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IAO Goes Retro
June 2006
by Dawn Mills

In the fall of 1983 the first national championship paintball game was played.  The company producing the event was called National Survival Game, but the woman behind the event was Debra Dion Krischke, owner of Three Rivers Paintball and Team Effort Events, the folks that have brought tournament paintball to Pennsylvania every summer for the past 16 years.

Over the years some of paintball’s biggest and most exciting tournaments have come and gone – the Mardi Gras Open and Skyball spring to mind as tournaments with an international draw in very popular venues, and a lifespan of only five or six years as an annual event.  Here, the International Amateur Open stands out from the crowd.  To see why, we need to head back a little in time.

The first recorded game of paintball was played in the summer of 1981.  One of the three people who organized that game, Bob Gurnsey started the National Survival Game the following year.  NSG began franchising commercial paintball fields, and serving as a distributor for Nelson paintballs (then manufactured by RP Scherer for Nelson,) Nelson’s Nel-Spot paintball guns (built by Daisy for Nelson,) and soon their own paintball gun the Splatmaster.  Krischke was in charge of public relations and served as NSG’s tournament director. 

In 1990 Debra Krischke branched out on her own to start the National Amateur Open, forgetting that the Canadians were attending this first ever event in support of non-professional teams, and that she could have called the event the International Amateur Open.  By 1991 however, that’s what the name became, and despite numerous sponsors, Cal Magnum, Zap, Draxxus, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Empire, the IAO was branded and became a household name for paintball teams and industry leaders alike.

2006 is a year of change for the event ubiquitously known as the IAO or the Zap Am, though neither of these names applies any more.  After 15 years of being the Amateur Open – whether international or national, Team Effort Events has dropped the Amateur status and is focusing on a larger niche of players, the Novice, Rookie and Young Guns. 

After watching the industry for so long, Krischke and her team have learned to test the waters and how to read the environment of the field.  At the time the IAO was started, professional players were reigning high in the national tournaments, as there weren’t any divisional playing brackets.  Pros were crushing amateurs, novice and rookie alike in the events and Krischke thought it was time for a change to create a more level playing field for the teams that might not get to practice together much less compete together every week. 

Krischke said, “There was clearly a skill division and yet nobody was doing it.  I wanted to set up an Amateur only event.  Recreational teams were being crushed in other events by teams that had the opportunity to compete weekly.  We gave them a level playing field.”

The IAO was born, supplying a need for lesser known teams to get their names out into the world of paintball, all the while being reffed by the top teams in the world, who knew the ropes.  After six years of running NSG’s events from 1983-1987, Debra had a great handle on the production of a tournament, what players would need, what industry leaders would look for and how to put together a phenomenal trade show. 

Today trade shows are a dime a dozen and taken for granted, but back in the early 90’s they were uncommon unless one was speaking of the IAO.  If you were a name in paintball, you were there, or you wouldn’t be a name for long.

For the first eleven years of the event, the IAO was held at Three Rivers Paintball in Freedom, PA.  Near to Cranberry, where all the off-field action takes place, this location offered varied terrain and plenty of space for vendors.  When paintball took off in the early years after the turn of the century, the big trucks started to appear.  What people see today as ‘normal’ was anything but for the older paintball players who remember people vending out of pickup trucks.  Something had to change to allow for the big companies to showcase their big semi-trucks.  The decision was made to move the IAO to the Butler Fairgrounds where vending space greatly outstripped the actual playing fields.  The opportunity for vast crowds, big showcase attraction like freestyle motocross dirt bike jumps, car shows, and musical festivals was a reality.  The first year of the move, was a huge success, but then two of the biggest names in paintball tournaments took separate paths, polarizing the industry.  With a deep seated desire to be seen at all the hot spots, vendors started making decisions about what event they’d attend, now with twice as many opportunities to be seen. 

In 2003 a scenario game was added to the IAO’s festivities.  The line up of activities included 3 man, five man, ten man, young guns, various contests of silly actions or skill levels being and the scenario game hosted by Blackcat Productions.  Prior to the IAO offering a scenario game, the scenario players of the United States hadn’t really ever seen a blow out vendor tent before, and this gave the many vendors a chance to really see the other side of paintball, face to face.

Fast forward to 2006, the IAO is now the Three Rivers Paintball Festival.  With the name change come a few other changes for the year as well.  The event will be held back at Three Rivers in Freedom, leaving behind the too-big Butler Fairgrounds and allowing more woods games to be played again for the scenario teams, as well as one division of tournament play that will have the option of playing woods ball instead of the blow-up fields.  Novice and Rookie will compete along with Young Gun divisions. 

There will be the vendor tent extravaganza, but the big trucks will be limited in their exposure due to room.  Prepping the move back to the Three Rivers property meant 1200 dump truck loads worth of fill dirt, a bulldozer running full time for three months, hydro seeding 65,000 square feet of airfields and viewing areas and now, three level, beautifully grassed air ball fields await the young gun, novice and rookie players. 

“Our heart lies with Rookie and Novice players.  We give them a place to shine,” said Krischke.  This will be the first year that scenario and tournament games will be held at at 3-rivers, Krischke said, “It’s going to be wild, we’re really looking forward to it.”  Last year over 400 players showed up for the scenario game.  Blackcat and Team Effort Events are expecting a similar amount of people for the “Team America” themed storyline.

The IAO Industry Conference has been in existence from the tournament’s beginning offering field and store owners not only a place to network with industry leaders, distributors and the movers and shakers of the paintball field, but also a showcase for new products.  The New Product Line Up became so synonymous with the IAO that a lot of paintball product manufacturers planned on the late summer to release new gear in the 1990s.  For the first time in 16 years, the industry conference will not be held at the event in July.  With the industry in a state of flux, and a long run of quality keynote speakers, round tables and basic information, the folks at Team Effort Events have decided to take a well deserved break from this side of production for the 2006 season.

Scheduled for July 27-30th, 2006, teams playing rookie or novice will be able to play in the five man competition, 3 man open class, or young guns as well as the retro woods ball competition.  Costs for players range from $55 to $100 per player with paint coming courtesy of Empire – their lines of Engage and Ramp offered at $65 per case.  Pro Clinics will be available throughout the event with multiple time World Champions Philly Americans leading discussions and teaching their winning techniques.  The infamous Industry Cocktail Party will be held Friday night by invitation only during the hours of 7-9 then open to the public from 9 to 11 o’clock.  It will be sponsored by National Paintball Supply and will once again feature the awesome sounds of Shari Richards, the band that made the 15th Anniversary party an event to remember.

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