Friends and business partners Dustin Maxey and Richard Panter play a quick game of table tennis at Lavaca Street Bar & Grill. They trash-talk each other jokingly as they hit the ball back and forth, and Maxey holds a Lone Star in one hand.
“It’s hard to play in the dark,” Maxey says when he hits the ball off the table.
Panter asks a friend to grab him a Dos Equis from the bar.
“I’d be saying that too if I was losing by two points,” he answers.
The laid-back vibe is part of what separates what Maxey and Painter call the game they’re playing — ping-pong — from table tennis, the official name for the sport. The two men are the co-founders and operators of PongRock, a local table tennis league that’s all about competitive fun and drinking beer.
“It’s like you’re playing against your friend in your garage,” Maxey, 28, said. “We try to keep the vibe relaxed.”
PongRock, which begins its fifth season today (each season lasts eight weeks), meets on Wednesday evenings at The Belmont. Competitors can choose a nickname, which have ranged from the simple (“D”) to the witty (“Tommy Tong the Pong Kong” and “Sgt. Paddles”) to the more intimidating (“The Butcher”). Registration fees go toward keeping the equipment maintained, printing T-shirts and buying prizes for the competitors. The grand champion receives a ping-pong table at the end of the season.
“I’ve been playing since the beginning,” said Robin Murphy, who competed in the finals last season under the nickname ‘The Ponganator.’ “I love it, it’s fun and unique. You can get out and go to The Belmont and drink and meet so many people. It’s fun and it’s not too serious.”
The idea for the league sprung out of a stinging defeat at the hands of the Austin Table Tennis Association (ATTA) in March 2010. Maxey and Panter, who met each other while studying abroad in Spain, had signed up to play in an ATTA-sponsored tournament, but when they arrived they realized they had underestimated what they were getting into. Panter said their first clue that this wasn’t the same game that they played in their garage — “they kept asking us if we called it ping-pong or table tennis” — planted the seed for the direction they wanted their own league to take.
“It just wasn’t fun,” Panter, 27, said. “It was so serious and these guys were so awesome and we just wanted to have fun. We wanted to do what we do in our garage: drink beer and play ping-pong. There’s a huge difference.”
Later that night they were commiserating about their loss with a few friends when Maxey said that drunken inspiration struck.
“I was like ‘You know what guys? I want to start a ping-pong league and I want it to be for regular ping-pong players, not those other guys.’”
A brainstorming session led to the name PongRock, combining Maxey and Panter’s appreciation for table tennis and live music, which is often playing when the PongRock league meets. Then Maxey created a website and they started telling their friends and advertising on Facebook.
Panter and Maxey, who both graduated from Texas State with bachelors’ degrees in advertising, realized that there was some interest in the project when people who they didn’t know began to register. That was when they decided they needed to figure out how to run a ping-pong tournament: a process that involved finding a venue, buying tables, choosing a ranking system and designing shirts.
“There were lots of things we figured out about it as time went by,” Maxey said. “The first season we decided to do round-robin tournaments and we had a bunch of people sign up. But the problem with that was people didn’t always show up and then you’re kind of screwed. You can count on people not showing up. It’s a social league.”
The PongRock founders eventually settled on a tournament system that compliments the laid-back nature of the league. When players arrive to play, they fill out a card that lists a table number and a time. Then the competitors go to their tables at their respective times and play ping-pong – best two out of three games to 11. The winners turn their cards in and move on to the next round.
Maxey said the dedication to PongRock has paid off. More than 60 people have registered to play this season and he said that judging from the season-opening party they hosted last week, a majority of the players are newcomers that were referred by their friends. The growth isn’t exactly what Panter and Maxey were expecting when they were planning the league, but they’re fine with the excitement.
“I think it’s funny that I’m a partner in a consulting firm and we sell websites and you know, make a little bit of money on those things,” Maxey said. “But the thing that everybody’s really excited about started one night when I was a drunk and was like ‘I’m going to make a ping-pong league!’”
Printed on Wednesday, August 31, 2011 as: Ping-pong league relishes relaxed vibe.