Researchers and students design entirely new sport

Overzicht van speelveld sport Qontrol-ball
Photo: Sven van Pel / Quest

In collaboration with the popular science magazine Quest, researchers and students from Utrecht University have come up with a new sport: Qontrol Ball. Is that even possible, designing a completely new sport? And if so, how does it work? Professor Maarten van Bottenburg, lecturers and students from the Master's programme Sports Policy and Sports Management not only did solid literature research and experimented with design thinking for Quest, they actually tested Qontrol Ball. "We really saw the emergence of something that didn't exist before. It can be played just like that, it doesn't take much", says Van Bottenburg.

What happens when you want to design your own sport? That was the question that lecturer-researchers and students from the Master's programme Sports Policy and Sports Management tackled at the request of magazine Quest, in April 2021. In doing so, Quest did set some preconditions. For example, the sport had to be attractive to the public; not resemble an existing sport; be a physical sport with rules; be competitive; preferably not be a ball sport (unless it would fundamentally deviate from existing ball sports), be playable by all population groups and preferably be gender-neutral.

From literature to design with Design Thinking

On the basis of some historical examples from the literature of sports that were largely created 'at the drawing board' (such as basketball, volleyball, korfball and, for instance, ultimate frisbee), the researchers first described how those design processes had gone. Then they got to work themselves, using design thinking, a method for finding creative solutions to complex issues - from the user's perspective.

Want to know more about design thinking? Check out this video via YouTube

The first meeting we mainly discussed what are exactly the principles of contemporary sport and what happens when you abandon those principles, says professor Maarten van Bottenburg. We established that it is almost always one against one, or one team against another. But why not three against three, or four against four? And if there is an object, there is always only one: a ball, for instance. Couldn't you also work with multiple objects?

Verschillende ballen voor sport
Photo: Gaby Baas / Quest

We observed that there is usually little humour in sports. It's all so deadly serious. Couldn't you bring in gamechangers that create confusion or surprise?

Maarten van Bottenburg
Maarten van Bottenburg

And what about the audience? There is always a separation between participants and audience. But could you also give the audience influence over the contest, let them become part of the contest itself? How do you do that? Furthermore, we observed that there is usually little humour in sport. It's all so deadly serious. Couldn't you introduce gamechangers that cause confusion or surprise? In short: it went in all directions. Which is also the interesting thing about design thinking: that you first arrive at an infinite number of possibilities, but then have to make choices again within the possibilities you have.

Looking for something new, but with enough realism

The students also went all-in on stepping away from existing principles, looking for something new but with enough realism to come up with something that you can actually develop into a prototype. We have since tried that out, in the Olympos sports hall in the Utrecht Science Park.

That was so wonderful. We stepped into the hall and really saw something being created that did not yet exist. The bystanders also got really enthusiastic about it. And: it can be played just like that, it doesn't take much, says Van Bottenburg.

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Sporters in een zaal
Photo: Gaby Baas / Quest


One of the students remarked during the tryouts that we couldn't do certain things because otherwise it became more of a game than a sport. This had to do with the fact that if you build in too much unpredictability and chance, you can no longer become more agile at it. Then it becomes a kind of game of chance. That is also still kind of the question surrounding the special ball we use. That 'ball' has four bulges so that if you throw it on the ground, the 'bounce' can be very unexpected. In the game, you have to throw to someone else via the ground. If you do that with this ball, the first bounce is in the direction you expect, but if you don't catch it, on the second bounce it jumps just in one direction.

Speelveld Qontrol-ball
Photo: Sven van Pel / Quest

Qontrol Ball: the rules of the game 

  • The field measures 18 by 18 metres and is divided into a large triangle and two smaller ones (see illustration). Each triangle has its own colour. In the middle of each triangle is a smaller triangle (about 1 metre in diameter). This is the scoring area. 
  • Games are played with three teams. Each team defends a box (and thus a scoring spot). 
  • A special type of rubber ball (the Qontrol ball) is used. This ball is not round, but has six bulges, which sometimes give it a 'will of its own'. When skipping, the ball must bounce at least once. Throwing it through the air is therefore not allowed, nor is running with the ball. 
  • A player may hold the ball for a maximum of five seconds. If a player exceeds this time limit, he must hand the ball to the team defending the box he is in.
  • A team consists of three players. If one of them stands with one foot in an opponent's scoring circle and catches the ball at that moment, a goal has been scored. 
  • A match is played in sets of 10 minutes. Each team starts a set with five points. If a team scores, two points are deducted. The team that's scored against, gains one point. Whoever reaches zero first, or has the fewest points left at the end of a set, wins the set. The team that has won two sets first wins. A match therefore consists of a maximum of four sets.
  • At the start of a set, teams stand in their own scoring spot. The ball is put into play by a referee in the centre of the court. After a score, the team playing in the big box starts with the ball. Teams also change squares after each score (rotate clockwise). 
  • Players from different teams are not allowed to hold or otherwise hinder each other through physical contact during the game. 
  • When the ball is out, it must be brought back into play by the team defending the box where it went out of play.
  • Two teams may form a temporary 'coalition' to keep the third team from winning. The collaboration is one-off for each team and is started in the 'break' after a point gained. A team calls out the word 'coalition', thereby naming the team with which a coalition is envisaged. Upon agreement of this team, the coalition is in force. It is lifted after the next point is scored. Each team may initiate a coalition once per set.

It gave us a very different, refreshing look at sport.

Maarten van Bottenburg
Maarten van Bottenburg

Now it is actually just beginning, says Maarten van Bottenburg in the Quest article. Will it fall dead or will it be picked up? We have come a long way, but we won't really be there until Qontrol Ball catches on. That, he says, depends on much more than scientific invention: on money, marketing and all sorts of coincidences. The researchers and students would prefer to demonstrate the sport in front of spectators one day, to make them think about it and ask for their opinions about it.

In any case, I have become very enthusiastic about design thinking, says Van Bottenburg, because I have seen that it works in practice. We may not have been able to meet all of Quest's needs, but we have come a long way. And we can move forward with it. Meanwhile, it has given us a very different, refreshing view of sport.

Research team

A team consisting of Michel van Slobbe, Arend van Haaften and Maarten van Bottenburg (teacher-researchers) and Bradley Hermsen, Lisa Snooy, Anne Geurts, Thomas Staats, Romy Laan, Sebas Hamilton, Bram van der Ploeg, Julian Huijsse and Fenne Pennings (students) worked on the development of Qontrol Ball.

More information

Read the article 'Sport from the test tube' by Mark Traa in Quest, issue 6, May 2022. Or check out Quest's website.

Want to know more? Then contact Maarten van Bottenburg: