Tom Filippini was always a big fan of ping-pong as a kid and young adult. It’s easy to learn, largely accessible and can be addicting once you get started.
Unfortunately, his addiction to the game spread to a dangerous area. As an adult, he graduated to beer pong, which became a catalyst for the Chicago native’s alcohol abuse, which spanned several years.
The problem followed Filippini when he moved to Denver in the late 1990s. He nearly lost everything in his battle, but finally took a stand in 2016, when he had his last drop of alcohol. He’s been sober ever since, and eventually directed his energy to a passion project: a game he invented called Pepper Pong.
“What really my vision for this game was, going back 20 to 25 years, was something that you could play on any surface, and that anybody, regardless of age or ability could jump in and compete and have fun,” Filippini said.
The game involves a portable plastic net that folds into itself for easy set-up. It also comes with larger, pickleball-like paddles and three different balls for three skill levels.
The balls are “more forgiving” than a light, super bouncy ping-pong ball, Filippini said. The game can be all easily packed into a small bag and played on any flat surface, from a dinner table to the hood of a car.
Filippini made a name for himself around Denver with “Pong Island,” his pandemic-born creation in Cheesman Park. He set up a ping-pong table that quickly brought players, sparked by boredom during lockdowns.
He said he targeted a heavy-traffic area in the park, which became a go-to spot for people looking to socialize and play at a safe distance. That was hard to find during COVID-19, especially for a game typically played indoors.
Park visitors flocked and it became something of a cult classic in the community. Filippini knew he was likely breaking some ordinance, but the positive reviews were overflowing (and more convincing).
But word of its popularity soon spread to Denver’s Parks and Recreation Department, who shut down the popular park spot. Also, the crowds were an issue (the city had taken down tennis and basketball courts as well to try and dissuade social congregating during the pandemic).
A park ranger had posted a notice on the “Pong Island” sign and table that Filippini put up, stating it needed to be removed or would be confiscated by the city.
Filippini came forward as the organizer and took the table home, and Pong Island’s exciting, brief run was over. Since then, he has worked on his idea for his portable, outdoor, community kind of pickleball/ping-pong game. After years of developing the game, Pepper Pong is officially on the market.
I sat down with Filippini to discuss his story, his battle with alcoholism, and the origins and future of Pepper Pong.
Was Pepper Pong born out of your Pong Island idea, or are you riding the wave of pickleball’s popularity?
Actually, neither of those. I’ve always loved ping-pong. I started playing probably when I was six years old. It was always a basement game. In my 20s, we started hacking together different ways to play it and different balls to use. There was a Nerf ping-pong game back in the 1980s. We really liked the ball that they used, but they stopped making it. Ultimately, ping-pong is a fantastic game if you have equal components, and if you have all the gear that’s all functioning properly, and you have enough room in your house to store a ping-pong table. That’s why pickleball has become so popular; you can literally take a 20-minute lesson and start playing, and that’s how Pepper Pong is.
How did you come up with the name?
Just totally random, to be honest with you! When we started working on it, pickleball was kind of getting going. There’s something kind of quirky about “pickleball.” What’s something about me that I could incorporate in the game? I was thinking specifically about the Pepper Pong balls, because each set comes with three (at different difficulties). I was looking at a bottle of hot sauce, you know that sliding scale on hot sauces sometimes, where it’s basically death at the top and super mild at the bottom? I was like, “Pepper Pong.” It allowed us to categorize the balls based on their spiciness.
There’s another sport you link to Pepper Pong and its success: Spikeball. Why?
Spikeball is really popular here also. Ironically, I was struggling with getting the game manufactured. A friend of mine happened to be connected to the gentleman who had taken over Spikeball as the CEO. He put me in contact with (the man who would do product engineering for Spikeball). He arranged all of the same manufacturing at the same facility Spikeball is manufactured in China. So we sort of parallel-pathed a little bit. I mean, we’re way behind Spikeball but we share a lot of connections with them. And I just know Spikeball is all over Colorado.
Do you think debuting the game in Denver is partially responsible for its early success?
I do think that Colorado is uniquely curious about these types of games. I mean, you see Spikeball at camp grounds. One of the most popular venues for people playing Pepper Pong, it seems, is on camping trips and in the outdoors. Once we were stuck in I-70 traffic and we played it on the hood of our car. It’s so funny because having lived here for 25+ years, there’s so many different places where Pepper Pong is just a natural fit, doesn’t matter if its in traffic and you want to break it out, or if you’re in some remote camp ground and you want to play on your Yeti cooler or tailgating or something like that. We always joke that from the funeral home to the frat house, you can play it anywhere.
How is Pepper Pong related to battling your addiction? Are they related?
They’re absolutely intertwined. I mean, when I was in the throes of my challenges with overcoming my addiction, truly what was going on was: I had all these ideas and I wanted to do all these things in my life, but I was frozen because of my addiction. I could function, and I’ve got a family that I support, and I was able — by the grace of God — to continue to do that, but I could only do the baseline stuff. All of my real dreams, like creating a game like Pepper Pong that’s been on my brain for years and years and years, I couldn’t execute on it because I wasn’t sharp or functioning at a high level. Once I was able to really think about what I wanted to accomplish, I was able to start to do stuff I was simply unable to do while in the shackles of addiction.
You said you dedicate Pepper Pong sets to recovery facilities and homeless/treatment centers. Why is that important to you?
I’ve always wanted to give back. When I reflected on my own journey to sobriety, and thought about things that gave me the motivation to get through it, I was always looking for people that suffered the way I had suffered. The ones that were able to overcome it and what they accomplished sort of served as inspiration for me. Having that out there as a guide post was always really critical for me. But also in the day-to-day, when you’re trying to get rid of a substance that you’ve relied on day-in and day-out for years — if not decades — and you all the sudden stop that, you need something to replace it with. For me, it was something active, something lighthearted. Ping-pong was an important piece for that to fill those hours when I would have otherwise been drinking. I hope Pepper Pong can be that for others.
Is one of the themes of this game to take back “party games” from exclusively party-like atmospheres?
I’m not saying people shouldn’t enjoy a cold beverage while they’re playing Pepper Pong. Responsible use of substances is totally fine, in my mind, but I do think a lot of these games have gone a little bit too far to the extreme, where it’s like, “We only play this game because we’re drinking while doing it.” I don’t like that. Sure, turn it into a drinking game if you want, but don’t binge drink. Don’t be irresponsible with it. And don’t make it all about the drinking; make it about the connection with other people and the fun that you’re having playing this game.
For more about Pepper Pong, visit www.pepperpong.com