The first plastic balls were created circa 1980 and were immediately rejected by the table tennis community. Celluloid was simply a superior material, and plastic balls were as tough as stone. Now, in 2018, plastic balls have been in circulation for nearly 4 years.
When the ITTF initially decreed plastic as a new material, there was a tidal wave of intense resistance from the table tennis community, who clamored for the “superior” celluloid balls. Not only did this move render all celluloid balls in circulation worthless, but an amalgam of issues came attached with the unfamiliar plastic balls. Despite the ITTF claiming plastic was a more cost-efficient material, plastic balls were far more expensive, and to add to that cost, plastic balls broke at a much faster rate. Consistency with plastic balls was also practically nonexistent. Not merely between different manufacturers such as Butterfly and Nittaku, but also within a single box. While celluloid balls were consistently round, many—including three-star—plastic balls were essentially the shape of eggs.
The ITTF, however, stood firm, asserting that swapping out celluloid was a necessary move that was long overdue. Plastic, they officially claimed, was not only safer due to it being non-flammable, but would also be cheaper, as plastic is a far more commonplace material. But it was also revealed that substituting plastic was a move that catered to the spectators, as the ITTF predicted the plastic ball would result in longer rallies – but how would the player fare?
Plastic balls are indeed slower than their celluloid counterparts, in part due to the difference in material but also because of a slight increase in the size of the ball. In addition, the new ball isn’t as spinny, as plastic is a much stiffer and compact material. This has handed the advantage to aggressive attacking players, such as Fan Zhendong, Xu Chenhao, and Harimoto Tomokazu. On the other hand, players that have relied on control and spin are at a disadvantage.
When the plastic ball first debuted, players around the globe assumed that the very foundations of table tennis were about to crumble; however, nowadays, the waters have dramatically calmed. Initially, the rate of enforced errors seemed to increase, but by 2018, players seem to have completely adjusted. Top players have remained at the top, with Chinese players such as Ma Long and Fan Zhendong continuing to dominate. Players that rely more on spin and control, such as Timo Boll and Vladimir Samsonov, have continued to prosper. Loopers continue to loop, and choppers continue to chop.
Overall it seems that the quality of the best rallies seems to have grown a bit, such as Xu Xin’s counter-looping point with Zhu Linfeng in the Chinese Super League and Ma Long’s extraordinary rally with Fang Bo in the 2015 WTTC, though the overall quality of matches hasn't changed so much. At an international level the plastic ball has finally found a home as the players have adjusted. Sure at club and domestic level there are still many players who yearn for the days of celluloid, but the initial opposition to the ball has certainly faded significantly. One noticeable thing is the rise of the younger generation as they adopt the plastic ball, most of them don't know any different and have taken advantage of the situation.
So was this change necessary? While shifting to plastic may have eliminated previous hazards associated with celluloid, in terms of changing the game for spectators, the effects seem to be minimal. Table Tennis is still Table Tennis. At the end of the day companies have continued to improve their plastic ball (resulting in less breakages) but the price of a single ball still remains fairly high. The shift to plastic came at a high cost, with minimal benefits to the game on comparison. What does the future hold for the plastic ball? Hopefully more improvements and progress in making the ball more consistent and a reduction in ball prices.