Tony Spredeman is currently the number one ranked foosballer in the world. Photo courtesy of FOOSBALLERS/Pull Shot Productions
Foosball, or table soccer as it sometimes called, is more than just a bar game or a dorm room pastime. It is a sport played around the world for prize money, with some of the best players doing it as a full-time job. A new documentary, Foosballers, follows the world’s elite players as they head towards the world championships. Writer and director Joe Heslinga spent three years creating the first film to ever capture this subculture in exquisite detail. As the film heads to make it’s New York City debut at the Kicking and Screening Soccer Film Festival, Heslinga explains why this was a story that was yearning to be told.
What inspired you to make a documentary about foosball?
It started as a conversation in my dining room. A buddy and I were thinking it would be great to make a television show about the championships of really small, obscure sports—the world championships of foosball, mini-golf, darts, and so on. So we split up the sports to do research. Once I saw that there were people actually making a living by playing professional foosball, and then I saw this history going back to the ‘70s, with huge tournaments and prize money, I told my buddy that this was way more than a tv show. This was a film.
The movie follows six of the best players in the sport as they head to the world championships. How did you decide who you wanted to follow?
The top players in the United States are a pretty small group. Each of them had a really interesting background and story. Inadvertently, we ended up following these players who represented different generations of foosballers. Todd Loffredo was the guy who was a star in the 70s, when the sport was in its heyday, and he’s still a great player today. Robert Mares really represented the guys from the ‘90s, when foosball had a bit of a resurgence. And then you have Tony Spredeman, who is considered the top player in the world now. Ideally, we were hoping that the people we picked to follow would make it to the finals of the world championships for the sake of the film.
Todd Loffredo is considered one of the greatest foosballers of all time. Photo courtesy of FOOSBALLERS/Pull Shot Productions
Going into a subculture like this, I imagine the participants are wary that an outsider is coming in to make fun of them and something they care deeply about. Did it take a while for you to earn their trust before they would be candid with you?
Absolutely. We were never met with any hostility. Everybody has always been really cool with us. But at first, it took a while to break into the world because here we were, stumbling upon this after looking at obscure sports in my dining room. And that night, I was Googling pro foosball players and trying to find contact information. Facebook helped us find people. But imagine if you get a random email saying, “Hey, I want to make a movie about you.” I would say 99 out of a hundred people are going to think, “Who is this crazy person that just hit me up on the Internet?” It took quite a few swings and misses with emails where we wouldn’t get responses. And then we finally got a couple of people who were willing to have a phone conversation. One of the first guys we talked to was Mike Bowers, who won the first world championships in 1974, and he’s very much embedded in the community. They call him The Godfather. He’s one of these living legends that is this walking encyclopedia of table soccer.
Did he vouch for you?
Yeah, we had a really great conversation with him and I think that helped us connect with a couple of other people. And then we went to some tournaments. I didn’t know a single soul in the building. But I would email a few people beforehand and say, “Hey, we were talking to Mike Bowers, and we want to do this thing on foosball.” And they would say, “Well, why don’t you come to the tournament?” So we drove up to Vegas. And that’s really when we were able to meet Tony for the first time and Tommy Atkinson, and some of the other guys. We paid out of pocket to go to Colorado to shoot a weekend with Ryan Moore, Mike Bowers and Rob Mares. And that footage from the Vegas tournament and Colorado was what we used for our Kickstarter video. Once we had that video, they knew that, okay, these guys have an idea and were actually wanting to execute it in a good way.
Foosball legend Rob Mares gets his playing hand checked out. Photo courtesy of FOOSBALLERS/Pull Shot Productions
What surprised you the most as you were making the film?
How many different versions of a movie you can make (laughs). I’m a writer for a Netflix show called F is for Family. This is the first time I had edited a movie, and this is the first time I had directed a movie. Just in postproduction, the amount of different movies that you can make, we probably cut together a hundred different versions of it. That’s just part of the process of post-production. You have this general idea and a roadmap, and then as you uncover stuff, it became easier to, to edit. We would always think about when we shot the movie and we wrapped for the day got in the car, in the car ride back to the hotel, what were we talking about the most? And it was always those things that we were talking about in the car that we shot that day that ended up making it in the movie. The first time we found out that they had foosball trading cards? That’s amazing! Or did you see that trick shot that he did? All this stuff that was either funny to us or interesting while we were shooting, anything we were really excited about it in the moment ended up making it in the movie.
We don’t really see much animosity between the players in the movie. Does that not exist in foosball culture?
When you talk to any of the pro foosball players, they’ll tell you the culture was a little bit different in the ’70s and the ’90s. In the ’90s, it was much more cutthroat—guys screaming at the table, even if they were friends off the table. The environment was much grittier, much more lively. And in the ’70s, it was, much bigger, so the stakes were higher. So pro foosball has evolved in a different way. It’s smaller now. When you go from the hugeness of the ’70s to the almost resurgence in the ’90s and then what it is today—it’s a lot of those same players, but everyone’s kind of a family now. Don’t get me wrong, they’re super competitive and things do sometimes get heated, but they’re all friends.
What do you hope that people take away from watching the film?
I hope that they’re enlightened about a sport they’d probably never knew existed and have a different appreciation for this game that everyone knows. It’s one of those things that has a magnetism. You walk into a room, and there’s a foosball table. People’s eyes light up. It’s like, “Hey, they’ve got a foosball table here!” But nobody knows that it’s played at this level. We wanted to tell a story that didn’t just open people’s eyes to professional foosball, but a story about the people that play it and their passion. What I want people to get out of it is that it doesn’t matter what your passion is or what drives you as a person, do what makes you happy. And when you do what makes you happy, you’re living your best life. In the movie, we talk about the pursuit of the American dream. Well, what is the American dream? Is it $1 million in the bank account? Is it a big house? Is it a big family? Or is it just doing something that makes you happy that, that you can get up in the morning every day and just love life. It doesn’t matter if it’s playing foosball, or for me it’s making movies, or trying to be a Super Bowl champion. It doesn’t matter what your dream is or what your goal is, but if that’s what you want to do and that’s who you want to be, then you should do it.
Foosballers will open the Kicking and Screening Soccer Film Festival on Tuesday, June 4th in New York City. For tickets, visit KickingandScreening.com.