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Bob Gurnsey reflects on the first commercial paintball game
As with each year, as August begins the town of Cranberry, Pennsylvania seems to become the center of the paintball universe with the International Amateur Open. In its eleventh consecutive year, the Amateur Open is more than a tournament, it is paintball's largest trade show both for the players, and paintball business owners. Under the banners of the event's main sponsors, Zap and 32 Degrees, players and paintball enthusiasts gathered from around the world.
While 3 player and 5 player tournaments started at Three Rivers Paintball, the members of the paintball industry gathered at the Sheraton Hotel for the 11th annual industry conference, an event sponsored by Severe Paintball, Zap, and Brass Eagle. In line with the 20th anniversary of the sport of paintball, tournament promoter Debra Krischke decided to focus on the sport's origins as well as look to its future. The morning began with new products on parade, an industry conference tradition. Twenty-six companies unveiled new products, or announced new programs and changes affecting paintball. In addition to the new products Pro Team Products announced their acquisition of Benchmark Manufacturing. According to Pro Team's Forest Hatcher the purchase is a natural as the two companies have had a strong relationship for many years. Doug Zander will continue the manufacture of the Benchmark line, and to fulfill orders to Benchmark customers. The full Benchmark line will now be available through Pro Team directly.
Following a short break, Krischke introduced Bob Gurnsey. Gurnsey had taken part in the first organized game of paintball and founded the National Survival Game, the company which franchised fields and retailers of paintball equipment spreading the game throughout the United States and the World. Gurnsey unveiled a large sheet of plywood, covered in splat marks of oil based paint. He explained that it had been used for target practice at the first game, and it then served as a backdrop while Krischke interviewed him about the first few games, the first female paintball player, and the early days of NSG. The interview, and question and answer session lasted well over an hour and was full of fascinating stories of surprises, politics, and paintball. [Editor's note - see this session in an upcoming episode of PigTV]
After a lunch break, Jeff Tobe, a motivational speaker spoke about looking to paintball's future. A business analysis showed that in the early 90s, the paintball industry saw revolutionary changes in the way things were done each three years. Now that rate is 18 months. Tobe spoke on the idea of coloring outside the lines - changing the way things are done to take advantage of the future rather than stagnate.
Conference attendees broke into groups. While the manufacturers met to discuss the latest ASTM guidelines and standards as well as a paintball industry manufacturer's association, field owners and store owners met in workshops covering topics including safe air fills, internet based marketing and more.
At the field, the main vendor's tent - the traditional venue where players get to see the year's new products was packed from wall to wall. This year the trade show had fully outgrown the single tent, and several of the vendors with larger booths were forced out to a new tent - the Extreme tent. Warped Sportz, KAPP, WDP, Bad Boyz Toyz, Cobra Paintball, PGI, Paintball Sports International, P8NT, Adrenalin, Planet Eclipse, Extreme Rage and Dye turned their tent into a circus, or at least a side show. Tables in the center surrounded a number of small platforms where fire jugglers, an escape artist, and fashion models entertained the crowds who browsed through the latest in paintball accessories. Raven/Kingman/Java had their own tent next door, and ACI drove their tech support and sales trailer out from California. Zap, long time anchor sponsor of the tournament also had their own tent to showcase their line of products including their new low cost electropneumatic paintgun and new Shockwave loader which uses a vibrating pendulum to agitate paintballs, preventing jams. Rounding out the industry presence at the field was National Paintball Supply North America's well traveled T2 trailer which served as both a meeting point for dealers as well as a display for players to see the product lines they distribute.
With the first day of the event behind the first night soon followed. While the IAO fills Cranberry's hotels, the Sheraton is a central point of convergence. It's bars and restaurant fill with players and industry members alike, socializing, planning deals, and not resting up for the next day's games.
Thursday morning 3 man and 5 man games began and soon moved into full swing. In addition to the International Amateur Open's traditional speedball field, and wooded fields, Ultimate Airball fields - with some new bunker designs provided more games with spectator access. New grandstands overlooking one of the Ultimate Airball fields saw regular use. Reffing was done by a number of teams, including All Americans II, Freak Factory, Silent Thunder and Power Storm. During 3 man games, and open play on the speedball field, FB Radio's Dale Ford called out play by play action in addition to recognizing event sponsors and drawing attention to paintball celebrities who passed by.
"X Board Inside" was a sticker appearing on some player's Revolution loaders from ViewLoader. In 1999 ViewLoader changed the Revolution electronics to prevent problems caused by sunlight interfering with the loader's infra-red sensors. An unfortunate side effect was that the "new" Revolutions had a slower response time in reacting to ball jams. The X Board is a new electronics board from ViewLoader offering both the protection from sunlight interference and a fast response time. The X Board is now standard in Revolution loaders, and it is available for purchase. Many VL sponsored teams receiving warranty work on Revolutions at the tournament received free X Board upgrade as a part of their sponsorship.
Inside the main vendor's tent Diablo Direct's sound system provided continuos music with regular announcements by Craig Miller. At regular intervals he gave away prizes to people who would be first to bring scavenger hunt items to the Diablo booth. Some of these items included player autographs on magazines, knowing Tom Kaye's real last name, and even bringing NPS' Johnny Postorivo. Up in the Extreme tent, DJ B, a rep from JT USA and a player for Femmes Fatale played music and made announcements.
In the mean time the main vendor's tent was awash with players. Nearly all of the exhibitors were on hand for the full length of the event. This was a great improvement over previous years when some would only arrive on the weekend for the 10 player competition, leaving the 5 man players feeling short changed. It also meant that the crowds moved through at a more even pace, giving more players the opportunity to look at and try new products first hand. Meanwhile back at the Sheraton Hotel, National Paintball Supply North America held their annual super sale. Paintball dealers were able to meet with manufacturers who's supplies are carried by NPS, and take advantage of show special prices, meaning that over the next months as these orders are fulfilled, players can be finding better deals at their local paintball shops.
Thursday night saw the continuation of a relatively new tradition, the paintball industry party in its third year. Hosted by National Paintball Supply, North America, the party serves both as a thank you from NPS to the industry as a whole, and to the dealers who are National's customers. Bigger than ever, the party had a Wild Wild West theme, and attendee's costumes ranged from simply wearing some of the supplied woven grass cowboy hats to head to toe classic old west cowboys and ante-bellum ladies. A live band, can can dancing saloon girls, and a mechanical bull rounded out the party, and a Bacardi sponsored bar served up various Citron drinks. Bob Gurnsey was once again recognized as National's Gino Postorivo and Debra Krishke presented him with framed memory box of various brochures, magazine covers, and literature from the early days of National Survival Game.
Into every IAO a little rain must fall. Early August in Pennsylvania means thunderstorms. As to be expected, the IAO gets hit with some rain during it's nearly one week run. This year the rain fell on Friday. While there were some fairly strong downpours, lightning never became a serious threat, so games were able to proceed, and the weather lightened in the afternoon, paving the way to a beautiful weekend. 5 man finals and semifinals wrapped up while 10 man teams began taking the fields. The giant food and scoring tent was reconfigured as the sun went down for the annual player's party. Catered chicken dinner and drinks were followed by 5 man awards and the famous beauty and the beast competition in which the decisions of the judges didn't match up with the cheers from the crowd.
Brass Eagle's staff had mentioned in the Industry Conference that they were changing some of the focus of their company. Their initial goals were getting paintball into mass merchants and introducing more players to the sport through inexpensive, widely available products (few can argue that BE hasn't been responsible for introducing many people to paintball). Now they are looking to support those players who stick with the sport and move on to be regular players, or go into tournaments. The ViewLoader and JT product lines are a part of this, as they produce gear used by top level players. Another outgrowth of this new philosophy is providing stronger support for the "BE All Stars" paintball team. It paid off in the 5 man where the BE All Stars II did their sponsor proud with a first place Amateur finish. Included in that prize package was entry to the Aruba Open, a couple of months later on the Dutch West Indies island of Aruba.
Speaking of Aruba, the Aruba Open's promoter was very excited about where his team, Aruba Madness finished. They missed the cut to finals, and took a fifth place finish - the top finish they have had in the last seven years they have been coming to the US to compete. The finish was especially good considering that wooded fields are entirely foreign to them. Aruba's paintball fields are all desert or concept.
All of the major paintball publications were on hand. Gaining special attention were Facefull and P8NT. Facefull (or FAC3FULL is it appears on the magazine) is a lavishly photographed new magazine published by Laurent Hamet - the creative force behind Sup'Air Ball and the Millennium series. Its debut issue was well received, though the racy cover and fashion photo spread drew both criticism and applause. Hamet explained that the following issues will be "less aggressive" in terms of sexuality, to allow fuller distribution through the United States. What won't be changing is the very high quality of the photography and presentation.
While many players had thought that P8NT magazine had gone under, it is back in production, and the most recent issue was delivered to the tournament site. According to editor Chris Haas, P8NT waited until everything was ready to jump back into monthly publication rather than putting out issues at irregular intervals. The WARPIG interview article by Chris Jones in the current issue made the return of P8NT even more special to the WARPIG staff.
Saturday morning it was 10 man time out on the wooded fields while the prelims were played. 3 man and challenge games continued on the concept fields.
A crew from channel 53, the Pittsburgh FOX network affiliate showed up to gather highlights of the tournament. Their story included the sideshow action from the Extreme tent. Harley Neuman, a nationally known side show performer did his signature plastic wrap escape. With a diving snorkel in his mouth, seven volunteers wrapped him completely in a seemingly inescapable cocoon of plastic food wrap. Then his snorkel was corked and for nearly six minutes he wriggled and writhed until he was free.
Out at the National Paintball Supply North America T2 trailer a portable swimming pool was filled with two skids worth of paintballs for paint wrestling. Friends challenged one another to best two out of three falls (on their knees so they were down in the paint - and wouldn't get knocked out of the pool.) Victorious wrestlers were awarded 32 Degrees jerseys.
Saturday afternoon, while the 10 man prelims continued on the field, sumo wrestling broke out in the food tent. Various wrestlers donned sumo suits and faced off with the losers donating money to charity.
What fans are more extreme that paintball fans? We have no answer to that. According to Avalanche's Rocky Cagnoni, someone approached him asking for an autograph - to be tattooed into his arm! Rocky tried to talk him out of it. "Here dude, I'll give you these shirts and sign them. Man, a tattoo is for the rest of your life," he said. The fan was relentless and eventually he obliged. Rocky signed his name, and the tattoo artist working in the Warped Sportz booth did the work.
Three Rivers Paintball features some of the most unique fields used in a major paintball tournament. While most large events have gone to purely concept fields, the International Amateur Open remains a mainly wooded field tournament - especially for the 10 man which is all wooded.
Paintball in the woods is a different game than on an open, balanced concept field. Walking the field, reading it and understanding it becomes so much more critical. Crawling and stealth enter a whole new dimension. This was exemplified in a game between Tippmann Effect and the OhNos (watch for this game on PigTV). Tippmann in their usual aggressive style broke the right side of the field, swept through and grabbed the flag. Rather than simply hang the flag they wanted to maximize points, eliminating all of the OhNos players. The lone OhNo left on the field took such advantage of the tall grasses on the field that he was able to eliminate three or four more of the Tippmann Effect players before they finally gave up and hung the flag, ending the game.
Brimstone Smoke, which came in fourth place (ironically winning an entry to the Ultimate Madness tournament which is produced in part by members of the team) credited the win to the players they had picked up from New York. Being the people behind Ultimate Air Ball, Brimstone Smoke gets plenty of practice for 5 man on concept fields. They merged with another 5 man group of heavy woods players from New York to field a 10 man team, and while many of the team members had not even met until the night before the tournament, they proved a potent combination.
Prizes are another key point worth note. It seems that especially over the last year, the quality and quantity of prizes awarded at tournaments has been a hot topic on the internet, with most of the complaints coming from teams not knowing what the prizes would be beforehand, and then winning less than what they had hoped for. At some large events almost no prize information goes out before hand. At others, a prize value without detailed information is given. The IAO web site provided easy access to detailed lists, item by item, of what teams would be winning.
Sunday, also blessed with excellent weather, was both a time for good-byes and the tournament's most intense games. While the 10 man finals and semifinals took place out on the fields, the manufacturers in the vendor's tent were busy breaking down their displays and packing to head home. After nearly a week of socializing and doing business with people who, in many cases see each other only once a year, Sunday was a day of promising to keep in touch and rushing back to real work. When the finals completed, it was time for the 10 man awards and closing ceremony which went quickly and smoothly. With that, the players, industry and field staff went their separate ways.
The 2001 International Amateur Open was in some ways a resurgence for the event. While the trade show and industry side has grown steadily, the 2000 event wasn't as well received by the players - some having commented that it was more like a trade show that had a tournament than a tournament that had a trade show. In 2001, the balance returned far more positive feedback from the players, and continued growth and presence from the industry. Moreover the Extreme Paintball tent showed just how much more professional paintball trade shows and displays can be. At the same time as being more "extreme" with wild side show acts, professionally DJ'd music, and the like, the exhibitors kept it clean, impressive, and an acceptable venue where a player would feel comfortable bringing the entire family an having fun. The Kingman/Raven/Java tent next door did the same with its combination product display areas and video game lounge where players could sit in comfort and game away while watching the paintball games on the Ultimate Airball field right outside. A few of the main-tent vendors made the choice to go the sleezy route to encourage traffic to their booths. This backfired in that people stopped looking at their products and were looking at the young women who chose to remove their clothing, while other people were offended and left, vowing never to purchase their products again. These displays were not approved by Team Effort Events.
The face of paintball is changing with
regard to how tournaments and the game itself are represented to the public,
and some of the displays at the International Amateur Open are an excellent
indicator of where it is headed.