It all started with laundry.
Over the summer, Oklahoma football players wanted to figure out a fair way to delegate a teammate to do chores for everyone. A group of 11 Sooners, mostly skill players, started playing rock-paper-scissors, with the loser of the best-of-three matchup responsible for laundry.
Predictably, the duels grew increasingly competitive, and they started playing a brief version during training camp after scoring touchdowns. Once the season started, it was only natural to keep doing it.
In Oklahoma’s season opener against Florida Atlantic (a decisive 63–14 win), quarterback Kyler Murray found Marquise Brown for a 65-yard touchdown in the second quarter. To celebrate, the two met near the end zone for a quick match of rock-paper-scissors: Murray’s scissors beat Brown’s paper.
The next weekend, Brown scored on a 58-yard catch-and-run and battled receiver Myles Tease.
On the Sooners' next drive, Murray scored from 10 yards out and found Brown again, this time losing with paper against scissors.
The celebration goes well beyond Norman. Clemson's Hunter Renfrow beat defensive lineman Christian Wilkins after finding the end zone last November. High school teams are doing it. And the NFL is getting in on the fun: Todd Gurley and Robert Woods broke out a rock-paper-scissors celebration following the Rams’ opening score in Week 2 against the Cardinals, and Saquon Barkley and Odell Beckham Jr. were spotted playing on the New York Giants bench during a preseason game. Athletes playing America’s most complex pastime are simultaneously finding pleasure in America’s simplest pastime.
“It’s just been a fun thing for us,” says Brown, who has emerged as Murray's favorite target in Oklahoma's offense. “Growing up, I always played it and then we got here and we’re getting pretty competitive with it. We’ll play for anything, like who will pay for the meal that day.”
The origin of rock-paper-scissors is somewhat mysterious and highly debated on Internet message boards. Some say it started in Egypt around 2000 B.C.E., while others claim it began in Eastern Asia centuries later. Regardless of its history, what’s true is that versions are played in cultures around the world, whether it’s called ant-elephant-man (Indonesia) or frog-snake-slug (East Asia). And the rules remain (essentially) the same: rock beats scissors, paper covers rock, scissors cut paper.
Whatever the interpretation, the game is a test in basic human psychology and decision-making. It may sound simple and random, which is sort of true—but there’s undoubtedly an element of strategy involved.
Jason Simmons, who goes by the pseudonym Master Roshambollah, calls himself the “greatest rock-paper-scissors player of all-time” and the “Bobby Fischer of RPS.” His day job is working at Deep Roots Tattoo and Body Piercing in Seattle, but his passion is this “sport.” He started playing competitively when he was six years old in what he describes as pickup or street matches. He has competed in the Rock-Paper-Scissors World Championships in Toronto, which was sanctioned by the World RPS Society and televised by A&E, and he served as Trey Wingo's color commentator when ESPN broadcast the 2007 USARPS Championship from Las Vegas. Sadly, the sport's highest competitive levels are on an extended hiatus; the last international tournament was held in 2009.
Simmons loves that football players are making RPS relevant on a national stage. He watched film of the celebrations between Barkley and Beckham and analyzed their form and strategy:
On the first throw, the Giants players match on scissors, which Simmons says means they’re “feeling each other out,” which is “a good, conservative start.” On the second throw, Beckham throws paper, which defeats Barkley’s rock. “When you look at the reason they chose those throws, people always refer to the football as the rock, so of course Saquon Barkley, being a running back is going to throw the rock,” Simmons says. “If you look at Odell Beckham, he throws paper. Odell is a master of the one-handed grab with all those sick catches he makes, so naturally, he’s going to throw paper because that’s what his hands do. Plus he’s thinking about all the stacks of paper that he makes."
Simmons uses a handful of strategies and physical tells when playing, looking at everything from the way his opponents stand to what they’re wearing. He’ll read patterns and note whether they use the same throw consecutively. He’ll notice technical things, like how some players jet their elbows out before throwing paper, or drop their thumb before throwing scissors.
He explains, too, that more experienced rock-paper-scissors players influence their competition. If you’re playing the one-two-three-shoot style (rather than one-two-shoot), around the second or third throw he might throw a pair of scissors with his opposite hand and confuse the opponent into thinking he’s going to throw scissors. Or he might yell the word “rock” during the set and throw something else.
Brown hasn’t yet reached such an advanced point in his RPS career, but he has developed a strategy. He has noticed that Murray and Tease like to use scissors, so he’ll let them win the first game. Because they always play best-of-three (unless it’s after a touchdown, then they play one), he gets them the next two sets.
“It’s a psychology thing,” Brown says. “I’m like, I know you’re gonna go scissors and then they try to do reverse psychology by saying they’re not gonna go scissors, but then they still do it.”
Brown, who claims to have the best record on the team, admits there’s no formulated method to his throws.
“I’m just a stubborn guy,” he says. “If I go rock the first time, I might go rock again. Whatever I do the first time, I might just do it again the second time to see if they change.”
Simmons’s best advice to Murray, Brown, Beckham, Barkley and any other football players aspiring to be “dual-sport athletes” is simple: safety first. He realizes this sounds ridiculous, but rock-paper-scissors players also have to train properly and watch out for injuries. He has personally had sore shoulders and elbows after long weekends of playing.
Overall, Simmons is pleased with the way the game is trending as a touchdown celebration and hopes it continues throughout the season.
“They have good form, they’re matching on priming conventions, and even if they’re just doing it for laughs, they could stake their claim as an amateur level player,” Simmons says. “Or at least an offseason hustler.”