Paintball, What a Pretty Game
Merry Christmas everyone! I trust you had a great time with family and friends the past few days. I wish all of you a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year as well. I hope to be a part of your New Year as well.
Once again I can tell you that the response to this series has been amazing. I’ve been talking to players, store and field owners, manufacturers and every other walk of paintball life since Part One, and the conversations have been very positive, encouraging and promising. I say promising because the majority of those that I have been talking with about this series agree that things need to change. Even those I’m talking to in manufacturing. Not everyone agrees on how things need to change, but that’s okay—we can figure that out as we go. I’ve also noticed that there’s a lot of talk around the internet about this series, and that’s very encouraging to me.
Part Five will be the final blog of this series, but it will be just the beginning for me. I plan to take this vision to rethink the game of paintball to another level—but I’ll hold off on the details about that until the last part is done. Also in Part Five, I’ll have comments, quotes and ideas from many recognizable names in the game. Please e-mail me your thoughts and ideas in the next week and I’ll try to fit some of those in. So let’s get on with it.
How We Packaged Paintball
Going back to the early 1990s when the game was played only in the woods at all levels there was a growing concern within the industry about the game’s public image. I touched on this in earlier parts of this series. Many of us thought that the “war” image associated to paintball would at best hold the game back and at worst draw a negative campaign against our game that might somehow end up being our demise. In 1990 and again in 1991 I tried to open a paintball field in Pennsylvania but my efforts stalled when members of the local planning and zoning commissions convinced area residents that we were simply reenacting the Viet Nam War and that to allow the field would be an insult to those that lost their lives in the war. A year later in an attempt to open a paintball field in Virginia I ran into that same mentality. This was happening across the U.S. to hundreds of people who were looking to open paintball fields. That war image was holding the game’s progress back.
By the time the mid-90s rolled around the industry as a whole was tired of the stereotype placed on the game and its players. A purposed “anti war image” shift was on. In came the colorful jerseys, color anodized guns, and an adjustment in the playing fields. This was led by the NPPL and other independent promoters in the UK. First Smart Parts built their “mounds fields” for the NPPL events held in the Pittsburgh area. Set in open fields (not in the woods) the mounds fields were mirror image fields that had huge rows of dirt mounds and giant piles of dirt strategically placed to allow movement in the games but still left plenty of room for strategy. The mounds fields were really a precursor to the arena games like Hyperball and airball to follow. These fields allowed for spectating for the first time ever at national level events but did little to dispel the war image. Other events, such as the Splat-1 Indoor Championships, used custom-made bunkers set up on indoor fields and teams were not permitted to wear camo of any kind. Hyperball was another try at a new kind of field. By the mid-90s airball was introduced. Airball fixed a bunch of problems--the bunkers were easy to transport, they were colorful and very inexpensive compared to moving hundreds of tons of dirt to build fields like the NPPL mounds fields.
Like any other game, the “professional” side of the sport has a huge influence on the recreational or less competitive side which led to the local fields to change the look of their game. Soon every commercial paintball field in America was introducing airball and Hyperball fields. Players who came to those fields wearing camo were often scoffed as newbies as “real” paintball players at least wore jerseys. By the late 90s the game of paintball, which started out in the woods of New Hampshire, showed almost no semblance of its origins. And by the mid-2000s the number of players was declining.
Why Are We Surprised?
Should we be surprised? We replaced trees with pink and yellow “tacos.” We replaced grass with turf and camos with motocross jerseys. We nixed fifteen minute games and substituted them with two-minute car crash games that were “exciting” to spectators. We made the game appealing to the eye but less appealing to the player.
And pretty costs money. It takes more cash to open a field than ever before. It costs more to pretty up your gun than it does to make it black. Your Salvation Army camos were replaced with $200 head to toe paintball apparel. This advancement of the game is not black-and-white television to color or color television to high def. The game of paintball in just a span of fifteen years was so different it’s difficult to call what we do now “paintball.”
It’s not the splash-anodized markers that are the problem. It’s not airball that’s the problem. It’s not the lack of camo that’s the problem. These things are good for the game of paintball and its image. This problem “number four,” the prettying of our game, in the proper context is good. We don’t really want to be known as a “war” game, do we? But we don’t need to be told the only way to play this game is on small airball fields with colorful markers wearing motocross-looking jerseys. Paintball is SO MUCH bigger than that. It can be the “action” or “extreme” sport to those that want to play that type of game. It can be “playing war” to those that fell in love with the game because it was like those games of “army” they played when they were kids. Playing “army” is the base thrill of the game.
In the past two years we’ve seen a resurgence of woodsball, huge growth in scenario games and the introduction of Mil-Sim paintball—and that’s a good thing. Even camo patterns are back in tournament paintball wear. Manufacturers are diversifying their product lines to sell to all types of paintball players—and that’s a good thing too. The imbalance of media coverage, available paintball products, and the level of “cool” the tournament side of the game has enjoyed for almost ten years is beginning to shift a bit towards the woodsball part of the game. Woodsball may always take a back seat in many ways to tournament ball, but at least there’s an understanding developing that it takes both sides to be successful for our game to flourish. This needs to continue to happen.
Doing it Right
So how do these two different types of paintball live together? How can they both be called “paintball”? It starts at the field level. I’ve talked about this before—field owners and game operators are the entry point of our game. They set the tone, the standards and image to new players (and their parents in many cases). If paintball game operators offer diversity to their players the game will be attractive to so many more. If it’s attractive to more people the game will grow. So diversify your special events. Hold tournaments, scenario games, big games, night games etc. Not only will you attract more players to your field, but the ones you already have will probably come back more often. But the key is to run these events right. If your staff is exclusively tournament players you’ll need to find a scenario game promoter to handle your scenario games at first. And visa, versa of course.
Continue what you’ve been doing in terms of expanding your product lines to appeal to all types of player. Don’t leave 100 percent of your marketing and R&D to people that don’t play the game. Over the years we’ve seen many manufacturers hire out their marketing campaigns, ad designs, and company image to people and companies that don’t know the game. Attend a few scenario events, tournaments, fields and visit some of your customers to see what is really happening at the grass roots level. I’m sorry to say this but many of you have lost sight of what players really want.
Try something different. If you’re a woodsballer try playing an entry-level tournament. If you’re a tournament player pick up a pump-gun, put on some camos, and play a woodsball game. You might be surprised at how much fun it can be. Also learn a little about the history of the game and the players, inventors, engineers, visionaries and personalities that helped shape the game. I’ve been noticing that at the big tournament level, many of you young players do not have a historical appreciation of our sport. I encourage you to gain this to help you be better ambassadors to the rest of the world.
I promise you that I will be doing something from my corner to help this. Stay tuned.
Please check back on Thursday, New Years Day for the conclusion of this series entitled, “Never Say Never.” Thanks for reading.