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USARPS on the Front Page of the LA Times!

COLUMN ONE

 

Rock, paper, tournament

 

Rock

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Mari Darr-Welch / For The Times

Creighton Rhodes of the University of Alabama and Joey Miller of Georgia Southern University face off during the USA Rock Paper Scissors League’s inaugural collegiate tournament in Panama City, Fla. The prize: $20,000 for tuition. (Neither claimed it.)

You've played the game to pick kickball teams or settle who does the dishes. Now, thanks to a tireless promoter, college students are playing it for money.

By Alana Semuels
March 21, 2009

Reporting from Panama City, Fla. -- The one they call Naco faces his opponent, fist raised, trying to ignore TV cameras, jeers from spring-break revelers and women in itsy-bitsy bikinis a few yards away.Standing in the center of a boxing ring on a stage erected on the beach, the diminutive Syracuse University sophomore is tied, one best-of-three set apiece, in the USA Rock Paper Scissors League's inaugural collegiate tournament.

 

A referee gives the signal. The competitors pound their fists, one, two, three times.

Naco throws a clenched hand -- rock. Stone Thrower, a sunburned University of Oklahoma student in a backward baseball cap, extends two outstretched fingers -- scissors.

Rock beats scissors. Naco is one throw from victory.

The thousands of raucous spectators on the beach below roar and raise plastic cups, a red wave rippling across the crowd of skin.

Winning carries more than bragging rights: The champion will score $20,000 for tuition. Winners of rock-paper-scissors tournaments at nearly two dozen colleges across the country were flown here by the sponsor, PepsiCo's AMP Energy drink, to compete against one another and wild-card players plucked off the beach.

Off to the side of the stage, a tall, bald man in a bright blue shirt and white shorts dotted with lobsters grins and takes a picture. He is Matti Leshem, commissioner of the USA Rock Paper Scissors League. The Los Angeles marketer brought the child's game to casinos, and now he's turning it into a spring break sport.

"Your brains got you into college, but you're going to use your fists to pay for it," he yelled to the crowd before the match.

Leshem is intent on exploring -- and exploiting -- the sexy side of a game usually reserved for schoolyards.

The 46-year-old uses buxom women in bikinis to promote events, brings in beer and energy drink companies as sponsors, and strikes television deals such as the one to broadcast these finals later this month on MTVU, the cable network's college channel.

His latest angle: Pitch rock-paper-scissors as a way to help students pay for school, a scholarship sport that requires brains rather than athletic talent. The game has a low barrier to entry: It requires no equipment, and, he likes to say, it's so simple that even a one-armed person can play. In the game, rock smashes scissors, scissors cut paper, paper smothers rock. When each player throws the same hand, it's a stalemate.

Leshem challenges just about everyone he meets to a game, provided they're willing to wager money on the outcome. On the beach here, Leshem swept an MTV host and former "Top Model" contestant in straight sets. He beat a bikini-clad cheerleader (she had to do a back flip as penance for losing). He even challenged a toddler -- who gave up on the game halfway through to return to his juice box.

He says you can tell a lot about people by their choices: Someone who throws rock first is either aggressive or lazy. Paper, represented by an outstretched hand, palm down, means you're staid and observant. Scissors suggests complicated and sexy.

By puffing up the simple game into an event that screaming college students want to be part of, Leshem has become the sport's go-to guy. He says he has perfected how to properly televise the matches, and he landed a publishing deal with a HarperCollins imprint for his book, "The Zen of Rock Paper Scissors," about how the game can be applied to situations including work, love and death.

The game's history is murky. Some claim its roots lie in ancient China, while others believe it originated in Portugal in the 6th century BC. The first written records of a Japanese version called "Jan-Ken" date to roughly 200 BC. Some Americans call it "roshambo" (believed to be a reference to San Francisco's Rochambeau Playground) and chant those three syllables in place of the traditional counting to begin a game.

In schoolyards, kids picking kickball or basketball teams use rock-paper-scissors to determine who gets first choice of players. During an exhibition tour in China last year, Dodgers players Matt Kemp and Andruw Jones threw fists to decide who would start in center field. As Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark dog-sledded above the Arctic Circle in 2000, his expedition used it to determine whose directions to follow.

"This is a game that's been used to settle disputes for centuries," said Ross Martin, a senior vice president at MTV. "But in the hands of a Matti Leshem, it becomes a transformative experience."

Rock-paper-scissors became a competitive sport after two Canadian brothers, Graham and Douglas Walker, created the World Rock Paper Scissors Society in 1995. Seven years later, they started holding annual tournaments that drew competitors from across the globe. The passion is strong, but the prizes are small and the matches relatively tame.

In 2003, Leshem, then a TV producer, read a newspaper article about the society and smelled opportunity. He persuaded the Walkers to bring him on as a partner and struck a deal with Fox Sports Net, the cable network, to televise matches. The Walkers soon learned that Leshem is a different kind of marketer.

He runs a Hollywood agency, Protagonist, which he calls a "brand energy" company because it finds ways to reach consumers using entertainment. In 2003, to sell soda, he co-created and produced "Pepsi Play For a Billion," a TV show in which one contestant would win $1 million, with a chance at $1 billion, if a chimp named Mr. Moneybags drew numbers that matched theirs. It ran for two years.

Pepsi Chief Marketing Officer Dave Burwick calls Leshem "a real catalyst for creative thinking around everything" and keeps hiring him, including to produce his bottler meetings. For one, Leshem had Burwick dress as Batman, fly in on a rope and rip off his mask. Leshem says he has 100,000 unsuccessful ideas for every good one and sometimes isn't sure which are worth pursuing. For example, he doesn't yet know whether a current project, a reality show featuring homeless people singing karaoke, will find a network.

His no-holds-barred marketing approach soon grated on the Walker brothers. He hired former Playboy models to stand in the ring and "was trying to add this sex appeal, getting away from what we thought was the soul of the sport," Graham Walker said. The two sides parted ways in 2005.

His vision unrealized, Leshem formed the USA RPS League. He landed Bud Light as a sponsor and took the events on the road, including to Beijing during the Olympic Games. The winner of last year's championship in Las Vegas pulled in $50,000.

On Tuesday, in the semifinals of the USA Rock Paper Scissors "ChAMPionships," nervous contestants were breaking the rules by showing their hands too early or trying to change their throws after seeing their opponents' choice (an illegal procedure known as "rolling").

A TV producer coached the semifinalists on how to celebrate should they win, feeding them trash-talking lines to insert in victory speeches and forcing them to rehearse. The producer also encouraged them to craft personas for a better chance at attracting the cameras. One contestant was shirtless, wearing a lei and cowboy boots and carrying a Bud Light. Another called himself Krok and made snapping crocodile motions with his arms.

"That's the real deal right there," Leshem said, pointing to a towering student who had just swept a match and was wearing, as a good luck charm, a gold-wrapped condom on a string around his neck. "You can tell by his walk."

His name was Joseph "Smashwell" Miller, a senior from Georgia Southern University who had joined the tournament earlier that week because, he said, "some cute girl" was at the sign-up station. He has never had much success at the game, but through what he calls a combination of luck and "liquid courage," he made it to the finals. He was eliminated by Stone Thrower (a sophomore whose real name is John Stone).

Miller, a football player, doesn't consider roshambo a real sport.

"This would be a game," he said. "Real sports have balls."

Naco disagrees. The mechanical engineering major (real name: Jonathan Monaco) plays regularly with his roommates to determine who has to get breakfast from the dining hall or clean up the bathroom. He won the tournament at Syracuse. For the championships here, he kicked his game up a notch by focusing on "body composure" and donning intimidating red sunglasses.

"Once you get $20,000 on the line," he said, "it's a sport."

On Wednesday, Naco listens to Rage Against the Machine to get in the proper mind-set for the finals. A big crowd gathers under the scorching sun, drawn by the boxing ring -- and the free N.E.R.D. concert MTV is hosting on the beach after the rock-paper-scissors finale.

"Y'all drunk yet?" someone in the front row asks. Another says, "I'm betting on the kid in the pink hat," referring to Stone Thrower. Security ejects an inebriated student who stands too close to some women.

On stage, the camera pans over the finalists -- all male -- as they make macho faces and try to show personality. Four "ring girls" in hot-pink bikinis swarm around them. Hands are thrown, runners-up determined, the field narrowed to two. It's Naco and Stone Thrower.

They face each other, trembling as the referee pauses for suspense. Cameras zoom in on their faces, then settle on their hands.

Stone Thrower wins the first best-of-three set. Naco wins the second. In the third, Naco's rock throw puts him within spitting distance of the title.

Leshem peers into a monitor, rubbing his hands with excitement.

The referee places his hand between those of the contestants, then lifts it swiftly to signal the start of play. One, two, three.

Naco throws paper. Stone Thrower, true to his name, throws rock.

Paper covers rock. Naco wins.

He jumps around the ring, hugging his friends, then rushes to the front of the stage where Leshem hands him an AMP beverage to swig. After a few minutes, Leshem walks out with an oversized yellow check for $20,000, which Naco hoists into the air.

An MTV VJ leans in with the seriousness of a post-Super Bowl interview and asks, "How do you feel?" as the cameramen jostle for a better shot.

Despite his rehearsals, Naco seems lost for words.

"Amazing," he says breathlessly.

"Give us more," the VJ says, nodding at the cameras.

Naco pauses. He looks at Leshem, the check and the audience of bronzed teenagers cheering him like he's a star.

"This," he shouts, "is the best day of my life!"

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