It’s hard — if not downright impossible — to look cool while playing a sport that involves riding broomsticks.

But that’s just one of the perils of Quidditch, whose players are quite aware of how they look. They cope by telling self-deprecating jokes.

“Before a game, we’ll say, ‘Let’s go tackle some nerds,’ ” said Eric Jurgeson, a Loyola University junior who swam competitively and played water polo in high school.

Now he is team captain for Loyola’s Quidditch team, a real-life sport inspired by the magical “Harry Potter” books. The activity attempts to be faithful to a game that, after all, is played by fictional wizards and witches flying on brooms.

When “Muggles,” or non-wizards, take to the Quidditch pitch, the result looks like a mix of rugby, tag and dodgeball. As in the books, each side has seven players; they run or pass a slightly deflated volleyball called a “Quaffle” down the field while trying not to get tackled or hit by one of their opponents’ two kickballs, called “Bludgers.” Teams score 10 points each time a player throws the volleyball through one of three hoops on the opponent’s goal line.

“We know it’s a fantasy sport; we know we’re nerds, but we try to distance ourselves from it,” said Todd Mathieu, a muscular sophomore standout on Tulane University’s Quidditch squad, which launched two years ago and often scrimmages against Loyola’s more seasoned team.

Jurgeson said the coed, full-contact sport requires a blend of good humor, strategy and athleticism that he and his team have evidently mastered: Next weekend, the Loyola Quidditch team, buoyed by strong freshman talent, heads to South Carolina to compete as one of the nation’s top 80 teams at the U.S. Quidditch World Cup. In the official U.S. Quidditch standings, the team from Loyola ranks 48th in the country.

Among the other Louisiana teams, Tulane was 86th nationally, while LSU ranked 99th of 200 teams nationwide.

Quidditch got its start at Middlebury College in Vermont in 2005 and has become wildly popular at the collegiate level with players who grew up with the “Harry Potter” books, the first of which was released 18 years ago.

If it began as something of a goof — people can’t fly, after all — players say the game has now shed some of its weird side and is gaining attention from former high school jocks who see the sport as a real athletic challenge. As proof of its evolution, Quidditch is now dominated by teams from Texas, a state known more for concussive football tackles than fantasy games. And the top teams practice hard, five days a week, players say.

As Quidditch heads into its second decade, players are trying to maintain ties to its whimsical origins while shedding aspects that don’t add anything to the athletic competition.

“People still come for the whimsy; people enjoy that,” Jurgeson said. “But that time is coming to an end.”

An evolving game

Tulane captain Josh Mansfield began playing Quidditch in high school, when capes and goggles were mandatory.

During those wacky early days, players would hit the field astride a regular household broom or mop or even a table lamp, said Mansfield, a junior.

It’s different now, said Mansfield, who hopes to see the game progress to the point where “Harry Potter” may be merely a reference point, no more important to the sport than the Wright brothers are to a Navy pilot.

Most players now eschew bristles, using capped pieces of three-fourths-inch PVC pipe as “brooms,” though others use regulation Quidditch brooms, which look like contoured fireplace brooms with a touch of wizard flair.

And players don’t “ride” their brooms, Jurgeson emphasized. In Rulebook 8, the governing document for U.S. Quidditch, players are considered either on-broom or off-broom, he said. If a player is off-broom, he is considered “knocked out” and has to drop any ball he’s holding. He then must run to one of his team’s hoops and touch it before he can become “live” again.

“The broom is the game’s biggest learning curve,” Mansfield said, demonstrating how balancing the broom requires players to catch with one hand and limits their movements. “It’s like dribbling a basketball or using your feet in soccer,” he said.

Today’s players also are less likely to refer to the game as Muggle Quidditch, which was coined by “Harry Potter” fans to make clear that participants are regular people who don’t possess magical abilities. But Quidditch has gotten so competitive athletically that some students who are interested more in “Harry Potter” than sports now opt for the university’s new Dumbledore’s Army club, which focuses on other “Potter”-inspired skill-sets, such as wand-making.

Chasing the Snitch

The most bizarre aspect of Quidditch — in both its Muggle and wizard incarnations — may be that the game ends when one team captures the “Golden Snitch.”

In the “Potter” series, the Snitch is a small, magical yellow ball with wings. But in Muggle Quidditch, it’s a tennis ball shoved into a yellow sock that is worn as a tail by a yellow-clad jester of sorts who is released onto the field midgame, after 18 minutes of play.

The Snitch, a neutral entity not associated with either team, is known for hijinks — it sometimes wards off each team’s “Seeker” with Silly String or, in one famous incident, rubber Incredible Hulk hands. Sometimes, the Snitch wards off Seekers for as much as 25 minutes, sometimes for less than four minutes.

A team that’s behind by more than 30 points — the number received when the Golden Snitch is caught in the Muggle version — may decide to help the Snitch block the opposing Seekers so they can get close enough to win before the game ends.

These novel aspects of the game add an interesting layer of strategy, Jurgeson said, noting that recently, a team tried to triumph at tournaments by stacking its team with the best athletes it could find. “They did rather poorly,” he said.

The Snitch, like other aspects of the game, has evolved over time. Early on, the Snitch with the golden tennis-ball tail was often a nimble cross-country runner who roamed through the audience, climbing fences and hiding anywhere in the vicinity. Now, the Snitch must stay within the boundaries of the pitch, and so some of today’s Snitches act more like wrestlers than runners, relying on blocking moves that keep Seekers in front of them, away from their tail.

What Mansfield likes best about the game is that it’s changing. The new rulebook released every year reflects each year’s tweaks and fixes, most of them requested by players, he said.

“We can say, ‘Hey, there’s a problem: Can we fix?’ ”

Jurgeson said wryly that what he’s been asked lately shows the ambition of the sport.

“The question I always get is, ‘When will Quidditch be in the Olympics?’ ” he said.