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Confessions of an X Ball Skeptic
By Bill Mills
This article is an editorial, and as such reflects the personal viewpoint of the author.
It was at the 2002 LA Open that I first heard the plan for X Ball. Craig Miller from Pro Caps explained the game format to me. Two 5-man teams go at it in a center-flag format game. They get a point for hanging the flag, and then go at it again, with a constantly running game clock Ė the game ends when the clock runs out. Instead of just pulling players for penalties, the offenders would serve time in a penalty box, much like in hockey, so a team could come back after a flag hang and start one or more players short. The big idea behind X Ball was to make a game that was more television friendly, something people would want to watch like they watch baseball, football, hockey and soccer today.
Minutes after Craig explained the idea, Richmond Italia walked up. X Ball was Richmondís baby and he was exited about it. Craig told him he had just explained the game, and Richmond asked what I thought, eager for glowing praise. That wasnít what he got.
ďI think itís the wrong direction,Ē I said. My reasoning was simple. It came from my point of view with my education and background in broadcasting. Paintball is huge. People keep talking about ďwhen paintball becomes mainstream,Ē but in my opinion it already is. Current market estimates indicate some 8 million or so paintball players in the US Ė thatís more people than go snowboarding each year. Market surveys performed by the Sporting Goods Manufacturerís Association indicate that the majority of paintballers are young men in their teens and early twenties. Looking at new format sports shows that appeal to people in that age group there are competitions like the X Games, Gravity Games, snowboarding competitions, skating, supercross, and even though itís not an athletic competition Battle Bots. Something these types of shows have in common that isnít in X Ball, football, hockey or baseball, is that the competitors only appear on screen for a few minutes at a time. They go at it. Bam! Itís over. Then the show moves on to the next competitors. These shows are all about fast pacing.
This new extreme sports television genre is radically different than old school sports, where a fan will watch two teams plug away at each other for an hour or two. I just didnít see the plus to taking paintball which is still a relatively new sport at least to the public at large, and trying to fit it into the old television sports framework. After Iíd laid out my objections, Richmondís smile didnít fade. His response was brief.
ďThose are some good points,Ē he said. ďBut youíre wrong.Ē
Itís not that I didnít want X Ball to succeed, far from it. I was just very dubious. Adding to my skepticism was the fact that it wasnít the first time multi game match format paintball had been done, and it didnít take off before. Probably the most notable version was the USPL. The USPL was designed initially to be a national paintball league, but ended up taking the form of a single tournament held in the Midwest called Paintfest in 2000. That event was well received, with Jax Warriors taking home first place. Brimstone Smoke was one of the top ranked teams, and they were enthused about the format, but talked about how exhausting it was to play continually through a match. Paintball fans in Oregon will be familiar with the Paintball Gladiators, a local cable access television show produced by Bob Shano that used the repeating game concept in the mid to late 1990s.
So, if the repeating game with a time clock format didnít work then, why expect it to work now? The answer to that question didnít unfold until August of 2002. Through the spring and summer Iíd kept in touch with Richmond and Craig about the progress of X Ball. Its world debut would come at the X Ball Nationís Cup, to be held during the International Amateur Open. My wife Dawn and I were invited to serve as game announcers during the competition, and we happily accepted. After arriving in Pennsylvania, we attended the pre-tournament dinner for the Nationís Cup. This is where they difference between X Ball and previous formats became clear. The difference with X Ball wasnít in the game, but in the marketing and organization behind it.
The dinner was held in a banquet room with tables for each of the competing teams, as well as the media and the announcers and staff. Mike Ratko, who now serves as commissioner of the NXL presided in position of commissioner of the event, and reviewed the rules with the teams involved. He also explained how the electronic scoring system worked, including the computer scoreboard display, and the large lighted hockey style display seen by the fans. Ratko also demonstrated the radio-linked chronographs that relay data to the scoring computer automatically when they take a reading from a gun. X Ball had the driving force of Procaps soundly behind it, and it was being enthusiastically received by many of the worldís top players and team owners. Owing mainly to a willingness to get up early, Dawn and I found ourselves scheduled in to serve as announcers for the first match the following day. At the time, it just meant getting up early. In retrospect, itís nice to have been a part of that historic moment in tournament paintball.
It was then, during the first dayís matches, and following through the double elimination framework, watching a team drop out from frustration and exhaustion, and seeing the fans in the packed grandstands jump, shout, cheer and scream, that my X Ball skepticism started to turn. For a game to watch, as a spectator it was exciting.
At World Cup 2002, I again took to the announcerís booth, for part of the NCPA X Ball tournament and the exhibition tournament that was the debut of the NXL. At the first NXL events of 2003, I also spent some time in the booth, as well as on the field shooting photos and video.
The NXL (National X Ball League) has changed the face of tournament paintball in the US in more ways than one. There is the obvious switch in style of play compared to 5 and 10 man paintball, and the potential deals to get it on television, but the other side is what it did to 5, 10, and 7 man paintball. The NXL is a closed tournament circuit Ė only the 8 member teams are involved. Most of the top pro teams and players in the US went to NXL teams. League restrictions say that any player on an NXL roster may only play in local events, or national events which are sanctioned by the NXL. What that boils down to is that you wonít see the any of those top pro teams competing in the PSP 10 man competition, because itís held at the same time as the NXL matches, and due to the restriction, you wonít see them playing in the NPPL Super 7 either.
Outside of the NXL, professional paintball was shaken up. For Dynasty and Naughty Dogs who played both the NPPL Super 7, and the PSP 10 man pro division, it means they stood head and shoulders above the few remaining non-NXL pro teams, and the many amateur teams that moved up to pro to fill the gaps, or were newly formed of mostly pro players from broken up teams. Of the first three events where both teams competed, Dynasty took home first place at NPPL Huntington Beach and Las Vegas, and second place at the PSP LA Open. Naughty Dogs came in second to Dynasty at both NPPL events and beat them out for first place in the PSP LA Open. For both teams, the upheaval to the US pro ranks caused by the departure of teams and players to the NXL has left them as big fish in a small pond.
The NXL isnít the only place X Ball is being played nationally. PSP added Division 1 (pro/am) and Division 2 (nov/rookie) X Ball tournaments to their annual series. With a small showing of pro teams in the 10 man at the LA Open, and some of those teams expressing interest then at changing over to X Ball, it became clear that X Ball was having itís toll on 10 man registration. At Las Vegas, the Naughty Dogs and Legacy, who had played 10 man, made the move to Division 1 X Ball. Vegas didnít have a 10 man pro division, because there werenít enough teams wanting to play in it. Floating around various message boards on the Ďnet, and general team hubbub, some people have been saying that PSP is killing 10 man in favor of X Ball, starting with the pros. The reality is that the teams that played pro 10 man in 2002 all willingly went other ways Ė to the NXL, to Division 1, or to the Super 7.
There was something I still didnít get about X Ball. Why would these teams want to play it? Playing an X Ball tournament is going to be more expensive in terms of paint, because a single match is typically as many games as a whole 5 or 10 man tournament. Itís more tiring Ė itís go, go, go, for over an hour, not just sprint, stop, shoot , move, and be done in 8 minutes then play another game in an hour. So what is the attraction? Why did Jax Worriors, Naughty Dogs, Strange, Storm, Legacy, All Americans, Smoke and 12 Division 2 teams bail out on 10 man in favor of X Ball?
A few weeks ago there was a rare occurrence. There was a weekend that didnít have a major tournament to attend, and wasnít the weekend before a major tournament when Iím prepping to go on the road, or the weekend after a major tournament when Iíve just finished a week of catch-up work from being gone, and want nothing more than to sleep in half the day. So, Dawn and I hopped in the car and drove down to visit our friends Todd and Tami Adamson in south Florida, along with their son Tucker, and Redman the dog. It worked out that I needed to spend some time playing paintball with a gun I was reviewing, and the Philly Americans were coming down to the Adamsonís field for a practice session.
When the northern parts of the US are still under snow, Floridaís got good weather, and a number of pro teams travel down to the sunshine state. Thereís more spring training going on down here than just baseball. Todd and Tamiís new field, Extreme Rage Paintball Park is set up and groomed with tournament players in mind. Thatís no surprise considering Toddís role as a back player on Chicago Aftershock, and Tamiís as captain of Femmes Fatale.
The Americans did some drills at first, with coach Darryl Trent putting them through their paces, much like Dave Youngblood did with him in California, a way back when he played for the Ironmen. In fact, he commented that the JT Rave 500 jersey I was wearing was ďold school.Ē I hadnít given it a thought when I grabbed it, to pack, but he had given it to me at an Ironmen pre-season practice back in 1997. It was one of his old, unmarked Ironmen jerseys.
After theyíd gotten ready, it was time for practice. Going up against the Americans was a throw-together practice team consisting of myself, Todd Adamson and Kenny Clamper from Aftershock, and several players from the South Florida based team, Fallout. There was no time clock, and there were no time penalties, so we didnít play true X Ball, but we were practicing for X Ball. We played 5 man games back to back, turning around as fast as we could, with the players who were off-field waiting in the netted dead box, so we definitely got the flavor of X Ball.
Now I get it.
It wasnít until Iíd actually played it that I finally understood why a team would want to play X ball over a traditional howvermany man capture the flag based tournament game. In 3,5,7, or 10 man, you walk the field, make your strategy, and go at it. Then you take a break for a while, prep your gear, get some food, go to the next field, and play a different team who may react completely different from the first - not with X Ball. You go at it, and you do well or you get totally blown off the field (we did for the first few games) but you learn from that. You learn how you are moving on the field, you learn how your opponent is moving on the field, and you get several chances to counter their strategies, or come up with a strategy that knocks them off balance so you can strike. Itís like adding a whole third dimension to the strategy of the game. Iíd play a game, and when it was done, Todd who also took the role of coach, would sit me or put me back in telling me where he wanted me to go for primaries and secondaries in the next game. Unlike regular tournament ball I wasnít just sitting the games I was out Ė I was watching, and on edge, anxious to see everything I could during this round and chomping at the bit to apply that knowledge in the next round.
Admittedly I expected to get blasted a lot Ė I donít get to play tournaments often due to my schedule reporting on tournaments, so most of the time when I play itís walk-on where I have to be less aggressive or risk wearing out my welcome with the field owners. So there I was, facing the Philly Americans, one of the top ranked NXL teams. I did get blown off the field the first few games, but after a while, I was doing some damage too. I was usually playing a back stand-up and Todd wanted me to step out, shoot down the center to keep them from putting a man in the 50, and then step back to cover before paint got to me. After doing that for a few games, it just wasnít working. Sometimes Iíd get shot, sometimes I wouldnít, but I just couldnít get the paint down the center in time Ė the center X was too wide of a bunker for me to shoot around without getting too far out in the open by the time paint was coming in on me. So we changed up the strategy, and I took to my can with the objective of shooting diagonally. That way anyone running to the corner bunker, or the Dorito on the 40 would have to run right through my paint. If no one ran that way, I swung in and laid paint on my mirror to keep him tucked in. That started working, and I started hitting people and being effective cover for our front players to move. Had it been a regular paintball game, where we had just one go against Philly we would have been done on the first game, and it would be all over. Our first strategy might have worked against another team, but not them. Now it wasnít just a matter of coming up with a good strategy, but also of changing that strategy anticipating, and reacting to the other team. Itís that adaptation of strategy that drew me into X Ball.
Psychology came into play. If weíd beat them one game, assuredly they played with almost double the aggression level off the break the next game. We could count on that though Ė theyíd push for more real estate on the break, so that was the time to sweet spot the bunkers further out from the center. Even who was on the field at a given time affected what they did and what we did. My eyes arenít perfect and from across the field, Iíd be hard pressed to name off who was who, save for Spesh with his American flag bandana atop his head. I was identifying people though Ė I knew that there was a skinny guy that often took my mirror Ė and he laid more paint to keep me in than the other person who would take the spot. After the practice came to a close under a sudden rain shower, I found out that was JT Bouchard. I knew on the break, seeing who took my mirror told me how long I could be exposed safely. If it was JT, I needed to pop out fast and tuck back Ė the other back player gave me more time, and opportunity to throw paint.
So there you have it, the confessions of an X Ball skeptic. Iím still not sure whether it will be younger or older people that want to watch it on TV, but why it was fun to watch as a spectator made immediate sense to me the first time I saw it played. Now, having experienced it as a player, it is clear to me why I, and those division 1 and 2 teams want to play it more.
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