The game of paintball is shrinking right before our eyes. According to SGMA reports and insurance reports about half as many people play paintball now compared to 2004. Major companies in the industry are selling off or going out of business. The number of paintball markers sold is at a five year low and paint sales are dropping by the day. The game of paintball is in serious jeopardy.
“Reason One” - The Bullets
- The game was played exclusively in the woods for almost 14 years
- By 1994 the game began to stagnate for lack of new money coming in
- Paintball gets an aesthetic makeover and begins to come out of the woods
- We put our faith in getting paintball on TV
- Non-paintball companies come into paintball in a small way due to TV and the game’s new look
- The industry goes WAY overboard pushing the clean version of paintball
- Tournament paintball is now played exclusively outside of the woods
- Commercial fields begin to think all it takes is an airball field and one acre of property to host games
- Hundreds of thousands of new players are forced to learn to play paintball in 150’ X 225’ foot fields
- They can’t compete, get frustrated and leave the game
- By 2005 the player base shrunk by the millions
- Companies are selling out and going out of business by the dozens
- And here we are today, waiting for the next shoe to drop… and it will.
The Obsession with Television and the Arena
Part One, Reason One of Five
By now you probably know that the first game of paintball ever played took place in the woods of
By 1994 everyone that was involved in tournament paintball knew that the game would never reach the masses as it was being played. Guys running around in the woods dressed in camos, and shooting guns at each other just didn’t have that big show appeal. The tournament circuit also was bogging down because there were no fresh revenue streams feeding the game’s high cost to play. In the fall of that year ESPN ran a one-off made-for-TV special called, Paintball USA, hosted by Fred Schultz. The show featured the game of paintball played right on Main Street in Disneyworld. The show was hokie but most of us in the industry at the time realized that getting the game on TV could open up some major doors.
In 1995 Jerry Braun, promoter of the World Cup, co-promoted (with ESPN) an event called the ESPN World Paintball Championships, which was played in the thick woods and palmettos of Kissimmee, Florida. ESPN hauled multiple cameras into the dark woods filming from several different locations on the field, as well as with a roving camera, trying to catch the action and the flow of the games. After intense editing the event aired on ESPN and ESPN II for months and for most of us that watched, the show failed to capture the intensity, the flow and the essence of the game. So it was back to the drawing board.
Lose the Camos and the Woods
In January of 1996, Braun and ESPN hooked up for another edition of the ESPN World Paintball Championships. This time however all games were played on an open grass field lined with hard plastic blue and white, and red and white painted bunkers. (On a side note, this was the clear precursor to airball and Hyperball bunkers, both of which were introduced later that same year.) When this new incarnation of the game was seen on the ESPN networks later that year, the flow was better, the game was easier to follow, and the bright colored gear and clothes the teams were made to wear transferred well to TV.
As a result of two years of seeing paintball on TV often (25 times in 60 days), the industry began to buy into the notion that TV coverage and the increased national visibility would bring bigger non-endemic companies to the sponsorship table, making the slice of the money pie bigger for everyone. There was talk then of ESPN doing more seasons of their World Paintball Championships, but a rift between Braun and ESPN appeared to kill any chance of ESPN doing anything with the game. In fact, it was almost a decade before they allowed paintball back on their network.
In the meantime people like Bob McGuire, Milt Call, Jeff Gatalin and several others began working on a variety of projects to get the game on TV again. And virtually every paintball company that sold apparel began designing game gear that was bright, colorful and “sport” looking. Now by late ’96 we saw Adrenaline Games introduce their blowup bright colored Sup’Air bunkers, players began to wear bright colored apparel, and a plethora of companies began making “splash” anodized parts for all of the hot paintguns. The game was changing right before our eyes and many of us loved what we were seeing. Paintball now had a “sport” aspect that ran parallel to its woodsball, rec-ball version.
The next decade saw tournament paintball come completely out of the woods. For a few years the NPPL and events like the IAO ran tournaments where teams played some of their games in the woods and some on the airball and Hyperball fields. But that was short lived. By 2000 all tournaments were played in “arenas” and even Hyperball was gone. The easily transportable airball bunkers served two functions: they looked bright and colorful and you could travel with them in your trunk. All was good until…
We All Fell Hard
All was good until the industry, myself included, fell for the allure of television and the false belief that TV would grow the game enormously by bringing in non-paintball sponsorships. There were just enough of those outside companies showing interest that we all kept pushing for smaller, brighter, faster, easier, cleaner paintball games. The game’s leading companies and the paintball media pushed this agenda for a decade or more.
For a while we were seeing the game grow. The SGMA’s paintball participation surveys showed paintball’s steady growth until 2004. But by 2004 the industry had virtually pushed the rec-ball, big game, and scenario side of paintball off to the corner and asked them to be quiet. After all, more people were playing than ever before. We liked this clean game. We finally shook off the “war” image. And we saw our players as athletes, not a bunch of overweight, middle-aged, wanna-be kids. This new look of paintball gave us credibility. We were now an action sport, or an extreme sport, not just a game or hobby.
Somehow though, by 2005, our player numbers were declining fast. Why? The industry’s almost blatant disregard for the game’s roots finally caught up to us. By 2005 there were literally several hundred commercial paintball fields across the country that didn’t have a single woodsball field—and no one seemed to care. To hundreds of thousands of players the only game of paintball they ever knew or played was the airball, sport-jersey wearing, electronic-marker toting, five-on-five game that was being played on TV and being shown on a dominating number of pages in every paintball magazine. And this caused three major problems.
Instead of playing half hour paintball games in the woods, where players could crawl, hide, or otherwise stay in the game long enough to learn how to play and feel they got their money’s worth, now players were playing two-minute games, often getting bunkered by much more experienced players game in and game out, day in and day out. New players had nowhere to hide their lack of skill, lack of quality equipment, and no way to stay in the game long enough to learn how to play. For the first time in my years of living in the game of paintball, I was seeing kids everywhere playing paintball once and walking away never to come back. The game was too fast, too painful, and too elitist.
The Game Moved To?
We forgot why we fell in love with paintball. If you’ve been playing paintball since the woodsball-only days please answer this question: Did you ever really think you’d be playing on a hockey-sized, netted in arena, standing behind the pink “taco” tucking in so you don’t get shot by the “snake” guy shooting 12 balls per second? Where in that is the original game?
What About the Big Boys (and Girls)?
Where do the big boys (and girls) play? The game has gotten so small that if you’re truly not an athlete, it’s tough getting started, unless you’re playing at Skirmish, EMR Paintball or one of the other fields that do it right. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but the game is losing a lot of players that just can’t do it. Is that what we want? Do we want a game that can only be played by fit, young (often with little money to spend) athletes? Or do we want a versatile game that can be played in the woods for all types to play and enjoy?
To Be Clear
So there’s no confusion I want to make this clear. I love tournament paintball. I played tournament ball on the national circuit for seven years. But I also love playing in the woods. I made the transition to airball fields easily because I had already been playing for ten-plus years when the game became small, fast and pretty. But many people today just don’t have a chance to learn the game playing ten, 3-minute games on a typical Saturday at Joe Blow’s paintball field. A Joe Blow paintball field would be an entrepreneur renting a half-acre lot and putting an arena field on it. And there are many more Joe Blow paintball fields in the U.S. than there are Skirmish, Challenge Park, EMR and Hollywood Sports type fields.
Doing It Right
There’s something for each of us to do in this.
Fields that are doing the game right are thriving. Fields like the ones mentioned above—the ones that have woods fields, castles, villages, cities, etc., are hardly feeling the economic downturn. I know this because I have asked them directly. I have also asked the major distributors where they are shipping most of their paint and one hundred percent of them have said it’s to the well-rounded fields that offer variety. Don’t play victim. If your business if failing look at the ones that are thriving. If your business is failing, look in the mirror. What can you do with your property to make the game more well-rounded?
Like the field owners, you need to think in terms of variety. Don’t be afraid to sell Empire and Dye jerseys as well as Spec Ops and Full Clip scenario, rec-ball and mil-sim gear. Open the game up to your customers and show them all sides of the game. Educate your players/customers so they see paintball in a broader fashion and send them to fields that understand what it takes to keep players in the game.
Not support field/store owners. Putting out for sponsored teams hoping for trickle-down (another article) but a better use of marketing would be to actually support Joe Blow who is selling your product. Can you feature some known scenario players in your ads at least once in a while? Pushing the tournament-only playing, high dollar gear using, skinny athletes in all of your ads isn’t working anymore. You keep throwing good money after bad. If it’s not working maybe you could show a little creativity. Someone recently said to me (cleaned up version), “If you’re driving a Bently and you’re still not getting the chicks, maybe you should save some money and buy and old pick up.” I think you know what I mean…
You are our ambassadors. Teach new players how to play the game instead of having them thrown to the wolves (good chance you’ve been the wolf, right?). If the field you play at only has arena fields, ask why. Offer to help build woodsball fields if you need to. In the end it will be in your best interest to do that anyway. Be selective about where and how you play. Support the fields that are helping the game grow and help the rest understand what they can do to better the game.
Tuesday I will have Part Two of this series entitled, “The Rate of Fire Disaster.” Please come back. Thanks for reading—John Amodea