Everything You Wanted To Know About Paintball
Updated: Jan 14
The problem with asking people questions about a sport that not a lot of people know about is that I don't know a huge amount either. I've never set foot on a paintball field, but I've learnt a lot about the sport in the past few days as I put some questions to Alex Poulton, who plays it competitively.
I originally put out a request for people to answer some questions about a team they support for the second instalment of the fledgling Fan's Perspective series, and while I did get a few offers from people who support a variety of big teams, and Manchester United, I was also put in touch with Alex. I was very interested in knowing more about paintball, so this changed quickly into an interview about her experiences playing it.
I started by asking her about the type of paintball she plays, because I understand there's more than one?
I play speedball, which is the 'competitive' paintball [the others are woodsball and scenario, which are very closely related, and are more likely what a casual player would take part in if they went for the day]. You have inflatable obstacle 'bunkers', and it's under a set time - in the division I play in, we have eight minutes on the clock. There's a few formats that I do, those are 'Five Man', which is five players a side and you just have to win one point to win the game, 'Race To', which is what it says - race to a certain number of points and whoever gets there first wins, and 'Mercy', which is followed by a number and you win by getting that number of points in front, so for example it might be 'Mercy 3' and you would win by reaching a score of 3-0, or 4-1, and so on. If the time limit expires before anyone has reached the set difference, the team that's in front wins.
How do you win a point?
There's two ways. The first is that you get to the opponent's start gate; the two teams enter the field at opposite ends and you have to reach the entry gate of the opponent. The other way is that the opponent willingly gives you a point (we call this 'towelling' the point). They'd do this in a situation where they know they have little chance of winning that particular point - say for example, your team has five players left and they only have two - and it makes more sense for them to just give it up in order to give themselves more time to pull it back.
Who's the team that you play for?
I've not actually been playing that long, only around a year, but I play for a team called the Lionesses, which is an all-girls team. They try and get girls into the sport, because in speedball, you've got at one time, maybe only 20-30 girls playing it in the entire country, and they've done a lot for me. They play at quite a low level, because they're very much an entry-level team with a lot of new players. They provide division four and five teams [more on divisions and paintball's structure later] for girls wanting to try paintball out, and they have been a great enabler for women in the sport generally.
Are paintball competitions split by gender?
It's not split by gender at my level, you do get mixed teams, but it's not an even mix because of the massive difference between male and female players - when you do get a mixed team, they're mostly men with maybe one woman. The exception is when it comes to international level, where it is split.
How is paintball organised at the international level?
You have different World Cups for men and women. The national side is Team GB, and I'm actually going for trials for the GB women's team, with the other GB sides being men's, under-19s, and veterans. The World Cups for all of those have different dates, and they're usually held in either Prague, Amsterdam, or Gandia in Spain, but they are sometimes held in the UK. National teams from all over the world come to play at these events, but often the Americans don't usually come over because they're too good! It's huge in America, certainly bigger than it is here; they have pro and semi-pro levels, and I think a few of their players might actually get paid too.
Is it strictly amateur here? There's no-one getting paid in the UK?
Basically, how it works in the UK is that you have what's called a 'break-in/break-out' level, which is new players coming through combined with older players leaving the sport. Above that, the domestic structure is organised into divisions five, four, three, two, one, and then elite at the top, but none of those are professionals. I think the only pro team in the UK is Manchester Firm, and that's because they travel to America and take part in their competitions. There's also a team called the Lucky 15s in Staffordshire, who travel to Germany and take part in the Deutsche Paintball Liga, which is a much higher standard than anything in the UK - it's a much more popular sport in Germany as well.
Who or what was it that got you personally into paintball?
I think, with paintball, because it's so niche, no-one really just 'gets into it' - you have to either know someone, or you've worked at a paintball site. It's not like rugby or football where there's grassroots clubs everywhere and you can just pop down for a try-out. I used to work at a paintball site when I was 15, and then when I went to university I wanted to try and start playing properly, because from working at the site I knew that tournaments did exist, but the problem is it's really expensive, so I couldn't really afford it as a student! I met my boyfriend around the time that I finished university, and he's played at the elite level, so he encouraged me to come training with his team a couple of times. I did, and found I really enjoyed it, so I started playing in tournaments, and now I'm going for GB trials!
It sounds like you've really taken to it! Do you have a specific position you play, and what are everyone else's roles in a team?
A field is split into three vertical areas - you have the 'snake side', the centre, and the 'bag side'. In each of those zones, you have a back, or support player, then at the front you have two players in the two wide areas, who are called 'snake forward' and 'bag forward', and their job is to run forward and cause as much damage as possible. I play in the snake forward position, and the bunkers on my side of the field are much lower than on the bag side - the bag forward has enough cover from the bunkers to pop up but I spend most of the game crawling flat on the floor!
How physically fit does a paintballer need to be? Do you need to be quite strong, or is being quick and nimble more important?
It's a bit of both, and it depends on your position. The players who sit along the back line don't do too much moving around, and sometimes that's okay if your role is to just sit in your bunker and shoot a lane [a lane, Alex described, is one of the routes through the inflatable bunkers, and these vary from field to field, so tactics change based not just on the opposition, but on the venue as well]. Equally, though, there might be times when you're required to leg it over to the other side of the field in ten seconds, so you do need speed too. I've been going to the gym for probably seven years, five times a week, and I've never ached more than when I started paintballing! It's so tiring, and it's really odd too, because you're in unnatural positions along the ground, you use muscles you didn't even know you had!
Tough but enjoyable sounds like a fair way to describe it! The tough bits are of course made better by the good bits, though, so what's been your highlight of your time playing?
Last weekend we played a team three divisions higher than us, and we 'mercied' them 3-0, so that felt pretty good. I got seven 'shout outs' [being mentioned by the commentators on the live-stream] and I've been Player of the Day a couple of times as well, so that's nice on an individual level.
One thing people who've never played before might be wondering is... how much does it *actually* hurt when you get hit?
Well, it depends where you get hit. Say you get hit in the back, or the arm, it's not too bad, but I've been shot in the lower neck, where you haven't got too much protection, and I was recently hit about eight times in the Achilles tendon, which really hurt! We do wear some pads, but they're more for protection when you're crawling along the ground. You don't want to wear too much protective gear, because it slows you down. I've seen people just go out in a thin outfit, and getting shot is all part of the experience - eventually, you just build up a resistance to it!
It might be a bit difficult after that, but finally, how would you persuade someone to take up paintball?
Before paintball, I never really felt like I had a sport that was 'my thing'. I'd been going to the gym, but I didn't really feel like I had a sport to myself, and it's something really different. It's so much fun, yes the training days can be really hard, but all of that is so worth it when you go out there in a game situation, and like in our case, winning against the team three divisions higher, it's just an unbelievable feeling. The buzz you get from it is just insane, I've never really felt anything else like it, and it has given me that feeling of 'my thing' that I wanted. The thing about paintball is as well, because it's so niche, if you work hard at it, you can get to be really good, because there's fewer people doing it. With football, for example, the talent pool is massive, but a bit of hard work means you can get to a really good level in paintball.
Thanks very much to Alex for taking the time to answer these questions, and the best of luck to her as she goes for the Team GB trials!
I was particularly surprised to discover that you could fit all the women playing paintball in the UK at any one time onto a single-deck bus (or maybe a double-decker with social distancing), which is why it sounds like organisations such as the Lionesses team are so very valuable in that respect of getting women into the sport. Their website is https://www.paintballgirls.co.uk/?fbclid=IwAR02bkMp4d-0QHGhSK80y2psvdK0ZuYBL-XCI0nJ_qsAqdEKkGYl-Ml93k0 if you want to find out more about them, and you can like their Facebook page too at https://www.facebook.com/LionessesPaintball/.
Just as a final note, I'm always on the lookout for people to answer questions about their relationship with sport, so if you think you (or someone else you know) might want to take part in answering some questions about either:
A) A particular team you support - it can be any team, playing any sport - or,
B) Your experiences of playing a sport,
then I'd love to hear from you. Please get in touch with me using the 'Contact Me' form at the bottom of the homepage, or using my social channels - https://twitter.com/LongStorySport and https://www.facebook.com/longstorysport.
The cover image for this post was sourced from Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Speedball_game.jpg, and is attributed to the author, Petr Kadlec. It was retrieved by me on the 24th October 2020.