The competitors inched along, methodically moving closer to the goal. In this game, balance and precision were everything. One slip-up, and the racers would find themselves back at the beginning, as if God pressed the reset button.
I was transfixed. As sports entertainment goes, this competition was both original and delightful.
Suddenly, one of the pursuers lunged and grabbed the ankle of a racer ahead of her. Within seconds, the entire field had been wiped out.
“Hold up, wait! You can grab people? This just keeps getting better and better!” I shouted at the screen, somehow even more animated about the Slippery Stairs Championship I’d been watching.
Behold, the allure of ESPN 8: The Ocho.
In each of the past three years, ESPN has set aside a day of programming for little-known “sports” events not usually shown on the network’s various outlets. The initial offering rolled out on Aug. 8, 2017, as an homage to the movie “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story,” where the dodgeball action played out on the fictional ESPN8. (August 8th … 8-8 … the Ocho .. .get it?)
The weird and wacky offerings must’ve gone over well with audiences, because ESPN brought back a new Ocho lineup in 2018 and again this year. (Though for some reason this year they aired everything on August 7th, which makes less sense, but whatever.)
Besides Peter LaFleur and White Goodman, the Ocho lineup rekindles memories of the earliest days of ESPN. When the network first started showing 24-hour sports in 1979, it didn’t televise 18 SportsCenters a day and didn’t roll out a neverending array of talk shows where Max Kellerman and Stephen A. Smith yelp at one another. (It was a simpler time, kids.)
Moreover, ESPN didn’t own the broadcast rights for big-time events like Major League Baseball and the NFL. So, instead executives filled their air time with events like kickboxing, racquetball, and Australian Rules football. The very first live sporting event ever televised by ESPN? A slow-pitch softball game.
You know the rest of the story. ESPN exploded in popularity and scope over the subsequent decades, and gobbled up the rights to air every major sports league around. It was home to all the biggest events in sports.
That’s all well and good, but sometimes you just want ESPN8.
Seriously, the network should give these events more than the Groundhog Day, once-a-year spotlight. The Ocho should be an every-day thing. I’d totally watch this stuff.
I know, because I already did. Consider this year’s options:
The Spikeball College Championships
How to describe spikeball? OK, try this. Take a volleyball net, stuff it into a smaller, circular form the size of an old jogging trampoline, and then let teams of two take turns spiking the ball off of it.
It’s volleyball for short people. To wit: the 5-foot-7 Tom Cruise wouldn’t have needed the movie magic editing he benefited from in Top Gun if he’d been playing spikeball.
Sorry, Maverick, you know it’s true.
World Lumberjack Championship
How much wood could a wood chopper chop if a wood chopper could chop wood?
A whopping amount of wood. Especially when they break out the chainsaws.
51st National Stone Skipping Competition
If you have a pulse and you’ve ever stood next to a body of water, you’ve skipped a stone. You can’t help it.
If you’re really good, if you have a delivery like famous submarine pitchers Kent Tekulve or Dennis Eckersley, maybe you’ve even gotten up to 10 or 12 skips before.
Bah. You’re an amateur. The world record for total number of skips is held by an American named Kurt Steiner, who reached 88 skips on a throw in 2013.
Best of Chess Boxing
So much for horse racing being the sport of kings.
Chess boxing is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a hybrid of the sweet science and the classic board game. Combatants can win by either knockout or checkmate. Since the sport’s inception in 2003, there have been world champions from the Netherlands, Russia, Germany, Italy and India.
I’m currently working on an alternative called Checkers Thumb Wrestling.
Pro Arm Wrestling Championship
Yes, I know a lot of these sports sound like what happens after Jimbo and Jethro have had one too many Lone Star Lights down at the Rusty Barrel.
But there’s more strategy to arm wrestling that you probably realize. Besides, if it’s good enough for Sly Stallone in “Over the Top,” it’s good enough for me.
United States Pizza Team Acrobatics
I know what you’re thinking. There’s a U.S. pizza team? Why wasn’t I told about this?
At first, I thought I might have a chance to make the squad. After all, in college my roommates and I once put away a three-foot-tall stack of Domino’s pizzas in a single weekend. (True story.)
Alas, my place in the upper crust of pizza eaters wouldn’t serve me well in this competition. This is about trying to win some dough while flipping that dough – and the sheer mastery with which they flip and juggle and spin these uncooked pies is astounding.
They’re beasts with the yeast.
Dodge Juggle: Revenge of the Dodgeballs
In yet another sports mashup, dodgeball and juggling meet in this 1-on-5 clash. Five jugglers stand on one side of a court and try to keep their pins aloft, while a single ball chucker tries to wipe them out in a minute or less.
Sound stupid? Don’t be an elitist. It’s brilliant. The first time I witnessed a juggler actually catch a dodgeball, juggle it, and send it back to the thrower, I was in love.
And this is merely a sample of the mountain of golden nuggets the Ocho has to offer. I’d didn’t even bring up cornhole or sign spinning or Putt Putt or lawn mower racing. I couldn’t really spot the enlightenment of the Electricians National Championship – shocking, right? – as wiring a refrigerator as quickly as possible feels like asking for trouble. But they can’t all be winners.
For me, the Ocho delivered far more hits than misses. When the marathon was all over, it left me sad and wanting more.
Why couldn’t this be an every-day thing? Why, oh, why television gods?
Wait, what am I saying? The Ocho does exist in that form already.
If you need me, I’ll be buried in this here YouTube rabbit hole.