Joining the Ultimate community in the U.S. has always provided a pretty simple schedule and plan. You get a team together, and then in the spring you plan a series of tournaments to attend. This all culminates in participating in the USA Ultimate championship series. This is a straight forward and awesome process. It provides players with clear goals, a purpose behind each tournament, and finally: a final series of tournaments that have a higher level of play. It is easy to think of every step as a building process towards Nationals.
This same process is more or less the same for many countries. These countries have strong Ultimate communities, cultivated their own system that leads to high level of play, and have a Nationals that is a driving goal for all teams.
But what do you do when you either have no nationals, or it doesn’t reach a higher quality of play? In these places, Ultimate players need to find a way to play competitively. Do you put all your focus on each individual tournament as it comes? Do you pick one tournament to be the culmination of your year’s work? This is a struggle that takes a lot of planning and decision making.
I have spent the past two years living in the ROK (Republic of Korea), and I found myself asking these same questions. In Korea, KUPA (take a guess) runs three to four tournaments a year. They start the season in April with an international tournament on Jeju Island. This is the biggest and definitely the highest level of competition that is played in Korea. This is due to the number of international teams that attend. Then two smaller Korea-only tournaments take place in June and August. They end the season in September with Nationals/Championships, but with no sectionals or regionals. It is a small tournament ranging between 6 to 10 teams. The overall level is not incredibly high, but increasing with each year. As you can see, the season is spread apart and not filled with a whole lot of options. During this time there are numerous leagues and hat tournaments, but nothing to scratch that high level of play itch. This is not a complaint. It is amazing to see the growth of the sport and a lot of work goes into making KUPA happen. However, for the players that want to play at a higher level, this schedule is not enough. Winning Nationals is not the achievement that makes a year of work seem worthwhile.
This is the beauty and the curse of international Ultimate. There are options to play, but they require a bit more effort and travel than in the States. For our team, we decided to create our schedule with the following tournaments. KUPA Nationals as the kick off, then Hong Kong in October, and Manila Spirits in the Philippines as our finale. Every practice and every game was working towards Spirits. Hong Kong was important but definitely viewed as the build up to Manila. Despite playing in Nationals, if you asked us, “What matters most this season?” The answer was a simple one word: “Manila.”
For many of the teams at Manila, this was the case. Manila was more than just a huge tournament with great competition and even better parties. It was the reason to play all year. It is the motivation for each practice. It is the chance to play your highest level of Ultimate for an entire year. For many teams, it is the time to showcase your skills in a large Ultimate community. Finally, it is the reason we play sports: the ability to test yourself in a high level of competition. For places without that local competitive outlet, people will find a way. People create their own season and seek out the chance to play. The U.S. has a fantastic model for the way Ultimate should work. But it relies on a few key factors: A large and ever growing community, ease of travel, and generally more flexible work schedules. I am in no way trying to take credit away from the U.S. Ultimate scene. You have been building an amazing community, but this is my shout out to all the players I met in Southeast Asia and the players around the globe I have yet to meet. You put in the work and are building your own communities both at home and abroad. It is not always easy, but competition finds a way.