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Knowing The Game:
Tournament Paintball Formats
By Bill Mills - Jan 2006
Photos By Dawn Mills

Regularly, we receive e-mails from paintball players wanting to step up to tournament play, but not knowing what to expect in terms of games.  Knowing the game means you can know how to practice, and practicing is the only real way to get ready for a tournament.  

Just as there are huge differences between recreational, scenario and tournament paintball, there are many different game formats used in tournaments.  Today when looking at paintball magazines, web sites and videos, one thing that makes tourney play stand out from the other styles is the field – bright colored jerseys on grass with big balloon bunkers, but not only is this a very new look for the top level pro and amateur tournaments, it’s not the only way tournaments are played today.

The game of paintball started in the woods, and that’s where tournaments were played too – until Dennis Bukowski said it didn’t have to be that way.  Bukowski, partnered with Giovanni D’Egidio, owned Sat Cong Village (now known more politically correctly as SC Village.) a massive paintball field in Southern California.  Because it was massive, and built up (fields ranged from military camps with aircraft to deep jungle and door to door) and because its location close to CFW Enterprises meant it was the location for many Action Pursuit Games magazine photo shoots, SC Village was the world’s best known paintball field in the 80s and 90s.  People traveled across the country and from other continents just to play there (for us, it was a 6 hour drive, and worth every minute.) One of the parks most popular fields was “Beruit.”  Completely bereft of trees or natural cover, this field was a village of small, roofless plywood buildings for door to door and down the street paintball combat.  Beruit proved to be extremely popular because of its fast paced action.

Bukowski took that fast paced action one step further, tweaking it into what has become the grandfather of modern concept field tournament paintball.  While that name today is often used by paintballers to describe any concept field,  Speedball was originally trademarked and applied to the SC Village Speedball Arena.  Instead of creeping slowly through the woods, Speedball players played on a very open dirt field, which had trenches, palm trees, and even a moat in the middle of the field.  In the center of the field was a big red button wired to a buzzer – the goal.  Teams started on the back walls of the field with their paintguns against the wall, and tried to be the first to hit that buzzer, while a commentator in an overlooking booth called the action and razzed the players in front of a cheering audience.  

Quickly, paintball fields around the world started building concept paintball fields – bunkers instead of bushes, with overturned wooden cable spools, and plywood replacing rocks and trees.  But when it came to tournaments, these remained the exception rather than the norm.  Fields with one concept field would host tournaments where the arena might get used as one of the fields, or not at all.

It wasn’t until the 1996 Paintball World Cup that Brass Eagle unveiled an Ultraball field (also commonly referred to by the trademarked name “Hyperball”) at the NPPL World Cup in Orlando that big US tournaments started the move from the woods to the concept field.  The following year at the same tournament saw the US debut of Sup’Air Ball, the inflatable bunkers from Morocco.  

While they got a lot of press, they still didn’t take over tournament paintball.  Large events like the NPPL series, Great Western Series and International Amateur Open started mixing their events with some concept fields, and some if not most woods fields.  It wasn’t until the year 2000 that the Paintball World Cup was laid out with only concept fields, and it wasn’t until the following year that an entire NPPL/PSP season was finally played with no woods.  The big push came from teams who saw that in addition to being more visible to be photographed thus increasing their chances of sponsorship, concept fields were far more evenly balanced than those dependant on mother nature for their layout.  Games came down to skill more than who got “the good side” of the field at the coin toss.

Regardless of the style of field, it is the type of game that truly defines a tournament.  In the early 80s, it wasn’t uncommon to see tournaments played with 12, 15 or even 20 players per team on the field at once.  

By the time the NPPL was formed in the early 90s, 10-man paintball had become the dominant format for professional level paintball competition.  In a traditional 10-man game each team starts from an opposite end of the field at their flag station.  Hanging in their flag station is their flag.  Once the game starts, their goal is to reach the opposite side of the field, retrieve the opposing teams’ flag, and bring it back to their own flag station to hang.  Inevitably, eliminating opposing players from the game by shooting them would be a part of the process.  Eliminated players exit the field without talking, and must wait in a dead-box for the game to finish.  Often, but not always, field layouts place a dead-box right behind each flag station.  The game ends when a flag is hung or the clock runs out.

While a flag hang wins the game, it’s possible to win 10-man without a hang – based on points.  Traditional scoring awards 50 points to the team that hangs the flag, 20 points to the first team to pull a flag from their opposing team’s flag station, 2 points for every opposing player eliminated, and 1 point for every player still live at the end of the game.  A perfect game, in which a team lost no players, eliminated all of their competitors, and both pulled and hung the flag earned 100 points – a “max.”  

If the game clock (usually a stopwatch in a referee’s hand) ran out before a flag hang occurred, it all came down to the points to determine the winner, those eliminations and live players really mattered.  Many new players were often confused, thinking that 100 points were divided between the two teams playing.  This was not the case, as to two scores would not always total 100, especially if no flag hang occurred.

 Early in the 1990s, penalties were issued in the form of negative points, but these quickly evolved into the one-for-one penalty system.

In the one-for-one system penalties for rules infractions are immediate on the field, and affect the game, rather than only making a difference later at the scoreboard.  Not only is the team that breaks the rules punished, but the team they broke them against benefits, because the penalty is an attempt to balance out the affect gained by cheating.  If a player continues to play after they have been hit by a paintball that broke open on them, that is a one-for-one infraction.  The player is removed from the game, because they were eliminated, and one more player is also removed from the game as a penalty.  More severe infractions, bring tougher penalties like wiping a hit, which garnered a three for one penalty under many rule sets – not only was the player who wiped gone, but so were three of their teammates as punishment for blatant cheating.

Ten-man was the format for top-level play up until 2003.  That was the year, the one-year old-NPPL, Inc., severed its ties with Paintball Sports Promotions.  NPPL, Inc., launched the Super 7-Man, while eight of the top teams in the PSP camp formed the NXL to play X-Ball.  PSP added X-Ball to their 5 leg series ending with Paintball World Cup.  Ten-man paintball died a slow death that year, as attendance dwindled.  PSP did not offer it in 2004, as there simply weren’t enough teams competing to make it worth offering.

Five man tournament paintball differs from 10-man both in the number of players on each team, and in the overall goal.  While 5-man was a huge competition at World Cup, it was not a part of the regular NPPL/PSP season in the 1990s, where it would usually be found at the World Cup, and Chicago Open.  It wasn’t until the new millennium that 5-man became a fixture in the PSP/NPPL series.  In other regional and local tournaments, 5-man’s popularity boomed, because it was much easier to get together 7 or 8 players (allowing for alternates) than the 15 to 20 making up a 10-man team.

Instead of two flags, 5-man is usually a center-flag format, also referred to as football.  Each team’s goal is to be the first to the middle of the field where they can pull the flag from its stand and run it in to the opposing team’s flag base.  Because of the need to clear a path to the opposing base, 5-man games are more likely to end with all of the losing team’s players eliminated when all is said and done.

Scoring for 5-Man is simply a scaled version of 10-man scoring.  A flag-hang is worth 50 points, flag pull worth 20, each eliminated player worth 4, and each live player worth 2.  The five-man format remains a common in the US, in regional and local tournaments, and remained popular in the PSP series until its replacement with 5-Man X-Ball in the league’s 2006 events.

Penalties in 5-Man are usually using the one-for-one system, though some tournament promoters still apply point based penalties.

Seven-Man paintball really got its popularity in Europe before it caught on in the US.  A compromise format between 5 and 10-man, 7-man isn’t over as fast as a 5-man game, as teams are less effected by the loss of a player or two on the break, yet with fewer required players, it is still easier to get together a solid 7-man squad than a 10.  In the US, 7-man was a very rarely seen format until 2003.  That year NPPL, Inc., introduced 7-Man to the US market in a big way with the launch of the Super 7-Man Paintball World Series.  Produced by Pure Paintball Promotions, an extravagant tournament on Huntington Beach in Southern California, turned hundreds of US teams on to the new style of game.  The format quickly grabbed a foothold and is now played not only in the NPPL, but a number of local and regional series like the XPSL.  Seven-man can be played centerflag or two-flag.  The NPPL goes with the more traditional two flag system.   

Seven-man is scored similarly to 10 and 5-man.  The NPPL, Inc., rules award 40 points for a flag hang, 32 points for being the first team to pull a flag, 3 points for each eliminated player, and 1 point for each live player.

Sizing down from 7 and 5 man is the 3-man tournament format.  Making appearances in the 1990s, 3-man primarily was played in specialty divisions at larger tournaments, such as the Pump Division at the International Amateur Open, or the Young Guns and Stock Class divisions of the Pan Am circuit.  In 2001, 3-man took center stage as Milt Call and Paul Bollenbach produced the Ultimate Madness – a nationally promoted 3-man format tournament drawing players from the central US.  In late 2005 three-man gained a whole new life as the Ultimate Arena Paintball League, and it’s pro division the World Paintball League were formed as part of a plan to produce a tournament paintball cable TV show.  The result was pro level 3-man and a 3-man tournament series in the US.

Depending on where it is played, 3-Man is sometimes scored similar to 5-man, or simply in a win/loss structure either based on a center flag hang or complete elimination of the opposing team.

Top gun, or 1 on 1 format competitions are usually played as a side event at larger tournaments.  These simply start two players out on opposite sides of the field, and a win is achieved by eliminating the competitor.

To add more to the mix, repeating score formats hit the mainstream in the new millennium.  In the 1990s Bob “Sarge” Shano developed a game format he called “Paintball Gladiators” for a public access cable TV show in the Pacific Northwest.  Shano launched the show in 1996, and even received an award of excellence from The Alliance For Community Media.  The Gladiator’s format pitted two teams against each other while a clock ran.  They played a game close to a traditional paintball game, but a flag hang didn’t end the game, instead it simply reset both teams to the starting area to go at it again – accumulating points as they continued.

Making its debut in 2000 was the USPL with a single event – Paintfest 2000.  This tournament ran a more intense repeating score format – using two flags with teams getting points not only for flag hangs, but for how far down the field their flag had traveled before time ran out.

Then in 2002, came the big unveiling of X-Ball.  The Nation’s Cup, held during the International Amateur Open, was the debut of the now reigning repeating score format, which became the PSP’s main format the following year.  X-Ball puts 5 players on the field for each team, and they go after a center flag, just like in 5-man.  While a game clock is ticking, each flag hang, earns a single point.  After a hang, players have 2 minutes to get back into place to fight for the next point.  Played in two halves, typically around 16 to 18 minutes each, X-Ball uses a timed penalty box system similar to hockey.  When a player is penalized they are placed in a penalty box until their penalty expires.  When the players get ready to play their next point, they play short for every player in the box.  Thus, if a team loses two players to the penalty box, they start the next point with only three players on field up against 5 opponents.  The length of the penalty reflects the severity of the infraction.

X-Ball has another major difference not seen in 10, 7 or 5-man – coaching.  Each team is allowed a coach who can yell to the players from the team side of the field, and the audience is not only allowed to, but encouraged to yell to the players.  The days of worrying about being spotted while creeping through the woods are long gone on the X-Ball field.

For 2006, Paintball Sports Promotions brought their 5-man competitions to a close, replacing them with 5-Man X-Ball.  This new version of X-Ball puts 5 players just like X-Ball, but rather than the long clock, games are played to a pre-set number of points, and the teams are allowed smaller rosters – for a quick paced, lower cost starting block for teams looking to get into X-Ball.

While these are the main formats see in tournament paintball over the last couple of decades, still more variations exist, and each place they are played, there are often variations in the details of the rules, such as whether or not a player who is running with the flag must stand still and hold it, or drop it and leave the field when eliminated.  One of the keys to succeeding in any paintball tournament is learning both the rules and the format that event will be using.


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