God Bless the Ocho

We live in fast times. Sorry, I mean we live in F.A.S.T. times: Free Ad-Supported Television. You probably have heard of with some of the larger FAST purveyors, like Pluto TV, Roku TV, and Tubi. These are TV and mobile apps (usually you can watch on the web as well) that you can watch for free and usually without even signup, as long as you're willing to endure commercials. There's just a metric ton of these services, and if you know me at all, you know I like quantity, I like largesse, I like too many options.

While there is a lot of overlap of FAST channels on these services, each service also tries to distinguish itself in its offerings in one way or another. This requires an extreme level of niche. For example, there's Crema TV — a channel devoted, 24 hours a day, to programs about ... coffee.

But this is a sports column, and I'm here to tell you about a godsend of a FAST channel, and that is ESPN8: The Ocho. It exists on ABC's streaming app and (as far as I can tell) nowhere else, which makes sense considering ABC and ESPN are part of the same company (which is to say Disney).

Some background, in case you're not familiar: ESPN8 started out as a joke in the movie Dodgeball. Then ESPN made it real in 2017 as a day on ESPN2 where they only show extremely niche sports. This has become a annual tradition, and now a 24-hour channel.

I love most niche and obscure sports and have covered them in this space before, namely with candlepin bowling and netball. The sports on ESPN8 are a little different than that, though. Netball and candlepin bowling are not really niche in the markets where they are popular (Oceania, England, the Caribbean, and parts of Africa in the case of netball, New England and Atlantic Canada in the case of candlepin bowling), and have a long history. ESPN8 sports are often recently invented and rarely any sort of regional phenomenon.

For example, I write this column while watching pillow fighting championships from Rock Hill, South Carolina. It's done in a ring, by experienced fighters and boxers of one stripe or another, with its own set of rules and $5k waiting for the winners. That's not a sport with a long history or a connection to a region.

Neither is omegaball, perhaps my favorite of the ESPN8 sports I have seen thus far. Omegaball was only invented in 2022, and is most succinctly described as three-team soccer.

How do you play soccer with three teams? Well, in this version, it's done by being played on a circular field, with three sets of goalposts equidistant from each other. Each goal is defended by one of the three teams, and then you rotate each period. That's why it's three periods in length, with each period being 13-15 minutes long.

Besides being circular, the omegaball field is much smaller than a standard soccer field, which leads, along with having an extra goal mouth to shoot at, to a lot more scoring than standard soccer. It's played five-a-side. There are no throw-ins. Each time the ball goes out, one of the other teams is granted a free kick from a spot close to where it went out. Each team can score on either goal that is not their own.

I like "regular" soccer a great deal and I don't begrudge it its low scores and ties, but I must admit more scoring is always more fun. So omegaball has that going for it. But what I really like about it is this: three teams competing simultaneously leads to interesting scenarios not possible with two-team games.

For example, in the match I saw, there were at least a couple of goals scored when a player from team A tried to set up a teammate to score on team B's goal, but the pass is intercepted by a player on team C who themselves scores on team B.

Similarly, teams have the ability to sort of pair up and pick on the team with the perceived weakest goalkeeper or defense. That sure seemed to be the case in the match I watched, a women's match between "Rounders," "Drift," and "Eagles."

This match too, was in Rock Hill, SC. According to the Charlotte Observer, ESPN uses Rock Hill as a staging city for a bunch of these niche sports and turns it into a little multi-day festival. Rock Hill is near Charlotte, and if our esteemed editor and founder Marc James is still based in the Charlotte area, he should check out some of these events in person and report back.

Drift has apparently won the Los Angeles event of the omegaball ... tour? They were described on the broadcast as defending champions, but Rounders has plenty of experience too, while Eagles were mostly made up of locals, they said. I took that as meaning they were underdogs, so I rooted for them.

The final: Drift 12, Eagles 10, and Rounders 0, and this brings me back to my point about two teams picking on the third, as both Drift and Eagles continuously attacked the Rounders goal while only attacking the other goal opportunistically. This is unofficial, but I counted 17 of the 22 goals being scored on the Rounders goal and only 5 surrendered by either Drift or Eagles. As you can see by the final, Rounders couldn't must much offense either, besides being leaky in goal.

As previously stated, several goals also were set up by one team but poached by a well-placed player on another team (no offsides in omegaball). This is just one example of the dynamics of a three-team sport which, as I say, you don't see in two-team sports, and more generally, means it's going to be very, very interesting to see how this infant sport evolves strategically, and that's why I'm digging it so much.

The other ESPN8 sports I've seen — and I've only scratched the surface — I was less enchanted by.

For one, while what constitutes a sport and what does not is a matter of eternal debate, and while I am on the more generous side in declaring different games sports than most, some ESPN8 competitions, such as auctioneering and esports centered around Microsoft Excel, clearly do not qualify.

Then there was bullshooter, which you might know as "electronic darts." It seems bullshooter is simply a brand name ginned up by a leading electronic darts manufacturer (in fact, I probably should be capitalizing bullshooter, but eff 'em).

Darts is quite popular in the UK and is televised heavily there, but I am not a fan for the same reason I'm not a fan of tenpin bowling: the players are too good and perfection and near-perfection is both attainable and too-often achieved.

Darts is even "worse," though, because the prevailing competition method is called "501," which I won't get into here except to say to really be able to follow the matches closely and completely as possible as fan as it unfolds, you have to be able to do math in your head very fast, and ... hard pass for me on that, thanks.

Bullshooter uses 501 scoring, so it's a no for me. Since electronic darts uses soft tips, darts can and often do bounce off the board, but they still count. That's interesting, I guess.

Then there's axe-throwing. This obviously has a lot in common with darts (throw this thing at a circle on the wall some feet away). The good news is, it's a new enough sport that (I think) perfect scores are a little more elusive. I'm sure that will become less a rarity as time goes on, too, and I have a another axe to grind (ha!) against the sport.

If you're in the United States, and possibly elsewhere, too, you already likely know that axe-throwing has emerged the last few years as a social sport to enjoy with friends over a few beers, not unlike darts themselves, pool, shuffleboard, bowling, Golden Tee, and the like...

... except axe-throwing is a good deal more expensive than those sports, and I don't understand why. The axe-throwing place near me is $30 an hour per person. Why? Why is that much more than other social drinking sports? The only thing I can figure is that, for first-timers, you get a 15-20 minute tutorial. If they lowered the price for experienced players, I could dig it, but they don't.

Hell, you can even play golf ("real" golf) for cheaper per hour, where the overhead costs have to be much higher. For what they are charging in axe-throwing, I should be allowed to keep the axe.

Comments and Conversation

March 7, 2024

Marc James:

You are correct, Kevin - still in the area. Actually close to Rock Hill, in fact. I’ll get right on that! ;)

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