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Paintball Picassos Shoot It Out for Money

March 21, 2004|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

Dynasty may not be household name yet, but in the increasingly popular sport of paintball, the San Diego team is the closest thing to, well, a dynasty.

"They are the Tiger Woods of the sport," said Chuck Hendsch, president of the National Professional Paintball League.

The league kicked off its first tournament of the year in Huntington Beach this weekend, with 160 teams from a dozen countries competing for $75,000 in prize money.

The finals are today.

It is the second year that the competition has been held in Huntington Beach, and the pier area was bustling Saturday with cheering crowds and the rat-tat-tat of paint beads being fired from gas-powered guns.

Dynasty is the defending champion, ranked No. 1 in the world. Between signing posters and posing with fans, the team members, most of them college students from the San Diego area, checked their gear and focused on their game plan.

"Everyone's gunning for us," said Alex Fraige, 21, the team captain. "It's getting a little tough, and people's expectations are only getting higher."

Paintball, a modern version of capture the flag, is the third most popular extreme sport in the world with 12 million devotees, just behind inline skating and skateboarding, according to the event's organizers. Close to 500 teams competed in NPPL-sanctioned tournaments last year.

The popularity of the sport was evident Saturday.

Spectators lined the pier and filled the stands to watch the action unfold on five tennis court-sized arenas on the beach. Teams with names such as the Bushwackers, Naughty Dogs and Godspeed vied against each other.

The teams of seven were dressed in uniforms that resembled those worn by motocross racers. The players also wore goggles and elbow and knee pads.

The action was almost too swift to follow, with the rapid fire of pellets creating colorful streams in the air.

Players slid and ducked behind inflatable barriers. Referees kept tabs on who was "marked" by a paint pellet and thus eliminated. The guns, powered by compressed gas, are called "markers" and have electronic triggers.

"Playing paintball is like being inside a video game," Hendsch said.

It is a fitting sport for a generation raised on GameBoys and virtual reality. Most of the players were young men and boys.

"This is the most fun thing I've ever done," said Fraige, who has competed with his team in tournaments in Japan, France and Portugal.

Next week, Dynasty is flying to Germany for a tournament.

Laurent Hamet, 34, coach of the French team Ton Ton, said the sport is gaining popularity in Europe as well. Hamet's company, Millennium Series, sponsors four competitions there.

"It is an adrenaline sport," Hamet said, "like surfing or skateboarding."

The Millennium Series tournaments combined with five competitions sanctioned in North America by NPPL to make up the international paintball circuit.

The season culminates in November with a tournament in Miami called the Commander's Cup, named after "Commander" Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees, who was a paintball enthusiast and one of the sport's biggest boosters before his death last year.

The growing popularity of the sport has made it lucrative as well.

Close to $1 billion a year is spent on paintball-related equipment worldwide, Hendsch said.

The pier area Saturday was filled with tents hawking the latest markers, clothing lines and publications devoted to the sport.

"It's a whole lifestyle," Hendsch said.

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