Saturday, December 24, 2011

Commercial Paintball vs. Renegade Paintball

I've never played renegade paintball. In close to25 years of playing paintball, every single time I have played paintball, it has been at a commercial field. This not something I am ashamed of, or proud of, it's just what happens to be true and I wanted to state this right off the top.

I have no problem with renegade paintball, if played by consenting players in a safe manner. As a field owner, I don't fear renegade paintball and don't consider it to be a major threat to my livelihood. Sure, as a business owner I would like to have as many customers as possible and if all renegade players abandoned renegade play and started visiting commercial fields, it would be good for those commercial fields. But that will never happen, so I don't even worry about trying to convert renegade paintball players to commercial field players.

Renegade players play renegade paintball for a number of reasons. The first reason is probably value. Many don't see the value in spending extra money for what they get at a commercial field over a renegade field. I totally get that. We are all different. It's really no different than the person who chooses not to eat out because he doesn't feel he is getting as much value for what it costs, or the person who only goes to inexpensive fast food restaurants because "the higher priced restaurants are not worth the extra cost". We all find value in different things and at different levels and trying to convince others to see value as you do is akin to trying to talk someone in to voting for another political party or converting to another religion.

The second reason has most likely to do with the character of the players. Many renegade players like independence. They don't like being told what to do and when to do it. They don't want to feel like they are being herded around like a herd of sheep. As a grown adult who prides himself in thinking for himself, again, I can totally understand this. Renegade paintball definitely has more of a casual feel to it. Breaks can be as long as players want them to be and the types of games that are played is as unrestricted as the imaginations of the players involved. I could see the appeal of that.

So why do some players choose to play at commercial fields rather than renegade fields? This question has more to do with regular playing gear owners than renters obviously. It would be difficult for rental players to organize themselves, rent gear and then find a place to play renegade paintball, although I've had a few phone calls over the years from people who wanted to rent our gear for just such purpose. But overall, it would be difficult for most to accomplish. There are several reasons many prefer commercial fields. The first is that some people actually like a more structured environment. Yes, on occasion they may feel like they are being hurried out to a game or play a game that is not their favourite, but at a renegade field, that player would need to convince the other players present, to play when they want to play. They would also need to decide what game they will be playing, for how long and what the rules are going to be. I don't know about you, but I have found that whenever there are multiple people gathered for an activity in a loose and unstructured environment, sometimes it's very difficult to get everyone on the same page. It's the same reason I very rarely let my staff ask our customers what and where they want to play. There are always several different opinions, and in the end, whatever is decided will leave at least some people feeling like they weren't listened to or that they didn't get their way.

When it comes to value, that's a subjective issue that everyone has a different opinion on. In today's society, convenience is a big draw. We seem to have less time, so to have others organize and produce something for us, is something we may be inclined to play extra for. Most renegade paintball is played in an area of undeveloped forest. That's fine, but playable "bunkers" may be sparse and most likely not placed in the most convenient locations. The area may be difficult to navigate. In our area, we have a lot of undergrowth for instance that would be difficult to walk or crawl through. There is value seen by many to have fields built and maintained specifically for paintball.

Being able to go to a location and being assured of others to play paintball with is also, I'm sure, high on the "value" list. I remember as a younger person trying to organize events like a baseball or soccer game among friends, and it was difficult to get enough people out at the same time at the same location. It almost always resulted in less people than we would have liked. I'm sure organizing a bunch of renegade paintball players would not be much different. I know there are some "regular" renegade games that happen where people will show up on a certain day and time, and there will often be others there to play with. But I think, around these parts anyway, if 7 or 8 guys show up, that's a good day. I've often heard that people have gone out to a scheduled regular renegade game only to discover that no one or maybe only one or two others have shown up. Going to a commercial field knowing there will most likely be 40 or more people there, has its advantages.

I've seen threads and pictures of some really good renegade fields. Fields where one or more people have put in a lot of effort to build bunkers and structures that rival many commercial fields. Having built a few fields, I look at them in wonderment and am amazed at the efforts that these individuals have made. But these are few and far between and take much more effort than most renegade players are interesting in committing to. These fields are usually built on private property as not many are going to put in that much effort on someone else's property, risking that it may be removed or denied access to. On private property, the issue of liability comes in. As a field owner, I am very aware of the risks involved in having people play at my facility. I have insurance. I hate paying the high premiums, but I do it, because I don't want to risk mine and my family's well being. There is also value in it for my customer, knowing that if something catastrophic were ever to happen while they are playing paintball, and someone else were at least somewhat accountable, there is at least a good chance they could get some compensation. I know commercial field owners and I'm sure there are many non-commercial field owners that do not have insurance, that if a player were looking for compensation and were awarded compensation, the chances of actually collecting any of that compensation would be very slim.

I don't begrudge the free-spirited renegade paintball player. I know there will always be those that will not see the value of a commercial paintball field. I will never try to debate the value of commercial paintball to a hardcore renegade player. As a commercial field owner, all I can do is provide as much value as possible and then let the consumer decide if it is of value to them. In the end, hopefully we will all play the game we love in a way we love to play it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Simple Math

I was reading through a recently revised thread on discussing the problems the UK competitive paintball scene is having. Apparently they are having an even tougher time than North America and most of Europe in getting competitive paintball rolling at a respectable pace.

The two biggest problems seem to be the lack of competitive (speedball) fields and a lack of players wanting to make the commitment to a team. It's the same problems that faces the rest of the world when it comes to competitive paintball.

Existing fields in the UK concentrate primarily on renters (punters as they are affectionately referred to there). There is decent money to be made in the renter business. On the other hand, competitive players don't want to, and can't afford to pay the prices businesses need to construct and maintain speedball fields.

Some have suggested that field owners should put in speedball fields anyway for the good of paintball. They feel if the fields existed, it would attract more players and then that part of the business would become worthwhile to keep going (if you build it they will come). From what I gather, many of the paintball fields in the UK are actually run by business people, unlike here in North America, where most paintball fields are run by hobbyists. I'm sure these business people look to see what their competitors do and I'm sure there are a few speedball fields. If these business people felt their competitors had a worthwhile thing going with the speedball fields, they would pony up and get into that business. But obviously it's not worthwhile for them to get into.

I communicate with many field owners and the dominant feeling is that the speedball part of paintball is a combination of more work with less payback. Combine that with the attitudes of many paintball players that often has a negative effect on the recreational portion of a paintball field's business (hey, thoroughbreds are usually a little high strung - I get it), it's understandable why there are more speedball fields closing than opening in recent years. Things wouldn't be a whole lot different in the UK.

From the players' perspective, they want to play the game the way they have been, or have seen it being played for years. It's understandable. If they want to be competitive, it means practicing a lot and shooting a reasonable amount of paintballs. A reasonable amount is an amount needed to be competitive. And that amounts to quite a bit.

In North America, many field owners, for many years, thought that speedball was the future and that's what they should concentrate on. When I was doing research in 2000 about paintball fields as a business venture, I kept hearing that speedball was the future. Everyone shoots huge volumes of paintballs and the money is in paintball sales. Of course paintball prices kept dropping. Every field owner wanted the biggest share of the local market and attracting speedball players just meant that you had to sell your paintballs a little cheaper than the other guy. And the other guy thought the same thing and prices kept spiralling down. Manufacturers of paintballs were going through a similar thought process. Great for speedball players, not so great for speedball businesses. Income does not meet expenses. It just takes simple math to figure out that this path cannot be continued forever.

But this is what the game evolved around, ongoing dropping paintball prices. Marker technology kept pace and were probably even a little ahead of what was needed (what players could afford). Eventually the market hit bottom. Paintball prices went as low as they could go (probably a little lower actually). But the technology was there, available to everyone at an affordable price, to shoot more paintballs than players could afford. The style of the game that had evolved during dropping prices was the style everyone was accustomed to and the style they wanted to play. It's the style the majority of players in the UK and virtually everywhere else in the world want to play. Even if they can't afford it.

To run a paintball field based on that scenario, is a losing proposition. That field's market is players with empty pockets who will always look for the cheapest deal in town. They have to. They have no choice. It's also a market that is very difficult to expand. You need to convince people to take part in an activity where they too will end up with empty pockets all the time. And it's not just the fact that players have empty pockets, in order for them to truly be competitive, they need to have DEEP empty pockets. In other words they have to have a decent source of income. So unless they have a rich mommy and daddy supporting their expensive pastime, they will need to have a job to support it. In my eyes, that's a poor market to make a profit from.

The UK market suffers even more than the markets in North America, because the paintball fields there are run by business people who seem to understand how to make a profit. In North America, there are still quite a few paintball field run by paintball fanatics who are willing to provide a facility and work for free or very little in order to have tournament type play at their facility. But in North America, this too will continue to change. It's been changing for a number of years already and will continue to change. Less and less fields will be willing to offer speedball which means less and less players will be exposed to it and have an opportunity to play it, even if they could afford it. With less and less players, there will be less and less desire to start new fields...and so on...and so on.

For competitive paintball to survive in some sort of fashion, there MUST be a complete reversal in thinking. The game MUST be redesigned to get away from formats that rely on the amounts of paintballs players need to shoot to be competitive in today's games. This must happen in the UK and the rest of the world. There is no other choice. Well there is one. Keep going down the same path and let the whole thing die.

Friday, December 2, 2011

NPPL in Vancouver, Canada

Canada eh? When I first saw the Event dates for the upcoming 2012 NPPL season on a local paintball forum here on Vancouver Island, I had to do a double take. I quickly went through my mind just to make sure I hadn't just woken up from a coma on April 1. I concluded that the poster was just trying to be funny. I went to the NPPL website for confirmation, but I'm not particularly familiar with the site, so I didn't find anything. Now I was more sure the whole thing was a joke. This morning I found news about it on PBN and somewhere found a link to the Pro Paintball website, where I saw the same thing posted. Right there, middle of the season, in the middle of July, the NPPL had added a 5th date, and sure enough it was Vancouver.

I think I subconsciously cocked my head sideways and stared at the screen, much the same way my new dog does when she doesn't quite understand a situation. So I am trying to rationalize what thought process the league organizers went through to make this move. Is this a bold move, where the owners are saying, screw you!? We are not going to shrivel up and die. No! We are going to move forward. As a matter of fact, we are expanding.

Canada, has some untapped market in the competitive speedball area, that for sure. A smaller portion of Canadians play than their American counterparts. Vancouver's competitive paintball scene is small, but I guess that doesn't really matter. The NPPL draws from a fairly large geographical area. I'm sure there will be teams from all over Canada wanting to compete in the first NPPL event held in Canada.

Is the fact that the BCPPL (a close equivalent format to the NPPL), which ran for several years here in British Columbia and cancelled all remaining events halfway through the 2011 season due to low participation, an indicator of popularity of competitive paintball in Canada?

Canada is a large, sparsely populated country. Flights between Canadian cities are much more costly than between equivalent US distanced US cities. But for a onetime event, I have a feeling, there will still be quite a number of Canadian entries, mostly in the lower divisions of course.

But how about our American cousins? Are we going to see as many American teams/players at the Vancouver event? Costs to fly to Canada are higher than flying to an American city. The option to fly to Seattle, rent a car and drive several hours to Vancouver exists. It complicates things a bit, but can save some money (cost more time though). It's still going to be considerably more expensive then if the event were held in Seattle though, for instance.

Then there is the border between Canada and the USA. I think it may be the largest undefended border in the world (not 100% sure about this). But that doesn't mean that you can just walk over the border without stopping (well unless you trek miles off into the mountains in the interior of BC, in which case you might have a chance of making it undetected, and don't run into a drug smuggler). Passports are needed now. How many American players do not have a passport? I'm going to guess that it is quite a few. Maybe not the pros, but I'm sure there are lots of players that play in the lower divisions that may not have a passport and may not want to go to the hassle of getting one. Also, I believe any sort of criminal record at all that a person might have, will make it much harder, and possibly impossible to cross. I'm sure there are very few paintball players with any sort of record though, all being the upstanding citizens we are. Anyway, I'm not convinced that the participation numbers are going to rank up there with other NPPL events.

Then there are the vendors. One of the concerns I hear from both players and people who seem to know a bit about running large paintball events is the drop of vendor participation at events. How will the greater distances, costs, and border crossing affect that part of the equation, especially if they feel the player participation will be lower as well?

But give the NPPL credit for having guts, if nothing else. I'm sure, if the Vancouver event goes forward, it will be an NPPL Lite event, with fewer participants by both players and industry types. But you never know, maybe it will tap into a market here in Canada that has been floundering for many years. Maybe it will inspire Canadian kids to get off the couch and get out there and spend their hard earned money to practice and get involved in the game. The local scene here of players, many who have played at least some BCPPL events in the past, are all aflutter. But I don't think a few locals that couldn't keep a relatively small tourney scene together will be what makes an NPPL event successful.

I wish the NPPL much luck in Vancouver, but my head is still cocked a little sideways.