Paintball pioneers

By Dietrich Knauth

They work with paint and wood and reused materials, and they get a kick out of showing off their creative ingenuity. They also won’t hesitate to lead you out into the woods and shoot you in the neck.

The people at Paintball Sports NY in Plattekill may not be artists in the traditional sense, but they’re in creative overdrive working on stories, missions and new paint-spraying weapons as they gear up for their big scenario game, the Battle For Heartbreak Ridge on Oct. 24 and 25.

“It’s the Woodstock for paintball,” Chris Masi, the field manager and co-owner of Paintball Sports NY, said of the event. Masi, who has played paintball since he was 9 years old, said the sport has grown in popularity despite the challenges of marketing the sport to parents who might consider it dangerous or promoting belligerent behavior.

“People don’t want to see their kids running around the woods with camo gear and weapons,” Masi said. At the Plattekill field, Masi emphasizes the fact that people of all shapes, sizes and skills levels play paintball, including men, women, old and young. He downplays the more jingoistic aspects of the game, disapproving of paintball guns that look like real weapons, and referring to the airguns as “markers” instead of “guns.” He also emphasizes safety, enforcing a masks-on policy in areas where the markers may be fired.

“These things get hot, they get sweaty, they get nasty,” Masi said of the masks, “but this is what keeps you safe for the day.”

The Paintball Sports NY field is 300 acres, and includes 20 courses, Masi said.

“It’s probably the oldest existing paintball field in the world,” said Jerry Braun, the co-owner of the Plattekill property. “A lot of firsts happened on that field.”

Braun, who Masi called the “grandfather of the sport,” is in a position to know.

“I think I played the third game (of paintball) ever,” in the woods of New Hampshire, Braun said. He and his friends wore shop goggles and used oil-based paint guns that were designed for marking cattle and trees that were slated to be felled. They had to use paint thinner to get the paint out of their clothes, a problem that was solved after the introduction of water-soluble paintball ammo in the 1980s.

Shortly after his first game, in 1982, Braun opened the field in Plattekill and organized the first paintball tournament, with $25,000 in prizes, in 1987. Braun also organized the first paintball magazine and the first annual Paintball World Cup, which was held in Plattekill. This year, the World Cup will begin today and will be played in Orlando, Fla.

“We basically developed tournament paintball as it now exists,” said Braun, who sold his stake in the World Cup games in 2005. “The sport grew from being operated out of the back of a van to a multi-million dollar industry. It went from its embryonic stage to maturity in less than a generation.”

Although traditional, informal “pickup” or “woodsball” games are still the mainstay of the game, paintball has evolved into two separate directions, Braun said.

“There’s a difference between the sport and the game,” he said. Competitive tournament paintball, like the World Cup competitions, is a fast-paced game played on a smaller field with smaller teams and less cover. On the other end of the spectrum, are large-scale scenario games, like the Battle For Heartbreak Ridge, with hundreds of participants, lots of different missions and scenarios and some roleplaying.

“It’s almost like Dungeons and Dragons in the woods,” Braun said. “Chris and the group at the field are very adept at those kinds of games.”

“I like the scenario games for the roleplaying parts of it,” said Frank Coppola, who works at the field and goes by the nickname “Colonel Ernie” during the games. It’s almost like two games, he said, one focused on roleplaying and intelligence-gathering and the other on tactical and physical competition.

“You’ve got a lot of different things going on at the same time, so nobody’s bored,” he said. “We keep everyone involved.”

Coppola said he often plays the role of a spy.

“You get to go out and play tricks on people. It’s fun,” he said.

The informal rules of competition also let players try out new weapons and booby traps, like a “flamethrower” that spews yellow ink at a short range and variations on land mines, and mortars. Masi and his team are working on a tank for the big October battle, based on a truck with turret-mounted paintball guns. Masi, who has a degree in computer science and used to work for IBM, is making an interface using a laptop and a wireless Xbox controller that allows the front seat passenger to rotate and fire the weapons.

The event will also feature “celebrity mercenaries,” current and former professional players who can be hired to help one side or the other. Paintball fans might recognize former pro player Greg Hastings, who has released two paintball video games.

Besides running the on-field operations, Masi also coaches the local amateur team that will participate in Division Two of the Paintball World Cup. At 30, Masi said he’s not as physically able to compete, but he hopes to help some of his team move on to become salaried players for a professional paintball team. Paintball Sports Promotions (PSP), which grew out of Braun’s initial efforts and now manages the World Cup and sometimes is featured on the television station ESPN2, has 11 professional teams across the U.S. There are several other pro and semi-pro leagues. A salaried player on a PSP team makes $25,000 to $100,000 annually, Masi said.

“It’s a dream for these kids,” Masi said.

His team, the New York Diesel, practices every weekend in Plattekill. The team includes Bobby Choniuk, 27, of Hopewell Junction; Anderson German, 32, of Middletown; A.J. Bowen, 21, of New Paltz; Kyle Smith, 18, of Monroe; and Anthony Bishop, 18, of New Paltz. Bishop doesn’t compete in matches, but acts as the “pit team,” maintaining equipment and helping players reload their markers during games.

Smith, who got hooked on the game after a birthday party at Paintball Sports NY, said that the team practices as often as they can. “Our weekends are pretty much paintball,” he said.

During a tournament like the World Cup, Bowen said that each player will go through three or four cases of paint. Each case contains 2,000 rounds of ammunition.

“That’s enough to paint a house,” he said.

“It’s a mental game. It’s almost like chess.” Choniuk said. “You have to think fast.”

Communication and coordination are among the persistent challenges, the team said. They’ve developed personal codes to communicate during a match.

“Our team bonds well, on and off the field,” Bowen said.

Keeping teammates motivated and picking each other up is also important.

“You push yourself for your brothers on the team,” said German, who called himself the “old man” of the group.

Competitive paintball is on the rise and is bidding to become an Olympic sport, Masi said. One of the chief obstacles remains visibility for spectators, adapting the game so that it can be enjoyably watched on a television screen. Moving the games out of the woods and onto more open fields was a necessary step in that evolution.

Despite Olympic ambitions, Masi said that less formal games are still the bulk of his business. On weekends, the field is open for walk-in competitions, in which the staff organizes visitors into teams and referees the games. Prices for admission vary depending on how much equipment is rented and how much ammunition is purchased. A day at the field that includes rental of a protective vest, mask, marker, free air refills and 1,000 rounds of ammunition will cost $69.99. The field also opens for private events during weekdays, provided that at least 10 participants show up.

Some celebrities who have showed up to try their hands at paintball include Conan O’Brien, Harrison Ford and Ron Howard, Masi said. The field also hosts corporate and training events, and frequently runs leadership and team-building games for sports teams, including several National Hockey League teams, among them, the New York Rangers, the New York Islanders, the Florida Panthers and the Pittsburgh Penguins. They’ve also had football teams, including the New York Giants, but the hockey players seemed to be more into it, Masi said.

“Compared with the football players, these guys enjoy it and get dirty.”

Masi said that paintball can be fun for people of all careers and ages.

“The lawyer to the guy who flips burgers at McDonald’s, they all come here. It’s kind of a neutral ground.”

“There’s not a lot of sports you can play with your kids,” Masi said, “the first time the son saves his dad, you’ll never hear the end of it.”

Published by the Daily Freeman

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