At the starting gate at Craig Ranch Regional Park, players talk of the beers they drank the night before and the anticipation of the bruising competition ahead. But they’re all business when a buzzer goes off, signaling the start of the always colorful, sometimes painful sport of paintball.
The National XBall League, or NXL, finished the first tournament in its nationwide series Sunday at the North Las Vegas park. The league hosts hundreds of amateurs and professional teams from all over the world in the series of five tournaments from North Las Vegas to Chicago.
Players receive a map of the playing field two weeks in advance. Armed with that information, they talk strategy and make plans. As the countdown began Sunday from inside the field, players crouched on their knees, held their paint guns tightly and sprinted to their assigned spots.
“I love the intensity of the sport and the adrenaline of hurting people and getting away with it,” said Mike Zita, a 28-year-old player on the Las Vegas Premier Paintball OutKast, which took third place in the Division 4 five-man tournament.
Paintball sometimes gets a bad rap, Zita said. “It’s not as bad as everyone thinks it is. … This is an actual sport.”
OutKast players, who range in age from 16 to 30, have practiced together for more than two months under the direction of Thomas Hughes, who owns the Las Vegas Premier Paintball complex near Summerlin.
“Teamwork has a lot to do with paintball,” Hughes said. “These guys competed with players from all around the nation and they’ve only been together a couple of months. I’m so proud of them. They’re only going to get better.”
OutKast players work out, practice on weekends and, as one player said, drink together, too.
“Paintball really brings people together,” said Nick Mascoli, 28. “We’re not just five random guys playing together. We really get to know each other. This sport takes a lot of heart.”
At the same time, Joseph Criscuolo said, it also keeps younger players out of trouble.
“It makes you tough and keeps you on your toes,” said Criscuolo, a paintball player who came to cheer on his OutKast friends. “Once you’re hooked, you’re hooked like a fish, but this keeps you on the right path. It gives you friendship and family right off the bat.”
For Monica Lopez, the adrenaline of paintball made her fall in love with the sport. The 41-year-old New Yorker plays with Destiny, one of two all-female teams that competed this weekend.
“I practice every Sunday — this is like my church,” Lopez said. “It takes a lot of work and communication and the ability to stay positive to play. Of course, there are bruises involved, but it’s just the nature of this sport.”
Destiny team owner and player Bea Paxson said being a part of an all-female team offers an additional challenge to the sport — the sexism sometimes involved.
“You don’t need to be physically stronger to be a part of this sport, but some guys don’t want to admit that they were beat by women,” the 43-year-old Montana resident said. “We’ve heard rumors saying that the referee favored us and that’s why we won, or that we slept with them. We’re not only out here to play, we’re out here to fight stereotypes.”
The tournament also gives players a chance to be seen and picked up by professional teams.
“What it takes to become a professional player is a lot of hard work and dedication, just like any other sport,” said Nick Slowiak, professional player and GoSports announcer. “You got to want it more. You got to have the heart and practice.”
The National XBall League’s next tournament will be held May 5-7 in Texas. Players can sign up at playnxl.com.