A CN&R writer explores the popular shoot-’em-up fantasy of the paintball phenomenon
The five of us trudge up the little hill, guns at the ready. We stop at the crest to talk strategy. Our captain thinks we could take out the most enemy if one of us guards the trail to our right while he and one of the gunners take the left road. I’m supposed to weave up the middle and take out anyone sly enough—or dumb enough—to try to come up that way.
It sounds like a good plan at the time, but the woods are thick and hard to move through. When the shooting starts I find myself almost totally unprotected and have to dive for cover behind a pile of sticks. The captain and his gunner are hit first, followed by another one of ours, a guy I was supposed to be providing cover for.
Within minutes, our plan of attack has completely unraveled. The two survivors in our company are pinned down, with shots flying at us from every direction. I turn around to make a run for it, charging blindly through woods, firing at everything and nothing in my path until there’s no ammo left in my gun. As I run past a tree, I see a masked face behind the barrel of a popping gun. Taken by surprise, he unloads into my ribcage at point-blank range.
I’m dead, but I don’t mind. There’ll be another game in a few minutes anyway, and after all, we’re only playing paintball.
That’s right, paintball—that shoot-’em-up fantasy game that many people wrongly associate with survivalists and tobacco-spitting gun nuts. In reality, the culture surrounding paintball is much closer to that of the computer geek. Many paintballers describe the mock battles as if they were hyper-realistic video games, and the really serious paintballers are shameless technophiles who know the make and model number of every paint gun ever made.
Most paintball players are casual enthusiasts who play every now and then, but there are sponsored professional teams that play in tournaments around the world.
No matter how dedicated the player, the first question people ask about the sport is always the same. “Does it hurt when you get hit?” The answer is an emphatic yes. For a few seconds it hurts like hell, and it leaves a welt on your hide about the size of a quarter. But it’s not one of that “It hurts so bad I can’t breathe” kind of pains, or even one of that “It hurts so bad I can’t stop cussing” kind. It’s probably around the scale of, say, a hard pinch or getting smacked with stick of green bamboo.
It stings, but not for that long.
The next question is, “Is it fun?” to which the answer is, “A whole lot of people think so.”
About 6 million people in the United States play paintball at least once a year, and about 800,000 of them are regular players, according to one of the 16 publications that serve the industry. Paintballers spend as much as $260 million on the sport each year, not including the sales of 67,000 paintball guns sold each month. Worldwide, there are close to 12 million paintball enthusiasts.
What amazes some about the popularity of the sport isn’t that so many people like to do it, but that they are able to afford it. A good gun (or “marker,” as the more PC paintballers call them) can run anywhere from $80 to more than $1,000. The ammunition, balls of non-toxic fluorescent paint encased in a .68 caliber hard-gelatin shell, costs about $60 for 2,000 rounds.
With one of the newer guns, you can go through that much ammo in just a couple of five-minute games. When you add in the cost of compressed air, masks, gloves and other extras, you’re talking about a hobby that’s almost as expensive as golfing, but enjoyed by a much younger crowd.
Michael Johnson, owner of Johnson’s Paintball shop in Chico, said that despite the expense there are plenty of reasons to go out in the woods and shoot paint at your buddies.
“It’s just a fun game,” he said. “A lot of kids are getting into it because it’s not as physical as other sports. You’ll see big guys out there, young guys, old guys, it doesn’t matter. The gun equalizes everybody.”
Johnson, who plays just about every weekend with his son, said the popularity of the sport has waxed and waned since its inception in the 1980s. His shop is still more of a hobby than a money-maker, but it’s allowed him to stay involved with a sport he thinks might someday take off.
There are more people playing at the tournament level than ever, he pointed out, and sponsored events like the upcoming “X-Ball” should bring at least cable TV coverage.
“The public craves carnage, and paintball has it,” Johnson said. “It’s that and sex they want to see.”
There’s even talk about trying to make paintball an Olympic event. The problem has always been that paintball is not much of a spectator sport. For one thing, you’d have to devise a really ingenious system to keep the fans in the stands while they’re being pelted with paint. Keeping track of the action is close to impossible, and what about the poor schmuck who would have to film the thing? Besides, as one player said between games at Destiny Paintball in Magalia, “I’d rather play than watch.”
D. J. Long and Paul Brodie, the 18-year-old owners of Destiny, agree. Like Johnson, they got into paintball not because it seemed like a lucrative business but because they themselves love the game. Working out of an Aerostar mini-van, they sell ammo, rent equipment (a bargain at $25 for a gun, mask and 200 rounds of ammo), referee the games, and go on Gatorade runs for thirsty players.
“It’s always been our dream to base our lives around paintball,” Brodie said.
Long said that on a good weekend about 40 people will visit their course, which field consists of three or four separate areas with different obstacles built for different games and strategies. At the fort complex, the idea is to storm or defend the fort. At the speedball course, the goal is to quickly annihilate the opposing team.
One of the ironies at Destiny is that, while kids with paintball guns are often pegged as potential vandals and domestic-animal terrorizers, the only ones creating any real havoc in the area around Destiny are the yahoos who illegally drive their four-wheelers through the course at night, along with the local drunks who tear down or steal the obstacles when no one is around.
Another strange trend in paintball is the influx of Christian church groups forming semi-professional teams. The sport has apparently become so popular among Christian youth groups that the paintball field in Grass Valley is known as “J.F.,” which supposedly stands for “Jesus freaks.”
Jenny Johnson, who helps her husband run Johnson’s Paintball, said she didn’t see any conflict between being a peaceful person and playing a warlike game. Metaphors for war can be drawn out of most activities, from football to chess, she said. And though she sells paint guns made for the sole purpose of practicing warlike scenarios, she doesn’t believe people should keep real guns.
“I wouldn’t allow guns in my house," she said. "But this [paintball] is different. It’s like kids playing war."