“The whole thing is pretty cool to see as soon as they enter the field. The gun shots, the yelling of captains, the positioning of all participants — it makes the experience worth seeing and observing.”
That was the head referee describing an active session of paintball at Boston Paintball Chelsea. With great appreciation for the sport, Chris (nicknamed ‘Riz’) spoke to me as one of my interviewees during the 14th Boston Paintball Combine, in Chelsea, MA. He has been working for six years as the head referee at the facility, where this past Friday, the combine gathered paintball enthusiasts from all over New England. The purpose was to catch the attention of established paintballers who garner respect in the sport’s realm, which spreads across the country and even the world.
Except for the fact that the sport requires army-like clothing and that you need a gun that shoots paint, I knew nothing else about the sport before the event. After all those involved had registered and had started to be tested for their skills, I approached a few people to gain more insight on a sport that has ostensibly grown to greater heights than simply that of a few pals shooting at one another for fun.
“Although it all starts in that group of friends that truly enjoy the sport and do it for the joy that any pick-up sport offers, paintball has slowly become an activity that can be considered a choice in life that can even be called a career — a very profitable one at times”, stated Jeff Stein, one of the scouts who was present at the combine. Formerly a paintball player himself, he has been scouting for quite some time now, after having coached players and played at a high level before that.
“I have been playing since 1992, back when paintball was even less popular. Throughout the years, I’ve seen it develop to a sport that requires great skill, and can be highly selective at the more organized levels. Of course, on top of the physical preparation, you need a make up of like-minded, ambitious and serious players in order for a team to be well-functioning and successful.”
Being well-acquainted with the sport, Jeff gave insight on the obstacles that the sport faces outside of the field and the facilities it’s played in.
“The sport suffers from lack of funding and civic support, making it difficult for it to develop. There’s great passion for it, but little appreciation for what it provides to those involved. Teams that are run by higher education institutions, like that of UConn, are considered great teams, while those that are funded by players face stunted growth.”
Indeed, the sport lacks support from the average person, making it seem pointless to pursue anything greater than the weekend pastime that it offers, but according to Jeff, some professionals rake in more money than most people, while most of them enjoy benefits that not everyone does:
“While 90% of professionals don’t make anything, the rest are making six figures. However, simply being part of a professional team can take you outside the country to participate in competitions in Europe and Asia, where paintball garners great support. The players get to not only see the world, but are also accommodated with all expenses paid for.”
To concretize, Jeff mentioned Harrison Frye as an example of a very successful paintball player who has participated in the National Xball League (NXL), a competition that reaches Europe and organizes events of high regard. Frye now enjoys great fame across the paintball community, with videos of his performances appearing on social media and YouTube.
To look up the barrel of the gun, I approached some players during their break. Among them, Brandon Barragan offered to share some insight on his experience during a 17-year engagement. A D3 player, the Parsonsfield, ME native was at the combine after a hiatus from the sport, now hoping to reach a professional level.
Admitting to an every-day practice routine, he expressed confidence in his skills, mentioning ‘off the break’ shooting as his specialty. Evidently, the skill consists of aiming and shooting at the opponent right from the start, with the goal of gaining an advantage on the opposing team as early in the match as possible.
Having practiced since the age of seven in the woods behind his house, Brandon had learned that outside the sport, there is great importance in staying healthy and seeking knowledge from those around, all with the purpose of becoming better, and of course, having fun.
Similarly to Brandon, whose engagement in the sport had started at a really young age, there were players at the event whose stature and age made them look out of place. However, like 13-year-old Jake Straface attested to, there were no traces of intimidation, whatsoever. Along 12-year-old Matt Lane, another young addition to the ranks, the younger players sought professional consideration, or at least some noticing, as they both aspired to one day join a team and become experts of the sport. As many of the older players stated, their quick and low-profile movement made them dangerous to the opposition, shutting down my undermining of their abilities.
The younger players were accompanied by their parents, who expressed great support for their children’s choice to pursue their passion for paintball. They saw it as a great activity for their children, where they not only get great exercise, but also learn to thrive in an environment that smothers with great competition and requires determination.
Throughout my interviewing, everyone painted a picture that showed different perspectives. In the end, they all honed in the same core of feeling welcome and being able to retrieve valuable lessons that are applicable outside the paintball field.
As Chris, the head referee, most accurately put it: “It’s a sport that caters to everyone. Our facility has welcomed war veterans and participants with physical handicaps, all people who have then found a community that makes them feel comfortable, and offers a fun activity. Because of the nature of the sport, where you have to look out for one another, there’s often a bond of strong friendship that is formed which knows no obstacles and offers only respect.”
Photos by Aaron Perry
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