It’s a little bit of football, combined with soccer-like passes and lacrosse-like throws, but with a Frisbee disc and no referee.
The disc is passed from person to person — no running with the disc is allowed. Points are scored when discs are caught in the goal area. Fouls occur when there is physical contact or improper picks or screens. It is then up to the players to determine whether a foul occurred. For the most part, this works — thanks to the concept of the “spirit of the game.”
“We may be opponents, but we aren’t enemies,” says Alex Blanton, a Redmond-based Microsoft community manager who has played the sport for 30 years. “You don’t have people trying to get away with things.”
The sport is extremely popular on the Eastside, as well as throughout the Puget Sound region. The Microsoft campus, for example, has well-attended twice-weekly pickup games.
The sport’s local association, DiscNW, hosts thousands of players. There are at least 1,000 participants playing in the spring season alone, says Blanton, who has served on DiscNW’s governing body.
At this time, the sport is mostly club-level players, but there is a semi-pro team, the Seattle Cascades. There also is a women’s team, the Seattle Riot. The Riot won the U.S. National Championship in 2004 and 2005, as well as the World Ultimate Club Championship in 2002 and 2014.
Originally from the New York City area, Blanton started playing Ultimate Frisbee in the late 1980s while he was still in high school in Connecticut, even though it was not an official school sport.
He then played at Middlebury College in Vermont, and later picked it up again in his late 20s after moving to Seattle.
Blanton plays about four hours a week between his club team and Microsoft’s weekly pickup games.
“If you play with certain people a lot, you know they will cut a certain direction, or they will have a certain forehand throw,” he says. “You get into a flow. That’s when you are performing at your highest. That’s addicting.”
When traveling, it’s easy to find pickup games around the country, he says.
“I’ve traveled to different places and brought my cleats; it’s a welcoming community,” he says. “I always meet people that know someone I know through the game.”
He’s played in Los Alamos, N.M., and on New York’s Upper West Side when visiting his parents.
“It’s nice to know you can go anywhere and have a group of people who will be very welcoming,” he said.
Though pickup and the local games aren’t overly competitive, he did play in the 40-plus national championship. His team finished sixth.
Higher-level games get competitive, and that’s where things get sticky.
As a result, “observers” have been introduced to the game to step in as a mediator in case of a disagreement between the two teams over a foul — though this isn’t common practice in the lower-level matches.
The ref-free environment is particularly impressive when watching youth, Blanton says.
“The kids are learning to be accountable for themselves; they aren’t looking at trying to get away with things.”
In addition, since players usually play without refs, pickup games are easy to organize and manage.
“Everyone is used to playing without a ref,” he says. “Wherever you go around the country, the same ethos (exists).”