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


Reiner Schafer said...

Out of the box, from the ground up…

Tournament paintball at its roots has to be fun and affordable for enough participants to take part. Notice I didn’t say affordable for all. There are limits and we need to realize that not everyone can take part in every sport. Paintball is one of them.

The game has to be designed so that the greatest amount of paintballs is not one of the biggest determining factors. Therefore a game designed around limited amounts of paintballs would be imperative. The cost to participate has to be a limited constant (more or less).

The game needs to not be an arms race (the teams with the fastest guns and most ammo have a distinct advantage). Having said that, there is no need to severely handicap equipment. Limit the amount of paintballs enough, and that will take care of that problem. Let players use what they want and what they are comfortable with. Trying to limit equipment is a difficult task, so don’t do it. Limit the amount of paintballs instead. This is much easier.

The desire to participate needs to be driven by fun, not prizes. How many players playing baseball, soccer, hockey, basketball, or virtually every other organized popular sport, play a weekend of games with the hopes of winning hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of prizes? Virtually none. People play because they enjoy playing and taking part. No other reason, with the possible exception of improving their skills to make it to “The Big Show”. But 99% know they are just doing it for the fun. And they are willing to pay for that fun.

There should only be one Big Show and those participating at the Big Show should be great teams.

Building from the ground up, local leagues should be run by enthusiasts of the sport, for the love of the sport, not by field owners/tournament organizers trying to cash in on running a tournament. That doesn’t mean that a facility owner offering up his facility for an event shouldn’t be compensated. He should, but it should be more like a specific rental fee. Any “profits” should go to the league to help run the league. The local leagues should be set up as “not for profit”, meaning that the leagues aren’t “owned” by anyone and no one is looking at running the league as a cash cow. Administrators should be paid (a specific, relatively small amount) for their efforts and should be voted in by members of the league (players, refs, coaches, and administrators).

Local leagues should be run so that at the end of the league’s schedule, top teams are sent to Regional Tournaments. Regional tournament top placers go on to The Big Show. There should be divisions within the local leagues, but only those placing high enough in the top division, go to the Regionals. Boards of Administrators in each local league have the ability to shift teams/players up or down in Divisions, preventing sandbagging.

The “Big Show” is made up of top placers from the most recent Regionals and top place teams from the previous Big Show Season. Therefore a certain amount of teams that participated in last year’s Big show and placed high enough get free entry to the Big Show, regardless of whether they placed high enough at the Regionals. This way a great team can have an off weekend at the Regionals but not lose their spot in the Big Show. Two years running of lousy showing at Regionals and a lousy placing at the Big Show and you’re gone from the Big Show, at least for that year.

To be continued...

Reiner Schafer said...

...Back to the bottom. All this costs money. Local leagues, Regionals and the Big Show costs a lot of money. Some of that money will come from sponsorships/advertising from industry. But that won’t be nearly enough. The cost for a team to participate in the local league for the season, has to be paid by a team up front. How they come up with the money is up to them. Paintballs (limited, specific amounts) have to be paid for by the teams along the way and purchased from the leagues at consistent prices (enough so that there is a profit that can be used to help pay for running the league). The leagues can negotiate with suppliers on wholesale prices. The important thing is that all costs are known up front for the players/teams and everyone is paying the same thing. Enough money needs to be collected at the local level to help pay for Regionals and in part, for the Big Show. Sponsorship/advertising for the Big Show should make up the rest of the cost.

Just some ramblings from someone with too much time on his hands this morning.

John Amodea said...


Once again, very well put by you. I agree with just about everything you've stated.

Romeo Indigo-go said...

I like the idea of limiting paint, as this means players won't have to spend even more money on tournament-legal equipment. Why not make all speedball games hopperball, or maybe hopperball+1? That way, you can still rip with your fancy marker, but you'll save it for when you really need it, instead of having a constant rope of paint planted on a bunker. Granted, I have limited experience with speedball, and exactly zero with tournament ball, but I played a little. Yes, I was a walk-on playing against mostly other walk-ons, and yes, my 'Mag can't quite keep up with the Egos, but given the mindset of the modern game, those walkons still had blazingly fast markers and weren't afraid to take advantage of that fact. And in no game was I, or, from what I could see, anyone, able to use that much more than a hopper. In fact, I used the same hopperfull for 2 or 3 games sometimes, and I didn't completely suck. I definitely noticed an increase in the amount of paint I used compared to when I ran a 98, but I still don't see how anybody should be using more than an extra tube of paint. Limiting it seems like a perfect equalizer, and helps push strategy and teamwork back to the forefront of the game.

Some players may consider yelling the position of an opponent to the rest of the team teamwork, but I'm talking about really coordinating to make "plays," and put someone in a position to be a threat to possibly the entire other team for letting him get there. From what I've seen of pro-speedball from YouTube and ESPN, the game seems to have become - horn, everyone spreads out, digs in, and shoots until everyone is out, with the occasional move to a further bunker. The biggest "play," you see is a move for the snake.

You don't necessarily NEED to rework the entire game, you just need to standardize it. If we're going to take cues from other professional sports, then let's do it. At all levels, American Football is played with 11 men on the field from middle school clear through the NFL. Basketball has 5. Hockey has 6. Paintball should have a set format for the highest echelon, professional game. It should also have a SINGLE league, with a centralized ruling body. With the PSP claiming the top spot, let them put their name on it. Let them decide who from where gets to come in and help design this standardized game.

Hopefully, the game (number of players on a team, size of the field, number of people involved) gets bigger. I'd like to see a larger team over a smaller one, something closer to 10 or 12 man than 5. Make the fields bigger, they don't have to be gargantuan, and that's not realistic, given the limitations of land available for that type of stuff, but maybe play on the local high school's football field or something. Those are everywhere, and standard sized! That way it doesn't feel so much like a game of tag in your living room. Just making the field bigger will change significantly the way the game is played, with backmen as they exist now no longer being a viable option. Hell, bring the game back to an actual capture-the-flag type game, instead of elimination with ctf tacked on. Implement reinsertions at regular intervals, so that if you don't go for the flag when a team is short, they'll be able to push you back. Then there will HAVE to be "plays," again, with flag capturing strategy taking priority over sit-and-spray. You'll see kamikaze flag runs again, sieges, shifts in dominance, everything. You can still use the inflatable bunkers, you'll just need more of them.

Maybe I'm a little naive to what established speedballers want, but maybe I have a more useful perspective having not become completely attached to the game as it is now. Iono, just my thoughts.

houdini said...

Paintball unfortunately is a game where players are forced to make decisions about where and when they play based on their financial status and the costs involved in participating in events. Few other sports can can boast that theirs involves a reasonable investment in equipment as well as a hefty hit to the wallet every time you want to practice and play.

Trying to fix competition paintball is also simply not an American issue - the game is bigger than that now - it's a global issue and format changes should benefit players on a global scale, not just those in the States.

For sports to become popular they rely on grass roots participation of amateur players. The success of a professional level league for the same sport in many cases is not reliant on the popularity of the sport at an amateur level and vise versa. Take for instance basketball in Australia, it has huge amateur level participation but the professional league is a mess, the same can be said with soccer. Professional leagues rely on audience participation, for the event and an extended audience via other media formats. Without these factors there is simply no hope of sponsor involvement. Unfortunately competition for a professional sports audience can be hard in countries where localised sports and sometimes popular international sports dominate the news or get media preferences.

My point here is that you need to treat amateur paintball and so-called professional league paintball separately. Amateur level paintball cannot afford to follow in the footsteps of professional league paintball. An amateur basketballer has a playing lifespan of a decade or more, can the same be said for amateur tournament paintballers? Whatever happens there needs to be a global agreement to initiate some form of standardisation in formats for amateur level tournament paintball to make the sport more attractive to younger and newer players and to ensure that players can participate at an amateur level for much longer than they currently do. If there was some form of global format standardisation then the sport would be seen to be more unified then it currently is. Having an International Paintball Committee to oversee, endorse and lead the sport's development would be a huge step in the right direction. Co-operation between global amateur associations could then see some sort of world paintball event for youths held. Governments are more likely to endorse youth orientated international events which could only benefit the sport long term.

To make amateur tournament paintball work it has to be more accessible to a wider audience. As others have said, paint usage is one factor that makes paintball expensive so limiting or bringing costs down in this area can only help attract more tournament participation. In some countries it comes down to equipment as well. In Asia there is still a need for divisions that use field supplied mech markers to make entry level participation more affordable and accessible. In Asia X-ball is not even played and 5 and 7 man tournaments are the most common formats.

As a professional sport, paintball will always be at the mercy of those that run and organise the leagues. Looking as what is happening in the US I still am amazed that the USPL/NPPL have not bothered to organise some form of webcast for the past 2 events. To a media audience, they don't care how many people are in the stands, they just want to see the action and this benefits players, teams, sponsors and creates great exposure for the league. And on this topic, sometimes it's not changing the format of the game to make it more TV friendly, it's changing the way the sport is filmed. Ok sure there are budget constraints when a league is looking after their own webcasts but creative camera positions and techniques can make a huge difference to the 'excitement' factor of watching any sport.

Great to see someone has started the ball rolling on this debate... let's hope those in power take note.

Reiner Schafer said...

What exactly is a professional paintball player? It's certainly not like a professional player in most other sports.

Professional athletes are like professional actors. Professional athletic events are a production, much like a movie, or a rock show. An audience pays money to watch the event. Those taking part in the event get paid by the producers of the production because they are needed in the production.

A professional athlete is one that is at the upper echelon of his abilities and he/she amazes spectators with his/her ability. But there needs to be an audience interested in the event and the athletes abilities; an audience willing to hand over money to be entertained by the production and it's participants.

This does not happen in paintball. Except for a few people who strive to be the topof the paintball world, there are not many in the general public that are willing to watch a paintball event. People don't look at a top paintball player and think to themselves, "Wouldn't it be great if I could twitch my finger like that and shoot with such accuracy? Wouldn't it be great if I had the skill and knowledge to know when to walk up the field and bunker other people like that guy does on a regular basis?"

There are no professional paintball players and there is no event that will attract outside money. All the money that pays for "professional" players in paintball comes from within the industry. Professional paintball players have been "manufactured" by industry businesses to promote the sport. They have been manufactured as icons for others to aspire to become. Of course to become those people takes practice (lots of paintballs) and the best gear. That's the only reason industry businesses have ever sponsored "professional" paintball players. They need them to strut their stuff so others see them and want to be like them.

Since there is no outside audience (money) and since paintball businesses have for the most part come to the conclusion that creating idols isn't enough to attract enough young aspiring paintball athletes, "professional" paintball will most likely come to an end (maybe sooner rather than later).

"Rethinking tournament paintball" had better keep that in mind. If tournament paintball is to flourish in the future, it needs to be self sustaining, meaning it needs to be able to do it with very little outside funding. Producers (league organizers/owners) need to realize that there is no profit (or very little profits) to be made in paintball. Any profits have to come from within the industry (players or industry businesses). Those taking part (athletes/players), need to understand that they are footing the bill. Organizers need to understand that there is a limit to how much the athletes/players can afford to pay and need to stay within those limits.

Then there is the "fun" aspect. Since the "production" will never attract an outside audience, then the product(ion) better be fun for a very wide player base. Because if the people footing the bill (players) aren't having fun, then there is no hope. That's where we are at now. The people who have fun playng tournament paintball now, is much too narrow of a base to support any real tournament scene. Drastic change is needed to create a product that is self sustaining.

Phil said...

My answers to John's questions:

1. I have seen paintball on TV a few times but after the first 15 minutes, it gets boring. Since the games are so short there is not too much difference from one to the next. It is kind of like watching an unranked college football team where the QB hands off to the star running back each time and the only difference is if he goes right, left, or straight up the middle.
2. I enjoy an occasional minor league baseball game but wouldn't watch little league unless my kid was in it.
3. The same could be asked about politics but if you kick out all the old who is going to replace them.
4. More focused would be better.
5. Never but I frequently go to music concerts with opening acts. I wouldn't bother to go watch just an hour of pro play but I wouldn't go for 8 hours to watch a mix of amatuer through pro level. There should be a balance so the audience gets their money and time's worth.
6. Yes and yes to TV. Probably not on ESPN in at least 20 years but there are tons of other sports channels and the internet.
7. Definitely too much paint. Limit the rof and number or paintballs a player can take on the field and use in one match.
8. Strategy is minimal from what I have seen.
9. Never seen any plays. My friends and I have tactics in woodsball that if refined could become "plays."
10. I would go to a pro paintball event if I thought the quality was good enough.
11. Point taken although in pro sports there is room for indoor soccer, arena football, singles, doubles, and team tennis, & beach volleyball. In each case there is 1 major format and 1 or 2 minor formats. Other than tennis they are all seperate events. Track & swimming are 2 sports with little difference between events hence Phelps's ability to rack up so many medals.
12. Hopefully things can be improved.

I look forward to the rest of this series of articles.