Competitive sport takes heavy hits, soldiers on
Without ducking for cover, Brian Clayards raises his (non-lethal) semi-automatic weapon and sets his sight on five people at the Agricultural Building on the Calgary Stampede Grounds and prepares to open fire.
Taking aim, he let out a short burst on one of his intended targets and tags one of them.
Onlookers cheer Clayards as he seeks out his next target.
The 27-year-old is a professional paintball player who competed at the Canadian Professional Paintball League’s national championships. Clayards, who participates in an indoor variant of paintball called speedball, has been playing for 13 years and has been a professional for two years for the Canadian Professional Paintball League team, the Vancouver Vendetta.
He’s had a front row seat for the changes going on in the sport.
“It used to be, if there was a dispute, guys would scrap right on the field,” Clayards said.
“It’s gotten better.”
Once seen as a recreational activity that was slightly more physical than laser tag, speedball has been gaining ground as a legitimate team sport.
“In sports like baseball, you’re told what to do and execute a game plan. In speedball, you have an opinion on the game plan. It’s like a game of chess: you’re a pawn, but you’re expected to think and react,” he said.
“Players have a lot of independence.”
But that independence can be daunting.
“I’ve seen teams who are up like 4-0 and blow it because something unexpected happens,” Clayards said.
“You have to make quick decisions out there. You can’t just do what the coach tells you. I’ve done it before and gotten tagged.”
Despite the unique aspects of speedball, the sport has had its share of problems. Businesses within the industry have gone bankrupt or filed for liquidation, such as U.S.-based former industry giant Small Parts.
With it went sponsorships for professional paintball teams and a bit of decline in the sport’s profile. Most professional players aren’t paid for their participation, and there are only a handful of professional teams that have any kind of financial support.
“Outside sponsorship started creeping out,” Mike Carey, one of the organisers for the nationals, said in reference to the U.S. recession.
“When I was playing, I was able to travel around the world and get paid to do it. We had guys like Pepsi wanting to get in, but I think they were hoping for a TV deal.”
“Unfortunately, it’s not a fun game to watch.”
The biggest issue is one that is somewhat familiar to what the NHL faced from FOX when they attempted to aggressively market their product in the 90s: the action is so fast paced, it’s hard to keep track of everything.
“In hockey, you have the puck. Football, you have the ball. Most other sports have a way of capturing and directing the viewer’s attention. With paintball, you really have to pay attention to everything to take in the whole picture,” Carey said.
Despite paintball not necessarily being a spectator-friendly sport, Carey was quick to mention webcasts of the nationals have been getting a positive response: over 20,000 unique visitors checked out last year’s event.
Although this may paint a dark picture for the future of paintball as a competitive sport, there are reasons for optimism and seeing an eventual resurgence.
Raymond Emsley, who manages the M.R. Paintball pro shop at Calgary paintball park Rampage City, said: “Kids, when they come in, the first thing they do is walk in the pro shop and start looking at guns. They start immediately making connections to (video games) ‘Halo’ or ‘Modern Warfare.’ That gun is from ‘Modern Warfare.’”
Carey also sees the parallels between video games and paintball. “Older guys, like myself, call the area we play on fields, but when younger players come in, they refer to them as maps, like from video games. A lot of newer people look at it like it’s a video game,” he said.
One other area of overlap between paintball and video games is the universal aspect of it.
“Anyone, it doesn’t matter their shape, size, how athletic they are, can come in and be a paintball player. It’s very inclusive,” Clayards said.