Monday, August 24, 2009

Rethinking Tournament Paintball: Part One

By John Amodea (and a cast of thousands)

It’s Broken But It Can Be Fixed

Like it or not national-level tournament paintball is the face of our game to those that don’t play. It’s what they see (or saw) when they turn on the TV. And National level tournament paintball is broken. It’s weathered, chipped, cracked and leaking water. But it’s not dead. It’s disoriented and lost and can’t find True North. It needs someone to find it, point it in a direction, cultivate it and fix the nicks and cracks—otherwise it’s going to keep limping along, cracked with spouting leaks and drifting aimlessly and pointlessly. Let me repeat, I believe it CAN be fixed. Please join me in this online think-tank journey for the next few months and let’s see if we can revive this barely breathing part of our game together.

The Bullets For Part One Of This Series

1. Tournament paintball games were originally played in either 12 or 15-man formats, with large fields and long time limits.
2. By 1989 15-man was gone for good and replaced by 10-man.
3. By 1990 there were a handful of large 5-man tournaments happening across the U.S.
4. Until the mid ‘90s promoters were turning profits and tournaments were generally seen as affordable.
5. In 1992 the NPPL introduced “bring your own paint” to national-level tournament paintball.
6. The NPPL and its promoters (PSP) split. Since then we’ve had two major paintball leagues.
7. Promoters are not making money, players are overspending and the game is boring.
8. Outside money has not come in as the leagues had hoped.

See Rethinking Tournament Paintball: The Introduction here:

A Little History – Setting the Backdrop

The first paintball tournament ever played took place in 1983 in New London, New Hampshire, where eight 12-man teams battled for a $1,000 first prize. Teams came from Canada, Miami, San Jose, Ohio and other places not close to New Hampshire. The game time-limit for this event was 90 minutes, the field size was around 15 acres and players were limited to carrying 40 rounds of paint. The event took place just two years after the first ever game of paintball was played, also in New Hampshire. At that time there were around 350 paintball fields in the U.S. Now there are approximately 3,500 paintball fields/stores in this country alone—a number that shows the growth in popularity of the game since the first tournament took place.

Within three years of the first tournament played, NSG (the event’s promoter) expanded the team size to 15-players while cutting the time limit to 45 minutes. Until the late 1980s the most common game format remained 15-player teams, large fields, and long time limits. By 1987 15-player events were happening around the country with several fields/companies/promoters running events or series. In 1989 Jim Lively (Lively Productions) changed their format from 15-player to 10-player and when the NPPL was formed in November, 1992, they also adopted the 10-player format. That one decision virtually ended any chance that we would ever see 15-man teams again. The NPPL also brought with it a “bring your own paint” policy that greatly reduced the cost of playing tournament paintball at the national level.

While all of this was happening, national-level 5-man events were growing as well. Lively had a 5-man series running alongside of his 10-man events. Later the NPPL and International Amateur Open ran 5-man events. But the event that really put 5-man tournaments on the map was the Paintcheck 5-Man held in May of 1990 at Skirmish in Pennsylvania. This was the largest 5-man event the world had ever seen and it set the bar for events of its kind.

Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s paintball continued to grow in the U.S. and the number of teams entering paintball tournaments grew accordingly. The 15-man events that were getting 12 teams in 1986 were getting 24 to30 teams in the 10-man format by 1993. And 5-man events were pulling in 50 to 60 teams or more.

Then the explosion happened in the mid-‘90s. By 1996 events like the NPPL World Cup were hosting 100-plus 10-man teams and that number doubled just a few years later. Again this growth was directly proportional to the growth of the game in general.

It’s probably also relevant to point out that from the first event series (NSG) until the NPPL/PSP split there was always just one major national-level series happening at any given time. One series for teams to play; one series for sponsors to give product/cash to; and one series to bring your product to sell at. Much of what happened in paintball in those years centered around those five or six yearly events and a few stand-alone tournaments like the IAO.

Promoter Profits, Player Affordability And a Sport Divided Cannot Stand

As a promoter of three NPPL events in (1994-1995) I can tell you that most major tournaments back in the late ‘80s to mid-‘90s were profitable for the promoters and affordable to the teams and players. Teams were allowed to bring their own paint, entry fees were reasonable, and in a growing game, sponsorships were plentiful. That’s all significant because for the most part, this has not been the case in the ‘00s. It was in the winter of 2002 that the NPPL and its promoter group, the PSP, decided to part ways which led to two separate leagues who would now be competing for the tournament team base.

When the NPPL ran their first event after the split during the weekend of February 7th, 2003, they brought their new format to the table—7-man tournament paintball made its professional debut in the U.S. The Millennium Series was already running 7-man events in Europe. Just two weeks later the PSP introduced X-Ball as part of their series of events. (For the record X-Ball was played about a year earlier at the Nation’s Cup in the IAO and in an introductory fashion at the 2002 World Cup where the games and points did not count in the league’s rankings.)

The competition between the two leagues was interesting to watch. The NPPL held its first event in Huntington Beach, California, which was a huge cost-increase to the league over the typical tournament site. The PSP held six events that year and the following year held two events on Disney property, again representing a larger increase in promoter spending in an effort to be competitive and to bring the best to the players and teams. The intentions of both promoter groups was good and admirable. While the split and the subsequent formation of two major leagues appeared to be a good thing for the players (yep, that’s what we all said back then) in hindsight it may not have been. Many of the upper level teams felt the need to play in all of the events and that taxed players from a financial point of view. (At this point NXL teams were forbidden to play NPPL events. That ended soon after LaSoya challenged the NXL rules and his team, Infamous, played the NPPL Tampa event.) Sponsorships were not doubled so the extra spending came directly out of the players’ pockets. Players were now taking off ten weeks of work to accommodate their playing schedule—with many players on the pro-level quitting their jobs to play, with most not financially ready for that move. On top of that some teams were now practicing two formats (seven-man and X-Ball) which cost them more time and money and diluted both products.

Another financial aspect of the split was teams that chose to play X-Ball, especially early on, were now shooting more than double the amount of paint in practice and on game day than ever before. Remember, X-Ball games had much longer time limits back then. Added to all that, sponsors/vendors were traveling to ten-plus events per year as opposed to five. Another problem with the leagues splitting was there simply were not enough qualified refs (and there still are not) to handle the increased number of events.

Huntington Beach, Disney, Stadiums & Financial Hardships

As the early ‘00s faded and we moved into the middle of the decade another big change happened. Existing paintball fields were no longer the sites of choice by either league. By 2004 the NPPL was using NFL stadiums almost exclusively to run their events. Of course, that increased the league’s expenses and some of that excess was passed on to the player and vendor/sponsor costs. Also around this time the PSP moved most of their events away from paintball fields and to sites with much more visibility and much more cost.

On the surface things seemed to be heading in the right direction. Events were getting thousands of spectators; there was genuine interest in televising events from some very powerful people like Dick Clark and Penny Marshall; and teams were playing at great locations. But things were different below the surface. By 2007 sponsorships were way down, the TV deal that was supposed to bring in outside cash never happened, the leagues were continuing to lose money, and team participation was down. Eventually the NPPL/Pure Promotions sold to Pacific Paintball (a company that had no experience in the paintball industry).After less than two years the company crashed, filing bankruptcy. The PSP has continued on and clearly has the upper hand on current rival, the USPL, but things are far from perfect in the PSP camp despite its larger market share. I’m sure no one is doing cartwheels over the success of either league and no one is making money.

So Now What?

Since the NPPL’s demise our country has had its worst economic crash since the Great Depression. That has hurt every aspect of our game including the national-level tournament circuits. But if you’ve been paying attention you’ve probably also come to the conclusion that the economic crisis we’re in is just part of the problem. There are too many leagues, not enough sponsorships, no outside monies coming into paintball, no standard format, not enough refs, not enough high level teams to support the circuits and we’re a game/sport in flux.

My Proposal

I think we need to start thinking WAY outside of the box. If we’re going to fix tournament paintball we need to think like Apple or Google. Do you think their smartest people care what was done last year, let alone ten years ago? They’re thinking about “what’s next” and to them what’s next NEVER looks like “what was.”

Some Things to Ponder Until Part Two
1. Are players becoming bored with tournament paintball in its current formats?
2. Do we really need a national-level series with so many different levels of play?
3. Would a true unbiased, unaffiliated, fresh-thinking organization be able to put together a regional/national feeder series that could build a better foundation for the sport?
4. Would smaller be better?
5. When was the last time you went to a pro sporting event (football, baseball, soccer, basketball, etc.), and saw a minor league game first?
6. Is paintball a game that can ever translate to TV and if so, do we need a format change?
7. Are we shooting too much paint too fast?
8. Is “strategy” gone from tournament paintball for good?
9. Aside from the “break,” are there “plays” in tournament paintball anymore?
10. If four of the best paintball teams in the world were playing hour-long games in a stand-alone event an hour from your house, would you go watch?
11. How different is 7-man from X-Ball? How different is Japanese baseball, Mexican baseball and U.S. baseball? Catch my drift?
12. Can the powers that be put aside pride, ego and finances for the good of the sport?

The Next Installment – It’s Not a ME Thing, It’s An US Thing

In Part Two of this series we’ll start to really talk about fixing the “sport” aspect of paintball. I’ll have quotes and thoughts from many of the top promoters, players and industry people in the game and we’ll get this THINK TANK going strong.

Thanks for reading—John Amodea

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Rethinking Tournament Paintball: Introduction

National level tournament paintball is broken. It’s weathered, chipped, cracked and leaking water. But it’s not dead. It’s disoriented and lost and can’t find True North. It needs someone to find it, point it in a direction, cultivate it and fix the nicks and cracks—otherwise it’s going to keep limping along, cracked with spouting leaks and drifting aimlessly and pointlessly.

Pro/Am tournament paintball in its current format(s) is draining everyone. The leagues and promoters are losing a fortune: sponsorships are down causing teams to struggle to pay entry fees, paint and travel costs; the number of events that take place with the two existing leagues is taxing manufacturers/vendors; and the leagues are finding it difficult to put enough qualified refs on the fields. If you play on a team that competes in the PSP or USPL (or the CFOA, RPL, WCPPL, or WHATEVERPL on the regional level) you know exactly what I’m talking about. Unless you’re one of the top four or five teams in the world you are pulling cash out of your own bank account to subsidize whatever sponsorship money you have coming to you. If your name is Keely, Chuck, Lane, Dave, Adam, or Tom you also know what I’m talking about. You’re working day and night trying to figure out how to come close to “breaking even.” And you’ve been doing it for years and nothing’s really changing. If you’re a manufacturer or vendor, as we speak you’re probably trying to figure out which events you can afford to attend because you know you’re not going to be able to make it to all of them. And for you over-worked refs, when was the last time it didn’t cost you money out of pocket for the privilege of working a ten hour day? The current state of national tournament paintball is not working for anyone at any level.

Before I get too far into this I want to make it perfectly clear that I realize a lot of very smart people have been trying to figure this all out for a long time. I also want to make it clear that I’m not faulting the leagues, promoters, refs, sponsors or players in any of this. But it’s time to rethink what we’re doing with this aspect of the game of paintball. Tournament paintball is broken and it needs to be fixed. I don’t have all the answers but I think I can push the buttons that will bring the answers out of you.

So on that note I am using my space this month to introduce a new blog series on the topic. Much like my “What Have We Done to Our Game” blog series, “Rethinking Tournament Paintball” will be an online think-tank of ideas which I hope will get us all talking, thinking, brainstorming and working creatively together. Tweaking the game format isn’t the answer. Adding a division isn’t the answer. Webcasts are not the answer. And an improving economy isn’t the answer either. Truly fixing tournament paintball is going to take a lot more than any of those things. Thinking outside the box isn’t even going to be enough. We need to crush, recycle the box and start over as if we’ve never been to a paintball tournament before. We have almost eight months until the next tournament season starts. Are you tired of the same old song yet?

Part One of Rethinking Tournament Paintball will be available at on August 24th, 2009.