeps the players sharp; but the World Series of Beer Pong is the sport's ultimate stage.
The first World Series took place in January 2006, when 80 teams from the United States and Canada competed for a $10,000 prize. During the 2010 tournament, more than 500 teams, including players from 46 different states and nine countries, battled for the crown and a $50,000 prize.
The competition is intense. The best player in a group of friends is likely to be an average player at best at the World Series, Lanham said.
"Everybody thinks they're amazing at beer pong. It's not until (they) play against players that are actually good that they realize that may not be the case," Lanham said.
It takes years of experience and serious competition to compete on a national or international stage. There's an official table and official rules.
Lanham finished fifth during his first World Series in 2006.
"It's not like other sports like football or wrestling where you get in the moment, you get your adrenaline going. Beer pong is a lot different than that. There's a very fine line between missing a shot and hitting it. Close doesn't count. You can get rattled, and you can get in your own head," he said.
Also unlike other sports, there's no decline in performance as you get older. He boasts a 121-45 record, winning more than 72 percent of the time.
At age 32, and married, Lanham remains at the top of his game.
He's replaced the beer in his cups with water. And sometimes his wife subs in as his partner.
But for the most part, it's still the same game he used to play on nine-foot tables at a Bucknell frat house.
"When I was young and I didn't have all of those responsibilities, it was a lot easier ... Everyone needs their hobbies, and I look at beer pong as a hobby that pays for itself," he said.