Their aim is true: the obsessive world of tournament paintball

Lenard Covington, left, 38, of Farmington Hills, Michael Lloyd, 21, of Detroit, and Will Lloyd, 28, of Detroit, at a Detroit Action Paintball Practice in Taylor.
Lenard Covington, left, 38, of Farmington Hills, Michael Lloyd, 21, of Detroit, and Will Lloyd, 28, of Detroit, at a Detroit Action Paintball Practice in Taylor.

A voice bellows from outside a black mesh curtain: “Game in five!” The “five” meaning five seconds, but what transpires beyond that curtain five seconds later doesn’t seem like a “game.” It starts with a sound that vaguely resembles someone throwing a lit brick of firecrackers: thousands of concussive, staccato bursts, followed by men shouting forcefully, but with no panic.

The sounds emanate from a field that does very much look like it hosts a game: A game for young children maybe, playing hide-and-go-seek. There are dozens of bright red inflatables in various geometric shapes that could easily be used for a variety of activities at Gymboree. Except right now 10 men ranging in age from teens to late 40s are darting in and out of those inflatables, wearing masks that the Lucasfilm costume department would be proud of, shooting at each other with guns that also appear like something out of speculative fiction. Bright yellow paint, enough to line a mile of left turn lanes, splatters from the obstacles and they begin to look like a time-lapse Jackson Pollock canvas. The shouts mean something, though it is impossible for a bystander to determine exactly what. Some are repetitive, others lone exclamations, a demand or a profane expression of frustration. Men dive and roll and sprain ankles. The shooting and shouting wanes, then comes to a complete stop. A minute later, 10 more gun-toting men in masks and cleats walk inside the black mesh netting. "Game in five!" ... and the aural and visual barrage begins again.

This is paintball. The point of this exercise is to eradicate the other five guys. In tournament situations there's a buzzer, should one member of a team get to his opponent's home. It rarely happens.

Many people will pause here and say, "I played paintball once." But most of you have never played this version of paintball. This game is similar to recreational paintball the way the half-pipe final at the X Games is similar to your dog dragging you to the party store on your longboard. This is not running around in the woods and trying to shoot Stacey from Purchasing in your corporate team-building exercise.

This is competitive tournament paintball. And, Allen Iverson be damned, this is just practice.

A few years ago, a friend invited me to play with a small group. I had done it before — the run-around-in-the-woods kind — and liked it for the most part. My rented mask fogged up too much, and, unlike darts or pool, there was too much competition time between beer breaks, but it had its merits. It was a testosterone-booster. There was a little role-playing and fantasizing going on in my head: I briefly imagined what it was like for my stepfather and my uncle in Vietnam. It involved running and, briefly, even hill climbing, so it counted as exercise.

But I couldn't attend on this particular day. My friend went the next weekend, invited me, and again I couldn't make it. About two months later, I called him on a Friday and asked what he was doing over the weekend.

"Playing paintball," he answered.

"I wanna go."

There was a pause. "I don't think you're ready for this kind of paintball."

"Huh? Is there a Greco-Roman paintball? A paintball that demands you quote Stallone movies before they'll rent you a gun?"

"This kind of paintball" is played by Detroit Action Paintball, an organized team founded in Livonia by the Michael family in 2003. The team has uniforms: they're quasi-camouflage, with numbers and nicknames, andcould easily be leftovers from the XFL, wrestling czar Vince McMahon's failed attempt at pro football. There's a regular practice schedule, and a home field on an approximately 42-acre parcel the family leases from the city of Taylor.

At first glance, the inflatables, called "bunkers," look like the haphazard design of someone who had done one too many whip-its (lest one get any ideas, they're filled with air from leaf blowers, not nitrous oxide). In fact, they are placed to represent the layout of the next tournament the team plays in: 48 of them in a grid system marked by "whiskers" — ribbons planted in the ground to assure the bunker goes where it should — all on a 120-foot-by-170-foot field. There is a "home" at either end, a sort of barricade from which the competitors start. In Action's case, they are emblazoned with a neon green Old English D. For all the chaos that takes place, the team and the governing bodies have put a lot of thought and precision into the competition.

The black camouflage exterior netting is not part of the action, it only serves to keep paintballs from leaving the field (for the most part) and to make one wonder if Ministry will ever tour again.

The layout is for the Texas Open. Some of the more than 20 guys who are attending today's practice will travel to Texas to compete against other guys like them in X Ball, a timed version of what they are practicing. There is no billionaire financing this, no Mike Ilitch with Red Bird One, and no eccentric philanthropist like John du Pont, despite all his largesse for Olympic wrestling. James Michael, the patriarch of the Michael family, who started Detroit Action Paintball, is a machinist at General Gage in Wixom

He provides the opportunity and the facilities. Beyond that, they are on their own, like a film critic who gave four stars to the First Blood movies.

Individual team members pay their own way to events, whether flying or driving. Entry fees can be as much as $2,300 per team. Even at practice, team members shell out their own cash for cases of paint.

One may expect a team that competes in a sport that is primarily about hunting people down and shooting them with high-powered guns to be heavily populated with militiamen or ex-military. That's not the case. They are obsessive, they are driven, they are competitive as hell, but they aren't bellicose. They mention "family" so much they could be speechwriters for conservative political candidates — or members of Sister Sledge. Somewhere, Willie Stargell has a tear in his eye.

Debra Michael, James' wife of 32 years, reinforces this.

"It started when Jim [the couple's oldest son] was 16 and Greg was 12. He was introduced to paintball by a classmate at [Livonia] Churchill High," and loved it.

"When they were in Cub Scouts, [my husband] was leader. When they played soccer, he was the soccer coach. Now paintball. It's a family hobby," she says while doling out boxes of paintballs and advice to "rec ball" players from a camouflage shipping container turned pro shop at the Action Field in Livonia.

The bulk of the acreage at Action is devoted to the more familiar and populist recreational paintball, where people pay $20 per day on the weekends to get their own little slice of Black Hawk Down or American Sniper. Some are newbies, a bit apprehensive about having shown up at the only kind of birthday party that requires facial protection (with the possible exception of birthday parties at John Waters' house). Others show up seemingly well-versed and fully equipped, except for paint. "No Outside Paint," the sign says. Much like a bar that makes you pay cover, it still doesn't earn you the right to walk in with your own liquid.

The field (actually seven small fields, and evolving, says Jim Michael, the son whose interest sparked the family involvement) is also used by "Airsoft" players, groups of 80 to 125 people who use guns that shoot soft white pellets. Most of their games involve scenarios or re-enactments that range from tales of mad scientists with fictional energy sources to Civil War battles. It is based on an honor system. Players call themselves out if struck, as opposed to paintball, in which an official is present to determine whether a player is eligible to continue. Airsoft is a fringe within a niche wrapped inside a live-action role-playing game.

Paintball has its origins in Michigan. In the '60s, Charles Nelson of the Upper Peninsula's Nelson Paint Co. developed balls of paint that would splatter on impact to be used by forest rangers to mark hard-to-reach trees. They were designed to be shot by .22-caliber pellet guns.

In the early '70s, Nelson reached an agreement with Plymouth's Daisy Air Rifle to manufacture the "Splotchmarker," the first gun specifically made to shoot paintballs. It later became the much less whimsical "007 Nelspot."

According to the Nelson company's own timeline, some of their paintballs and Daisy's guns were used as an element of capture-the-flag games as early as the mid-'70s, but it wasn't until June 27, 1981, that a guy named Robert T. Jones and some cronies went into 125 acres of New Hampshire forest for "The First Annual Survival Game," which Jones documented for Sports Illustrated. The guns were single-loaders, one small paintball at a time, and according to Jones, were time-consuming to reload. Today's .68-caliber paintballs average about 10 shots per second on guns that are carefully "chrono'd" — that is, checked with a chronograph to make sure that they shoot the legal maximum speed of 300 feet per second. Even at that rate, the paintballs in flight are visible to the naked eye. With a little concentration you can track them from the gun until they splatter off a bunker — but not necessarily one traveling straight to your crotch.

The guys who make up Detroit Action are good. But let's get something straight: They compete in the Fourth Division. In a distinctly minor-league sport, they are deep in the minors. But they've had success. In 2011, playing in Division Three in Chicago, they won an event sponsored by PSP (Paintball Sports Promotions). In October 2013, they were runner-up in the PSP World Cup out of 56 teams. PSP has since folded. In April 2015 in Chicago, they won an event sponsored by CPL (Central Paintball League). Like boxing and mixed martial arts, one could choke on the alphabet soup of acronyms representing various promoters, sponsors, organizations, and governing bodies.

Their next event is the NXL (National X-Ball League) Nashville Open in Sharp Springs Park in Tennesee, the third of five on the NXL circuit, the remaining two being in Cleveland and the World Cup in the Orlando, Florida area.

As the layout for Nashville has not yet been announced, and a stormy day has kept the "rec ball" types at home, the team plays on the Hyperball Field. It is an array of corrugated industrial tubing laid out similar to the tournament-style inflatables, but with the added aura of a Mad Max-style wasteland. And unlike the Airball bunkers, which have to be dragged out of storage and inflated, the field is permanent, so the team can get right to the combat. The atmosphere seems looser than the prep for Texas. Players toss single paintballs into the air by hand and attempt to shoot them; others take their time with the vast amounts of gear it takes to compete. There are more accessories than a mob hit: In addition to mandatory masks, most players wear some sort of additional headcovering as a buffer against paint and to keep sweat out of their eyes. Some wear fingerless gloves. Everyone has a pod belt, a contraption of crisscrossing Velcro that holds multiple plastic pods resembling giant dildos full of paintballs. The pods are filled and shaken to allow the balls inside to be packed tight. I'm told that loosely filled pods shake and make noise that could alert an opponent to your presence — though, given all the shouting and gunfire, that seems to be a little retentive of an orifice in which these pods would never fit. To get the paintballs into the pods, players use custom pitchers with spouts built to fit the pod openings, like the balls are part of some bizarre but colorful Russian nesting doll ritual. There are even little feather dusters for the pods themselves, to eradicate any dirt that might be transferred from the pods to the paintballs to the gun mechanism — and with some guns and related components costing upward of $1,500, you forgive them the little feather dusters.

Action team member Michael Korn is a successful wine distributor from Royal Oak. "People say to me, 'Why do you put so much money and time into something so adolescent?'" When he says the word "adolescent," he enunciates it in a manner that indicates their scorn.

"I don't think it's adolescent. I think I'm honing a weird, aggressive skill," Korn says. His commitment to the team is such that he traveled to the World Cup in 2014 to perform as a "pod guy" — taking the brief interval between matches to gather up Detroit Action's discarded ammunition pods and possibly a few of those belonging to their opponents. (By comparison, some teams pay bikini-clad women to gather their pods.)

Lest anyone question whether paintball is a skill, the sport is a physical education class at Michigan Tech University, where their National Collegiate Paintball Association club team is ranked 16th nationally and is supported, like any other official club, with some funding from the university. While not approaching the commitment of a scholarship sport, the team routinely drives six hours or more to tournaments in Wisconsin and Illinois, according to the aptly named Hunter Peterson, a chemical engineering major and club treasurer, and officers devote more than 12 hours a week during the season to planning and strategizing. Michigan State University also boasts a club team, ranked slightly behind Tech at 18th.

With no available scholarships (two Detroit Action team members, Ryan Hicks and Josh Montroy, are still in high school) or legitimate pro prospects as of now, Korn smiles when he acknowledges that most members of the team have a "paintball problem." The members readily admit spending anywhere from $3,000 to $8,000 a year on the sport.

"It's just an addiction," says Isaac Fleck, a software developer from Farmington Hills, who claims he got his first job solely to be able to afford paintball and a vehicle to get himself to the field every weekend.

Parr King, a roofer from Westland, recalls when the game went from a hobby to a quest for personal improvement.

"After playing for a year and a half — just kind of going through the motions of playing, not really devoted — after the end of the season, getting a fire lit deep down inside and working harder than ever to make sure that I improve on my speed, accuracy, field awareness, and understanding of the game," he says.

That's not just talk. In the midst of these five-on-five battles, he resembles the mold of an army man, or an homage to the logo of the now defunct PSP, a silhouette of a fully equipped player in action.

He shouts instructions and placements to his teammates and maintains his form, barely flinching while paint flies in horizontal sheets against the black Hyperball bunker he shoots from.

It makes me wonder. If this is a Fourth Division guy, does this sport have a Babe Ruth or a Wayne Gretzky? Is there someone whose stellar play sets the standard by which all others are measured?

There is, and his name is Ollie Lang. He was named Paintball Player of the Year by the age of 22 by Splat magazine, and team sponsor Dye Action Sports paid him $100,000 to join the Los Angeles Ironmen in 2006.

His website credits him with not only being a paintballer, but an artist and poet.

Having spent some time with Detroit Action, any preconceived notions I had about the denizens of the paintball world being one step from having a bunker full of ammo and targets with caricatures of world leaders on them were quickly dispelled. I know they are teachers and salesmen and parents and dog lovers and that some of the guys have cried after losing efforts. For the record, they also don't have a monochromatic ethnic makeup.

But when I researched Lang, this quote from his website was not what I expected. At all.

"I hope to shed light on your life in any way possible, even if it's just making you smile. Thank you. I love you. Thank you for loving me."

But enough about kindler, gentler paintball icons, and those who call their guns "markers." The Detroit Action guys don't have their heads covered in the latest Mandalorian look for summer to sit cross-legged and discuss feelings.

Guys with nicknames like "Bombay" and "Dragon" got into this sport to blast shit. And I want to see what it's like behind the black mesh, as it were. I want to feel the rush that spurs these guys to spend $10,000 a year, in some cases, for a sport with very little prize money or televised glory. There is enough time between now and the Nashville event that Action has a little leeway to let me don the gear and take part.

As I pull on some spare equipment, I'm thinking of the morning talk show hosts who have a guest that does something slightly out of the ordinary, but not that difficult. They always play it like they're a complete buffoon and make the "expert" guest seem that much more expert by comparison. Except the hosts just look like they're faking it. This isn't Coffee and Chat coming to you live from Boise cable access. This is a story for print, and I have an ego. I don't figure that the Michael family will beg me to join the team, but I have no intention of embarrassing myself.

I also don't want to hurt anyone. Just in the act of observing, I got hit a couple times from a decent distance and it kinda stung. I don't want to run up behind my own teammate and accidentally paint his neck yellow from point-blank range. I watched one of the most intense guys on the squad, Dan "Cece" Cenci, roll an ankle, and I don't want to do that either. I would like to eliminate an opponent without sacrificing myself like some kind of early pawn move in chess. I would like to not get shot in the dick, as I did while I was taking notes. I don't know who the shooter was, but he makes William Tell look like Shakes the Clown.

The first indication that I may not excel right out of the start box is that paintball is by nature an ambidextrous endeavor. To properly cover your teammates, you must be able to shoot from both sides of the bunker. The guys I have been observing do it so effortlessly I didn't give it any thought. When Korn was helping me chrono my gun, I didn't even hit the stationary wooden test target, an octagon about three times the size of a stop sign and close enough I could have conversed with it in a noisy nightclub. And that was with my dominant right hand.

I had been regaled for weeks about the technological attributes built into these guns, so much so that I hadn't considered that the operator actually has to do something to make them work. Specifically, flicking one's middle and index finger on the trigger in an alternating manner, faster than Joe Satriani playing tap harmonics for a Negative Approach song.

Shooting blind around a bunker is illegal. You must be facing where you aim, so my relatively long reach is not going to help.

A player makes what looks like a sweet dive behind a "snake," but gets nailed across the top of the head and is out. James Michael is immediately coaching, "You've got to work on your slide. You're elevating too much."

I, meanwhile, am crouched behind a bunker wanting to make it running, still crouched, to the next forward bunker, but paint seems to be coming from all sides. I am given a visual instruction to move forward and, I believe, to my left. As I sprint (I think I'm sprinting), I am nailed in the chest and shoulders by bright and surprisingly thick yellow paint. I don't even have the presence of mind to acknowledge I'm hit by raising my hand as I get my useless form off the field. I am told that I misunderstood the instructions and should have run to my near side. I don't despair. I know there will be another chance very soon, and there is.

This time I am determined to make expeditious forward progress. Within the first 30 seconds of the game, I am making my way toward a forward "Dorito" — a triangular bunker that's shaped like the chip — to my right. I have been instructed to shoot forward every time I run. You never know when an opponent will dash between bunkers and you'll get him. I do not shoot forward as I run, because my pod belt is sagging around my thighs like I'm Batman taking a crap. I make it to my objective bunker and wrestle the pod belt up around my waist. After doing so and regaining focus, I fire a few shots toward where paint is coming at me. Seconds later, it is over. My teammates have vanquished the other five guys while I was having a wardrobe malfunction that will never go viral.

When it comes to paintball, I am a Slow Roll guy in a Tour de France world.

The game, like all games played today, is rapidly dissected and analyzed. Explanations and apologies are made.

"I know you had him on D2, so I thought I had time to make it to the 50. Didn't know Parr was there."

"Shoulda let him know he had a guy silent out there. When he went forward he had no idea. Gotta talk."

And there can be some disagreements. This is, at its core, a violent sport.

One player, who others assumed was out of the practice match, snuck up on another player at close range and shot him multiple times. (In hours spent watching practice matches, I never heard an exclamation of pain, but at close range the balls do hurt and can leave welts.) Not only was the player's eligibility to be on the field at that time questioned, his overall aggressiveness was too.

"If you get close enough to [an opponent] to tap him on the shoulder, painting his back isn't cool," says Jim Michael, though he does offer: "Once you pull the trigger, the gun program is gonna keep shooting the balls even after you stop. It makes it look more malicious than it is."

Amends are made, hands are shaken. For now, everything seems forgiven. As Fleck, the software developer from Farmington Hills, told me weeks earlier: "It's a family bond. I'd do anything for these guys, and they'd do anything for me."

There is a tournament to prepare for in a few weeks, and later this summer, World Cup in Florida. It is an "any given Sunday" game. In Division Four, Detroit Action has as good a chance as any entrant. They certainly seem to have the cohesion. After the dispute is settled, I notice a monarch butterfly darting in between bunkers where moments before paint was flying at heads at 300 feet per second. It is irony on the order of hippie girls placing daisies in National Guardsmen's rifles.

It must have been a gift from Ollie Lang.

Jimmy Doom is a Detroiter who acts, writes, and screams at TVs during sporting events. He most recently wrote the essay "In a southwest Detroit alley, a friendship of circumstance" in the June 8-14 issue of Metro Times.