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In the early days, paintball tournaments were organized on many different kinds of terrain. More than any other sport, paintball creates the need to challenge the other team, to outbrave one’s opponent and, with this in mind, all sorts of terrain have been used, from the most beautiful forest to the most desolate wasteland.

Back in the day, there weren’t any accepted guidelines. Yet it was not rare to have tournaments boasting over 150 teams. Before becoming what it is today, the game had a long road to follow. The bumpy path that went from the deepest recesses of the forest to the clean lawns of the stadiums was fraught with pitfalls. It is only in the last few years that paintball tournaments have started to look like real sporting events. Before the advent of the Air ball fields, paintball tournaments were more akin to military maneuver than to sporting competitions. Being part of a tournament in the 80’S and 90’s was an unforgettable experience, an epic journey.

Before tournaments settled into stadiums and their comfortable furnishings, they mainly took place in the forest or any other more or less natural, more or less fitted out, empty space. These spaces were called ‘speed ball’ – unobstructed terrain, set up with all sorts of obstacles, pallets, tires and walls and, occasionally, the carcass of an old car.

Even if all sorts of scenarios to play paintball – attack-defense, escort – can be imagined, the game scenario in a competition is usually the same. There are 2 teams of 3, 5, 7 or 10 players (even as many as 12) confronting each other with the objective of capturing the opposing team’s flag and bringing it back to base. This takes place in a games field ranging from half a football pitch to a shopping mall parking lot.

Years ago, when you arrived for the first time at a site to participate in an event, you never knew what you were going to find regarding the structures or the actual playing field. Wooded terrain directly depends on its environment. Tournaments took place all over the United States, all over the world – even at that time – so players discovered a number of different styles, going from Las Vegas desert to pine forest, stopping in luxuriant Florida with its snakes, mosquitoes and fire ants along the way.

You can’t play a heavily wooded field in the same way you would a sup’airball field. The landscape, the vegetation and even the time of year are all important components in reading the terrain and coming up with a strategy.

You read the landscape to start with. Few forests exist as flat as a football pitch, and the more the site is hilly, the more interesting it is to play. Playing fields on hilly landscapes offer real strategic opportunities, with key positions and move possibilities for which there is no match in terms of distance covered on the Air ball fields of today. Playing in the woods offered great freedom of mouvement to the players and a the variety of situations to encounter. If modern paintball is like chess then woods paintball is more like ‘beggar-my –neighbour’.

The size of the field was not a constant either. It was not rare to play 5 against 5 on a 10 man terrain and vice versa. During this whole period ( ie80’s and 90’s) the most prestigious division was the 10man game. The sites were therefore more adapted to that category. It was in the 10man game that the biggest teams were born, many of which are still playing today and have been quite capable of adapting to the radical changes in terrain. Names like Ironmen, All Americans, and Aftershock spring to mind.

The infrastructures were also very unpredictable. Usually the selected sites offered relatively good set ups for sites in the middle of the wilderness. However, it did occasionally happen that the tent was too small for everyone to fit in or worse, we had no tent at all and we would end up in the rain squelching around in the mud for three days. Car rental agencies had no trouble recognizing painballers’ rentals, from the outside and from the inside…

Each paintball site has its local team and there is a great advantage in playing at ‘home‘. Wooded games fields have their own specificities and each one is unique. Bunkers are often made out of piles of fallen branches or other irregular materials and offer varying levels of cover. When playing, it was best to know the palette you were throwing yourself under, since it was not unusual for them to let the paint pellets through. At times, it was even possible to out a player by just shooting at the holes in his cover or if there weren’t any holes you could sometimes make one by repeatedly shooting the same spot. On hilly terrain, the shooting angles to think of are far more complex. Shots can come not only from left or right but also from above or below depending on the landscape. The ‘palettes’ had very variable sizes going from suitcase size to car size. Additionally, it was not unusual to find a big puddle just where you were supposed to jump and slide. Some saw mud as more of an advantage than an inconvenience even if they then had to spend the rest of the day drenched to the bone and looking like a moose. Indeed, a muddy puddle is the best place to lose a couple of paint shots taken while on the way to find cover. It also has to be said that the refs are a lot less fussyh on the paintcheck when you are covered in the brown stuff.

Walking the field could last hours for certain teams. Each tree, each angle, each hole had to be scrutinized and analyzed. There were occasionally up to 5 fields and more to walk and since most paintball games are won – or lost – in the first 5 minutes, its best to plan those minutes well.

Paintcheck… There’s a word I had completely forgotten about before writing these lines. That refereeing expression stayed back in the woods, completely out of place in the much faster artificial terrain games. Asking for a Paintcheck is asking for a referee to check if a particular player has been hit (e.g. has paint on him/her). There were few referees on the field back in the day and they could not cover all of the players, which is why during the game the players would call for a paintcheck, asking the ref to check an opponent they thought had been shot. If the ref was not quick in doing so the impact paint had a high chance of disappearing. The paintcheck procedure was simple: once the player was identified, the ref would go to him/her and declare him/her neutral.

Being neutral meant that all shots, game plays, moves, charges in the players direction had to stop during the ref’s inspection. Having someone declared neutral froze all of the moves. Players had to wait for the verdict before being allowed to pick up their actions and advances where they had left off. However, it was still possible to shoot at players who were not neutral. Once the paintcheck was complete, the ref would declare the player hit and out or would put him/her back in the game. When a player was put back in the game, they were given time to resume their position. The ref would shout ‘clean’, release the player and get out of the way of the tons of pellets that were going to rain on the opponent. This procedure was very logical, it made a lot of sense to immobilize a player, inspect him/her thoroughly and then release him/her back into the game.
The reality of the method was actually a lot more complicated to apply. Imagine trying to freeze the action of a 10 on 10 game when a paintcheck is called for on a middle player. The situation would take a school like turn of events, with the checked player telling the ref, too busy searching for paint marks to look up, that another player had moved. The ref then had to call on another ref to come over and get the player to go back to his/her original position. This was feasible if only one player had moved but imagine it when 4 or 5 paintballers did this at the same time. It‘s next to impossible to put them back in their place. Certain teams, in fact, used this technique very effectively to confuse and disorganize the game.

We have talked about the advantages of different types of terrain in strategic terms but the advantages for refereeing should not be forgotten. Indeed, when a tournament took place on a specific field, the organizers would often call on local referees. In a home game you got a local games field, local team and local refs and, in addition, you knew each hole through which you can fit the barrel of a gun, each angle from which to shoot, all this meant playing your own turf was an incredible advantage. Judgments were not always totally impartial when you played the rest of the year with the people you were refereeing.

Another charming aspect of the refereeing and of tournament rules in those days was the ‘chrony penalty’. Ages ago, chrony was the end-of-the-game King. I’ll explain: back in those days when the markers only worked mechanically, the speed was controlled twice. When you entered the field, the guns could not be faster than 300 feet per second, if they were you could end up without a marker. When exiting the field, it was custom to apply penalties if the control shots exceeded the authorized speed. If that were the case, everyone would start making complicated calculations on the average of three ‘illegal’ shots, for instance, multiplied by the penalty points, since the constants varied from one game to another.

The rush you got from the game was also very different. Imagine a 10 man match – or even a 12 man one – on a 12 ha field, playing for 25 minutes: 20 players dressed in camouflage from head to foot setting off for nearly half and hour’s worth of game. It truly felt like a survival game. Strategies could be slowly devised. Players could crawl for 15 minutes until reaching the opponent’s lair and wait for the opportune moment to jump up and hit the enemy – who didn’t even suspect their presence – with a burst of pellets. Progression could then carry on. 15 minutes gives you the time to pull off a move. As always though, the last 5 minutes were action-packed, full of surprises, charges and other Dead man walks (players pretending to be ‘out’ so the opponents would come in close and then be eliminated when out in the open). A key factor in being a good player was endurance. If you were ‘out’ in 3 minutes, it wasn’t a good thing unless you’d shot your quota of enemy before being hit.
Communication was an essential part of playing in the woods. How many are they? where are they? and other such ‘intel’ had real importance. Should I make my move on flank because it’ s clear?

Passing information from one side to the other could soon lead to shouting, radio use being forbidden. All the teams had their codes for signifying the number of players hit on both sides. Many will remember the G1, G2 used by the Ironmen.

Like all sports, paintball needs refs and even a lot of refs depending on field size. In a 10 man game, with 3 or 4 refs on the field, it’s hard to control a player in a split second and it was not rare, at the time, to see a player in attack position suddenly run back to the back of the field, without any apparent reason, and then slowly make their way front.

Strategies and tactics at that time had nothing in common with what a modern team would apply on a small-scale field in a stadium. Strategy had a lot more importance than it does nowadays, where tactics and individual technique have replaced it. How do you play a hilly 100 acre games field with a trench on one side and a mount on the other? The strategy had to be tailored not only the terrain but also to the opposing team and it was often difficult to go to watch their previous match. In fact, it was sometimes pointless to watch them play beforehand as tactics and strategies could differ so widely depending on terrain type. Similarly, individual technique would adapt to the terrain’s characteristics. You just don’t see a player crawl on modern fields; whereas it was the queen of all tactics in the woods, allowing progression unseen by the enemy but right under their nose.

The strategy could also be changed according to the number of points. Certain captains would spend ages watching the scores board trying to figure out which attitude to adopt – attack or defense: if against team A, I draw having only lost two players, I win the tournament. Many fell for this little counting game. The games were then a lot less interesting than usual since the players only had one goal in mind: to not get hit – and this was possible on an acre of wooded games field, even for 15 minutes- something that is inconceivable today the way paintball is played.

Camouflage wear was a must-have of this type of terrain, if your ’combat clothing ‘ was adapted and effective it gave you a considerable advantage not to be sneezed at. Certain teams would insist on the smallest detail, covering every last inch of their gear in camouflage tape. Each team had its own camo outfit. They were often derived from military camouflage; it was in fact quite common to see players in real army camouflage gear, for instance Tiger strips, Woodland or Rhodesian. Later more ‘politically correct’ camouflage made their appearance like Tie-dye, Real tree or Bushian mostly derived from hunting outfits.
In the last years of woodland tournaments, many teams stopped wearing camouflage gear and started sporting clothing more reminiscent of extreme sports than of the army, often derived from motocross wear. ‘JT ‘was one of the pioneers of this type of outfit, announcing modern gear and the arrival of the sport in the stadiums ’spotlights…

At the end of the weekend, after surviving weather conditions that were not always optimal, after numerous rifts between teams, referees and organizers, after complex calculations and many a gun failure; the winner was chosen; the one who had best survived. It was often, by the glow of car lights, with a three word speech and sometimes a small check that our weekend out-of-time would end and we would go back to our lives with only one thought in our head: ‘when do we go again’? .

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