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In The Paint

Tournament Paintball is a Serious Sport with Serious Prizes

Photos by Jefferson Jackson Steele

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By Rebecca Alvania | Posted 5/23/2007

In 2005, a group of co-workers dragged me out into the woods to play paintball. I went grudgingly. Like many people, I dismissed paintball as the sport of choice for über-military freaks. Being a bit of a peacenik, I figured I'd just let myself get hit within the first few seconds and spend the rest of the time on the sidelines picking daisies.

Ten minutes later I was hiding behind a tree in the woods, screaming, "Cover me!" over my shoulder as I raced through the foliage trying to get a better aim at a 12-year-old opponent hiding behind a large rock. In every game I was the last person standing, people clamored to have me on their team. This was a highly unusual experience--in gym I was picked for teams only after the kid who ate glue off his hands in the coatroom.

My successful conversion into a crazed militiawoman made me curious about the sport and its players. So this past April, I went to a local tournament to experience serious paintball, purely as a spectator.

I learned that the version of paintball I played is referred to as "rec ball" or "woods ball." It's what most people think of when they think of paintball: a bunch of people chasing each other through the woods shooting each other until one person remains standing. In tournaments, games are more akin to capture the flag, necessitating strategy and teamwork, as well as good aim. Individual players train and try out for teams that then compete on the local, regional, and even national level in either the National Professional Paintball League or the National X-Ball League. Local tournament games, like the one I attended, are often part of a longer series. Teams accrue points at each tournament game, and by the end of the series, the team with the most points wins the grand prize, which is often a healthy chunk of change.

The first game in the summer tournament series, sponsored by Paintball Adventures Park of Taneytown, was played April 22 at a paintball field in a bucolic pasture on the outskirts of the Carroll County town. The road to the field is a narrow, winding one-lane path that cuts through an open field and then disappears into a patch of woods set back from the main road. A few little boys sat on a nearby bridge fishing in the stream below. It was so pastoral it almost looked staged.

That is, until I came around a bend in the road and found my car in the middle of about 70 Harley riders getting their bikes blessed before a run. The bikes were parked alongside the road as the riders gathered to listen to the pastor's prayer. I navigated the long line of chrome making complicated and frantic hand gestures to indicate "I'm only passing through," "Sorry to bother your service," and "Pardon me, but I believe your handlebars are impeding my path."

Pulling up to the paintball field, I backed my car into a makeshift parking spot on the bank of a stream and took my first gander at the tournament players. The majority were boys, age 12-16. All were wearing some form of professional paintball gear, generally head-to-toe black and neon nylon outfits with lots of padding, pockets, and belts for holding their various paintball accessories.

On the closest field, 10 kids were playing a game of capture the flag. Instantly, my tenuous bravado went out the window and my inner gym geek came out. I was surrounded by the modern-day equivalent of the kids I knew in middle school who took gym really, really seriously. Me, I was the knobby-kneed kid in too-big red cotton shorts, trying hard to avoid the ball while still looking sullen and bored. Childhood shame spiral aside, I left my car and went to mingle among paintballers almost 20 years my junior, while trying to look sullen and bored.

In the middle of Paintball Adventures' three fields, a small pavilion in a clearing of trees served as the information booth for players. A loudspeaker overhead called out the names of which teams were supposed to be reporting for play. As I walked up they called for the Effin' Kids, the Chaos Theory, Entropy, and the Little Debbies, and I wondered if it was physics professors vs. preteens day at the paintball field.

A practice area was set up near the pavilion. It was basically just a roped-off section of forest where players could practice their aim by shooting trees with paintballs. It looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book; the trees and bushes were completely covered in pink, blue, yellow, and green paint. The ground was littered with spent casings that looked like brightly colored marbles. It was kind of beautiful, in the same way that oil refineries along the Mississippi can look beautiful lit up at night, though it's doubtful the trees were very happy about being used as target practice. But caring about trees' feelings is something that people who are good at gym can sniff out from a mile away, so I laughed at the trees and went to watch the ballers in play.

The paintball fields were surrounded by black netting, thick enough to prevent onlookers from getting hit, but thin enough to let us see all the action. On the fields were large inflatable bunkers in various shapes, used by the players as shields. The field I was watching was a five-man capture-the-flag game. The teams could win by either shooting the entire opposing team, or by grabbing the flag in the middle of the field and getting it to the opposing team's station without getting hit.

Richard Hartman, the owner of Paintball Adventures Park and a former national-level player, describes the game as more skillful than it might appear at first glance. "They start doing their strategies on each other, and they'll make moves--it's like chess."

Watching the game, I could see what he meant. The way the course was constructed players had to zigzag from bunker to bunker, avoiding being in the line of sight of opposing players and defensively covering their own teammates, all while trying to reach the opposing team's end of the field. Granted, it happens much faster than a game of chess and involves guns, but the comparison is apt nonetheless.

Hartman sees the current tournament circuit as a way to promote paintball as a game of skill and technique rather than a violent sport for warmongers who want to pretend to hunt each other through the woods.

"[Paintball] started off in the woods, but they changed it. They took it from camo in the woods to air ball with bright colors. And they don't use red paint," Hartman says, to avoid the look of blood. "Paintball is always bad in the news, but truthfully these kids that are out here aren't the ones doing stuff that they shouldn't be doing. They're out here playing a sport that they like, and they're respecting it. Most of them," he adds with a smile.

Hartman sponsors a team called Nasty, and its players are refereeing today's tournament. Nasty just got together about six months ago, but the players are at a more advanced level than the ones playing in today's tournament. They are already gearing up to go national.

"One of the big names in paintball, Steve Rabackoff, is running us . . . and he's running a tight ship," says Robert Sollars, a teenaged member of Nasty. Sollars is a cuddly looking guy who punctuates everything he says with a friendly smile. His team nickname is Panda, and it seems fitting--that is, until he flips his protective mask up revealing the words contract killer printed on the helmet underneath.

"I know I'm 1,000 times better than I was when I first started. [Rabackoff's] big thing is physical conditioning, discipline, and just straight working hard," Sollars says. The team has been practicing every weekend for six months, and with their first event coming up soon, they're focusing on getting into peak shape.

"See that hill?" Sollars asks, pointing to a steep incline behind the paintball fields. "You do something wrong, you run the hill. It's all about working hard. You have to work hard to do well in high-level paintball."

Watching a new team take the field, I see something that I haven't seen all day, a player with a long ponytail and sports bra hunkering down behind one of the inflatable bunkers. It turns out that only three players from the 47 teams at the tournament are female.

"On the tournament level it's mostly young men," Hartman says. "On rec day, I would say 30 percent are women. More and more women are playing."

One of the three girls playing today is 16-year-old Debbie Sloane of team Trial Run. Dressed in head-to-toe black protective gear and toting her gun at her side, she makes a rather intimidating first impression. But when she pushes her face mask up on her forehead, you can see her big blue eyes, curly red hair peeking out from underneath her head wrap, and a retainer that flashes in the sun; instantly she's transformed into a normal teenager. Like most of the other kids out here, she was first introduced to paintball by coming out to play rec ball for a day, and getting hooked.

"I've been playing since I was 14 and I'm gonna keep doing it," she says. "It's fun." Sloane also likes the respect she gets on the field. "When I play against the guys, they just treat me like one of the guys. It just proves that I'm better than some guys that are out here playing. And I'd like to go pro someday," she adds before running off to rejoin her teammates.

Getting into high-level paintball is a dream for a lot of these kids, but it's a tough one to realize. There are both national and world championship tournaments, and getting to that level takes an enormous amount of dedication to the sport.

"The competition is way more intense than anything that's here [today]," explains Hartman, who played at the national level before opening his own field. "It's really hard because it's not like football or baseball where you have off-season. There's no off-season. You leave on Wednesday [for a tournament] and you're not back until Sunday or Monday. Then you start over for the next tournament, and you have to practice in between that."

Teams from all over the world compete at some of these tournaments, and some of them are pretty scary. Two of the top international teams are Russia's Russian Legion and Sweden's Joy Division. According to Hartman, Russian Legion players train daily and have to shoot 6,000 paintballs before they're allowed to go home for the night. Joy Division--presumably a collection of men bonded together by a love of both Ian Curtis and paintball--has a web site (http://hem.passagen.se/joyd) that boasts pictures of the team playing naked paintball in a room swathed in leopard-print fabric. Exposed-genitalia paintball is pretty hard-core. I have a strong suspicion that Europe will kick America's ass in the international paintball circuit.

As paintball has gained popularity over the years, the sport has gotten more exposure. ESPN has aired paintball tournaments and the big championship games are held in places like Disney World, with thousands of spectators, corporate sponsors, and vendors. As a result, the players have the opportunity to earn some good money, particularly at the national and world levels.

"There's big prizes there," Hartman says. "It's $100K per event . . . and you get a lot more players from all over wanting to win. There's a pro right now called Oliver Lang whose base salary is $175K a year, to play paintball. . . . He's got sponsorships, they make guns after him."

The prizes at this small local tournament, put up by Hartman and various sponsors, are nothing to sneeze at though. "Today is the first tournament in the series," explains Hartman. "The prize for just this tournament alone is close to $25K. Series prizes are closer to $70K or $75K."

That's right, a good day of paintball could earn these kids more than most people make in a year. But not one of these kids talk about wanting to make money as a paintballer--they all seem to genuinely love the sport, and people like Hartman are here to help them at it.

"The good thing about this series is that it gives a chance for a player to gradually grow throughout the season," Hartman says. "They'll come out, they might not be that good, but they'll learn from their mistakes, and by the end event there'll be some pretty good teams out here."

I wish them all the best of luck, but I'm going to stick to woods ball. You may not win any money, but you also won't be chased by naked European paintballers screaming "Love will tear us apart."

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