Gunning for paintball glory
St. Albert family vaults into the pro leagues of an extreme sport
By: Allison Voisin
| Posted: Sunday, Jan 06, 2013 06:00 am
Playing paintball on the weekends was all fun and games for a St. Albert family, until the addiction kicked in.
It started out as family bonding for the Yachimecs, but it quickly grew from a recreational pastime into a competitive sport that devoured them whole.
“There’s no other sport like it,” explained Zane Yachimec, 22, who plays for the Edmonton Impact, the first professional paintball team in Canada.
“Essentially, you’re shooting at another guy. It’s completely unique. It’s a whole other adrenaline rush. I mean, you’re hunting down a person every time you get on the field – it’s excitement like no tomorrow,” he said.
Paintball originated back in the 1980s with the original paintball gun being used to mark livestock and trees. Since then, paintball has risen to the world’s third most popular extreme sport, according to the World and Regional Paintball Information Guide (warpig.com).
For the Yachimec family, the obsession began when Zane’s cousin came home from Miami where he was first introduced to the sport. After hearing their cousin’s stories, Zane and brother Zach, who also plays for Edmonton Impact, didn’t hesitate to join in on the fun.
“It’s all (cousin) Josh’s fault,” laughed Bart Yachimec, father of Zach and Zane and owner and coach of Edmonton Impact.
“We were vacationing in Maui and the boys wanted me to take them to a paintball store and buy them paintball markers. So we looked around – and we aren’t a gun family at all – but the guy suggested we play and see what it’s like. So we went up and I played with the kids and we just had a great time,” Bart said.
“We loved it so much that we came back from Maui and joined a local field here called Paintball Action Games and played it every weekend after that, father and sons and even my wife Joanne joined in.”
After becoming heavily involved in the paintball community in Edmonton, Bart and his sons formed a five-man team that participated in tournaments all around Western Canada. Throughout the years, the team embraced local talent, developing an amateur squad that ventured to the United States, where they participated in the amateur circuit with a group of eight players.
“These boys were committed to playing the best paintball they could play. Eventually, it led to them playing semi-pro paintball where we ended up getting two of the top Canadian players that played pro to come over to our team in 2007,” said Bart.
After placing second in semi-pro their second year in the division, Edmonton Impact advanced into a professional spot in the National Professional Paintball League (NPPL) which, unlike most professional sports leagues, involves tournaments rather than a schedule of games.
Up until then only a handful of professional paintballers were Canadian. However, the team went from five Canadian players to about 13 professional players in one year, putting Canada on the paintball map.
“Originally, we were an all-Canadian team coming down to take on the States, making us a big target. But we quickly became a fan favourite team, you know, we have fans all over the world. The team really came from nowhere – a bunch of kids stuck together and grew into professional players, which isn’t an easy thing do,” said Bart.
Most people probably think of paintball as guys running around in the woods shooting each other, but professional paintball is much more structured and disciplined.
Edmonton Impact specializes in seven-player speedball, which uses a playing field of strategically-placed inflatable obstacles. The game is a takeoff on Capture the Flag, awarding points for staying in the game for the whole round, shooting someone out, grabbing the flag and hanging the flag.
Success requires teamwork, risky movements and relentless communication, Zane said.
Because the playing area is small but open, constant fire is required to keep the opponents from advancing, which results in a significantly higher number of shots fired than in other paintball formats.
A team will use about 700 rounds of paintballs in a single 15-minute game. For a recreational player, that amount of trigger happiness would cost between $35 and $70 but pro teams have sponsors who provide their paintballs.
Zane has been playing professional ball for about six years. In that time span, the Edmonton Impact won one tournament in the United States, a few over in Europe, and the PALS world cup in Malaysia this past November.
“I really play paintball because it’s a fun sport. I get to travel the world and do something I love and I’ve met some amazing people through my travels and I’ve been to some pretty amazing places for a 22-year-old,” Zane said.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for this young team. To become a professional paintball player, you have to not only be talented but completely committed to the sport, Zane said.
It’s very difficult for paintball players to live off the sport itself. Zane explained that while a few players in the past have been able to make a living through sponsorships and prize winnings, the majority of players have full-time jobs on the side.
Because there are no other professional teams in Canada, the Impact regularly travel to the States to practise with other teams of the same calibre. That much travel doesn’t come cheap. On top of equipment costs, tournament fees and travel arrangements, a certain amount of investment is required of a player in order to succeed.
“The paintball industry is a sport that requires money to play and when times are tough, the industry struggles,” Bart said. “It relates a lot to the economy.”
While paintball took a turn for the worse after the last recession, Roger Chan, the owner of Paintball Action Games and Go Paintball, says the industry is making a comeback.
“Before the economy took a hit, we were seeing growth rates at about 17 per cent for the past decade, which is pretty unheard of. People were still participating in paintball, but those playing at a higher level were dropping out because of the cost,” Chan said.
Facing a challenge
In Alberta, Chan believes paintball is stronger now than ever before. With more fields and more jobs, there are more ways for people to get their hands on equipment, allowing a higher turnout rate.
The industry might be past recovery mode in Alberta, but Chan can’t seem to overcome one challenge.
“I don’t know what it is, but for some reason girls just don’t like paintball like guys do. Demographics are always a big hurdle. We get a few girls out but it’s less than one per cent. For our sport to expand, we need to hit every demographic, become accepted by all ages and genders. “
Bart believes that in order for the sport to truly succeed in North America and worldwide, it needs more exposure.
“I find people don’t really know about paintball or understand it. It’s under the wire and that’s our biggest challenge,” he said.
Being one of the owners of the National Professional Paintball League means Bart has a different perspective on the paintball world.
“This year we realized we wanted to travel more, so the boys were in Germany, Italy, London,” he said.
The team travelled to Malaysia in November for the Intercontinental Cup, which consists of four continents with their top teams going to the event. The Impact was one of three teams in North America that attended.
Bart has high hopes that professional paintball can eventually have a global league. With federations in North America, Asia, Europe and Africa, the uniting of these four federations could give the industry a bigger voice, which could bring more exposure.
“Ideally, we’d love to see this sport in the Olympics one day,” he said.
While shooting small colourful balls of paint that cause painful welts at others seems rather dangerous, players say the sport is incredibly safe.
“When you play the game with your children, you learn to really understand it and see how safe it really is,” Bart said. “There are fewer injuries than most sports; you don’t really see any injuries at all. The fields are all very safety conscious with the way they manage the paint, the way they manage the markers and the masks, as well as the equipment that goes with it. It’s a very safe sport and I think that’s what kept us in the game.”
Bart believes that paintball is unique from other extreme sports in many ways, but it’s the constant adrenaline rush that really separates it from the rest.
“I love the constant surge of adrenaline and the strategy of the game. I love everything about the game. It’s exciting to play and it’s even a rush for fans to watch,” Bart said.
Most amateur athletes throw in the towel at a younger age as bigger priorities take over their lives. Yet, Bart’s kids are in their early 20s, still playing paintball and still loving it.
“If you’re a parent, it’s a great game to get involved in with your kids. The game is endless and that attracts me a lot, that I can still play with my boys at any age.”