THE BACK PAGES

Rip van Wrinkle to the rescue

BARBARA RIGHTON January 23 2006
THE BACK PAGES

Rip van Wrinkle to the rescue

BARBARA RIGHTON January 23 2006

PAINT THE TOWN

As paintball makes the transition to a televised spectator sport, a team from Montreal is trying its luck in the big leagues. Photographs by Roger Lemoyne.

BY DANYLO HAWALESHKA • Plunked down along the southern edge of McCarran International Airport in the heart of “fabulous” Las Vegas, Nev., is a nondescript industrial park whose only saving grace is the view it affords visitors of the skyline to the northwest. There, billion-dollar-plus hotel-casinos sparkle and blink in the chill desert night, neon monuments to gambling and excess. Hyperbole of a different sort reigns at the Las Vegas Sports Center, which is primped for Rage! In the Cage!—billed by the World Paintball League as the “hottest three-on-three paintball competition ever.” The league represents an ambitious effort to bring the sport to a larger audience through television—and so far it’s succeeding where others have failed. Last month, the eight teams from the WPL’s eastern conference gathered to film their first tournament. Among them was a rookie team from Canada, the Montreal NRG. In fine Vegas style, the testosterone-charged proceedings included blaring player introductions on a fog-shrouded stage, and a hostess, teetering on four-inch heels, whose cleavage evoked the region’s plunging canyons.

Amid the glitz and glam, Montreal NRG’s owner, William Sinka, remained unfazed. Sinka, 39, is a manager at a telecommunications firm in Montreal. He footed the $12,000 bill to fly his six players to Nevada for the weekend (players kicked in $200 each) and mentions he has had to mortgage his home to finance his passion. “All my friends call me crazy,” he says. In Vegas, he herded his inexperienced players into the stands to watch and learn from the competition. Resembling a stocky Benedictine monk but exhibiting the drive and ambition of a Vegas impresario, Sinka runs a tight ship. Switching between English, French and a combination of the two because of his team’s linguistic mix, he tells his players to stay focused. “If I see one of you go get something to eat, or checking out the girls,” Sinka warned, “ça va aller mal!”

Sinka’s out on a limb. He doesn’t know whether the WPL will sink or swim. But he figures success in business involves risk. His efforts aren’t lost on the players. Justin Thor-

burn, a strapping lad of 16 from Woodstock, Ont., says Sinka puts his heart and soul into the team. “I barely know Will,” Thorburn says. “He doesn’t know if, after we get back from Las Vegas, I’m going to say, ‘See you later.’ He’s definitely the only reason we’re going to make it anywhere.”

Paintball’s television gambit is not unprecedented. The sport has been on TV for years, though shows have tended to be shortlived and promoters have had to pay for air time, rather than the other way around. But recently, the 24-team World Paintball League (with the Toronto Mavericks as the only other Canadian squad) beat out competing leagues— there are many in what is a chaotic business of one-upmanship and bravado—and pulled off a marketing coup. It signed a 26-week deal to broadcast its tournaments on Chicagobased Superstation WGN. The first games started airing this month under the banner of the Ultimate Arena Paintball League, an umbrella group for the WPL. Sixty-six million households in the U.S. get Superstation WGN,

as do 1.1 million Canadian subscribers. (The Vegas NRG event airs Jan. 21.) If hype has anything to do with it, the WPL is set. “It’s going to be off the hook!” declares UAPL cofounder Duke Hillinger, a self-professed adrenalin junkie with a booming voice, shock of white hair, and the energy of an overcaffeinated snowboarder half his age. “I grew up loving hockey. This is the new hockey.” With its lightning-quick format—games are limited to three minutes and sometimes

last a mere 20 seconds—the sport is perfect for TV audiences with short attention spans. Snappy, tightly edited previews, sponsored by Honda, were broadcast on Superstation WGN last year to introduce viewers to the ultra-fast game. A real rush, says Saman Musacchio, editor of Paris-based Facefull, a paintball magazine. “It’s very MTV-ish, young and quite hip.” The TV deal is key. “The people who are going to be the stars in this business are not necessarily the top tournament team today,” says Bill Mills, an online editor at the World and Regional Paintball Information Guide (www.warpig.com). “It’s going to be who’s on television.”

Paintball has been around for two decades or more, but its popularity has exploded in recent years. Between 1998 and 2004, the player base in the U.S. grew by 63 per cent, says Washington-based SGMA International, an industry association. There are now 9.6 million Americans playing, three-quarters of them male, two-thirds under 25. While growth plateaued in ’04, Ken Reiner, programming

director at Superstation WGN, says player numbers are expected to rise to 12 million this year. Meantime, annual tournaments in Huntington Beach, Calif., and Orlando, Fla., draw weekend crowds of 30,000 spectators. And in 2005, organizers established the Canadian Xball League, a popular five-on-five format invented by Richmond Italia, president of Procaps, a Montreal-based paintball manufacturer. There are no figures for the Canadian market, but Aaron Nabata, sales

manager at PBL, a supplier of paintball gear in Burnaby, B.C., says the market is “growing every year.”

The ethos of paintball tends to be about finding your inner commando. Take the clothes, a fashion amalgam of army fatigues, dirt-bike apparel and post-Armageddon survival suit. The gear has advanced so far that the guns— euphemistically referred to as markers—make those from five years ago look like slingshots. The weapons now resemble the “Imperial blasters” carried by Star Wars storm troopers and are powered by 4,500 psi of compressed air in tanks that look like 500-ml water bottles. At 20 to 25 rounds per second,

Today's guns resemble the 'Imperial blasters' on Star Wars. They make the old ones look like slingshots.

top-of-the-line markers sound like muffled jackhammers. Triggers are electronic. A computer chip ensures everything keeps firing.

The ammunition is made of washable, nontoxic food dyes in a gelatin jacket (the exact formulas are closely guarded industry secrets). Goggles attached to a faceplate and padded gloves provide protection from marble-sized paintballs that can travel at 320 km/h. Hits feel like the thwack from a wet towel and can leave welts. (In December, Edmonton police were looking for teens thought to have been behind a drive-by paintball shooting in which a 12-year-old was struck in the head; a pellet narrowly missed her eye and knocked her unconscious.) “If you get hit in a nice, soft spot, it can hurt quite a bit,” Nabata says. “If you get shot in the dome, it can definitely daze you.”

Inside the warehouse-like interior of the

Sports Center, the action takes place on an Astroturf-covered field measuring 50 by 100 feet—almost half the size of a hockey rink. Inflatable obstacles, called bunkers, offer players a measure of protection. Theatre rigging is positioned at each corner and overhead, and a fine mesh hangs down like a curtain to keep paintballs from flying into the audience. (The only two guys in the place wearing suits sit too close and get splattered with orange paint when some of the balls burst against the mesh. They hardly notice, and continue drinking watery American beer and boisterously vying for the hostess’s attention.)

A half-dozen high-definition cameras are ready to record the action, and the UAPL’s Hillinger is in the thick of it with a hand-held camera. Before the game, which is between Montreal’s NRG and the heavily favoured Atlanta Strange, one player warms up by shadowboxing, another stretches. The WPL has a points system, but essentially a hit eliminates the player. The team that takes out all three opponents wins the game. Best of seven takes the match. Players tend to be small, trim and fast. Good aim is an obvious asset. Even with eight referees, arguments often break out over who hit whom first.

After the WPL plays both the U.S. and Canadian anthems, the three-man teams mass at opposite ends of the field. There’s a fivesecond warning, and then all hell breaks loose. The rat-tat-tat of rapid gunfire, coupled with the players screaming directions at each other, gives the whole scene a bit of a Vietnam vibe. At 29, Michel Grenier, a former amateur Superbike champion in Quebec with a powerful, compact build, is the oldest member of Montreal NRG; his teammates are mostly in their teens. “I feel like their big brother sometimes,” he says, “but when I’m on the field, it’s like I’m 16 years old.” Grenier says his new sport is a lot like motorcycle racing. “If you hesitate for a second, the door closes.”

The audience on this night barely numbers 100, though some tournaments get as many as 5,000. But the league is unconcerned. “Right now, it’s all about TV,” says Milt Call, the other half of the UAPL’s founding duo. “Doesn’t matter how many are in the stands. With the right software, it’ll sound like 5,000.”

Call owns the Pittsburgh Smoke, a team that features his two sons, who learned to shoot when they were out squirrel hunting at age nine. Sinka can only dream of reaching Call’s level. Call estimates he spent US$180,000

in the past year, sending his team to 14 events across the U.S. He’s also an influential business player. “There’s a power struggle in our industry right now,” says Call, a folksy West Virginian in a buckskin jacket who now lives in Ohio (“out in God’s country,” where his cellphone won’t work). He’s referring to the cutthroat battle for market share. “When everybody wants to be right, nothing gets done.” Montreal NRG has a good night. Sinka puts out his top line to start: Eric Carpentier, l8;Julien Croteau-Pothier, 16; and Steve Gauthier, 20. (In an upcoming game, Gauthier will take two hits to his shielded face. Another will leave his right hand bruised. He’ll shrug off both.) Throughout the tourney, Sinka alternates his lines, with Grenier, Thorburn and Randy Guerzon, 19, making up the second trio. The Montreal guys win in seven games. (A member of the Strange later approaches one of them to congratulate him. “You guys are fast little f—ers,” he says.) Next, Montreal takes on the Tampa Warriors, winning again in seven. In the finals, they go down to the

Miami Nemesis, also in seven. A solid outing.

“The problem is, they’re not at this level yet,” Sinka says. The team lost the last game when a referee started tugging at a Montreal player’s jersey to see whether he’d been hit. A common occurrence, it’s frustrating for the players, who are still being shot at. Most continue firing back, but the NRG player put up his hands to make it easier for the ref. It was a “newbie move,” says Sinka. “If you do that, they’ll come around the side and shoot you in the butt.” Which is what happened. Sinka remains philosophical. “The guys will just have to keep practising,” he says. “And I’ll have to find more backers. Other than that, I’m really proud of them.” M