Twenty teams from nine countries zipped over to Cologne, Germany, this weekend to compete in the world championship of Segway polo, the Woz Cup. Yes, you read that correctly: Segway polo. And the championship’s namesake is indeed Apple co-founder and patron saint of personal computing Steve Wozniak.
“Segway polo is the one thing I will block off my calendar for,” Wozniak told Quartz at the championship.
If polo is the sport of kings, Segway polo is the sport of nerds. The rules of Segway polo are inspired by traditional polo, with some influence from hockey and soccer. Five players on each side play four quarters (called chukkas) of eight minutes, trying to get a foam rubber ball past the opponent’s goalie.
Riding a Segway is a very physical act to begin with: You shift your body weight forward to move forward and shift to the back to halt and move backwards. You turn with the pressure-sensitive handlebars, an endeavor that becomes a little more complicated with a mallet in one hand. The best Segway polo players are at one with their machines, zooming at speeds of up to 12 miles per hour and copping tight turns that would make a mall cop lose his donut.
Team Barbados, who won the finale 1-0, were a favorite pick from the start. The team’s first appearance on the global Segway scene was at the Woz Cup in Cologne six years ago, which they also won despite being green. (When they arrived for that first tournament, they didn’t know they needed a goalkeeper, but they got it sorted.) Before this year’s prize ceremony, Barbados supporters played the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West” on a steel drum set up next to the field.
The defending champions, the Stockholm Saints, whom Barbados had defeated in overtime in the semifinal, handed over the cup topped with a Viking helmet with blonde pigtails.
You’d think that this kind of spectacle would draw a big crowd, but the bleachers were empty the first few days. Spectators were mostly members of other teams, although Team Lebanon did bring their whole families along for a German vacation. Some onlookers showed up to watch the final day of games, their curiosity piqued by local newspaper and TV coverage of the weirdness that is a global polo championship played on Segways.
I can’t say with certainty how many Segways were present this weekend, but one player from England told me he owns a total of 15 at home. At more than $6,000 per Segway, it’s an expensive hobby.
Teams always had spare Segways on hand in case a battery died mid-match; the volunteers even had a “peeway” to ride to the WCs.
The Woz himself flew in to play with his team, the Silicon Valley Aftershocks, who were first on the global scene, though they don’t take the game so seriously anymore. Wozniak, whose jersey number is infinity, admits he’s out of practice. “If we’re playing a really great team and we’ll lose anyway, I’ll go in,” he tells Quartz. Like the Woz says: You do it for fun.
The Aftershocks’ origins lie with the Bay Area Segway Enthusiasts Group, some early adopters who started playing polo on the people movers in 2004, inspired perhaps by a 2003 Slim Jim-sponsored halftime show with proto-Segway polo. In 2006, the Silicon Valley Aftershocks flew to New Zealand to play the first first Woz Cup against the only other Segway polo team they knew.
Wozniak’s robust speaking schedule has kept him from participating in recent Segway Polo tournaments, but Cologne 2015’s organizer, Olaf Funke of the Funky-Move Turtles team, reached out to him early enough that Woz could save the date. (Conveniently, Mrs. Woz, Janet Hill, was on a cruise in the Bahamas.)
Many people told me that Segway polo championships are a breeding ground for relationships. Funke, in fact, proposed to his wife, Sonja, at the end of the 2009 Woz Cup; Wozniak was a witness for the pair. Despite the pretense of competition, the biannual championship seemed to me more like a college reunion, where you drink lots of beer with people you haven’t seen in a long time and place bets on who’s going to hook up. And in two years, you’ll see each other again.