I played paintball competitively for four years or so, and I stopped right as things were getting very bad. It was kind of hard to notice the state of the industry, being that players from Regina, Saskatchewan are cloistered in a way that keeps most news from ever showing up at the door. That, and there was no real recession in Saskatchewan – we kept up a high growth rate pretty much the whole way through.
What I did pick up on, though, was the slow death of the tournament scene. There was one league that did well in Saskatchewan; suddenly, in 2007, the number and size of its divisions shrank, and nowadays, it frequently cancels events due to low registration.
I know the last little chunk of info because this summer I tried to cover the tournament scene to which I used to proudly belong. The event was cancelled. The field owner suggested instead that I come up for the grand-scale military-themed “scenario game” that would be held the next day. All the scenarios I’ve been to are now bigger than the tournaments I used to attend.
What made speedball die?
It turns out that the incredibly polarized world of mid-2000’s paintball was really just hubris. The huge growth of the flashy speedball/tournament segment made it fashionable to mock the bushballers who were stuck in the woods, wearing camouflage, shooting mechanically-operated guns. Behind all this was a relentless technological forward-march: there was an arms race that started with the first electronic gun, and it keeps going today, despite some efforts to lessen balls-per-second rates in competitive tournaments. Basically, it meant that at the higher levels of tournament play, you could shoot a case of paint in just over two minutes – that’s 2000 paintballs in 133 seconds – and it priced so many people out of the game that it’s amazing no one saw a collapse coming.
Some companies got overextended and – even after expanding their lines to capture the scenario segment – collapsed, like Smart Parts (ironically, they produced the very first electro-pneumatic marker, the Shocker). Economies of scale never really met demand at the same scale, and you’ll notice that there are now few Wal-Marts that still sell paintball gear (for they have noticed higher growth in other military-simulation games like airsoft). The smart view on this whole phenomenon is that paintball got caught up in a model that did not make any sense for retaining customers, and the parallels to other industries – and the economy at large – are there to be made. Neat. Hopefully I will do a bit of that in a bigger article, but here’s a bit of a teaser: selling high rate-of-fire guns at an intro price is a bit like a subprime loan. You can keep going on it until the payment balloons – and for so many people, this happened far before the recession started. In 2005, paintball was losing players in the middle of the strongest period of economic growth in a very long time. Why? Because if you couldn’t afford to pay the exorbitant costs associated with operating a high rate-of-fire electro-pneumatic marker, then you would be shot sooner, more frequently, at higher velocities, and at closer ranges than ever before. Indeed, that held true even if you did own the fastest, newest gear: the sport itself got so fast and intense that it was finally starting to live up to the “extreme” title that it was being marketed under. Paintball seemed to make its own Milgram experiment, with the consumers egging each other on to dispense more and more pain – both physically and financially. I still don’t know why, but the whole industry was beholden to this gambit. Shooting more paint, it turns out, destroyed speedball, or so I hope to argue.