- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2006

SAN DIEGO

The paintball gods live in the land of the endless summer, residing in a burg called Pacific Beach on a hillside overlooking the bay. The paintball gods tan effortlessly. They wear Prada sunglasses and, almost always, shorts. Cargo shorts, board shorts, camouflage. Shirts are optional and slip on and off like the fog over the coast. Shoes and sandals are interchangeable, and socks are unheard of. And thus, the comparative odor of feet is a topic that has come up at team meetings.

For instance: “Dude, I stepped in a puddle this morning.”

The hair can be high and tight or uncut and unruly, but the sideburns are always long. Facial hair, piercings and tattoos are regular. Pretty boys are scarce.

To be a paintball god — to be a member of the San Diego Dynasty, the most dominant team in the history of professional paintball — is to have won three Triple Crown world championships and to have gone nearly undefeated during that time, and to have embodied the evolution of the sport into a rapid-fire sprint, a diving, sliding display of warrior athleticism.

But even paintball gods cannot cheat time, and time is gaining. One day they realized the summer does not belong only to them.

Not so long ago, and for the first time, Dynasty experienced losing. Not badly and not always. Still, as they entered the final tournament of the league season, the Commander’s Cup, they had yet to win an event, the first time that’s happened in the team’s history.

“The team’s dropped the ball a lot this year,” said Frank Connell, at 30 the oldest player on the team. “Everyone knows it.”

The core members of Dynasty are still young, or so it would seem. Brian Cole is 22. Alex Fraige is 23. Ryan Greenspan is 24. So is Yosh Rau. Angel Fragoza is 25, Todd Martinez 27. The old man is Mr. Connell. But their competition is younger, just as fast, just as aggressive — quick masters of the style of game Dynasty created.

Dynasty even has a nemesis — Sacramento XSV (pronounced “excessive”), a team built from a similar mold. The teams have even shared players. XSV’s aggressive and fast players are slightly younger, with an average age just south of 25. And as the season moved past its midpoint, XSV took a slim lead in the race to accumulate points.

As recently as the middle of last year, “we were smashing everyone,” Mr. Cole said. “It’s difficult because there are so many good players now. There’s a lot more competition and a lot more pressure.

“I’ve got my real-estate license. With all the massive change in the industry, I might have to use it soon.”

A paintball god in real estate? This is, after all, a sport of boys and boys at heart, a game of mock war played in real fields, forests, pretend villages and, at the professional level, on a field of fake grass and inflatable bunkers of hallucinogenic shapes. Born in the backwoods, the game is now an extreme video game come alive.

The guns — called “markers” to distance the sport from its association with war, a perennial problem in the game’s marketing — use compressed air to fire spheres of food-grade paint dye at opposing players in a game that resembles capture the flag.

Few teams have dominated their sport like Dynasty, which has been called the New York Yankees of paintball, a comparison not entirely fair because the history of competitive paintball, 25 years, is relatively short.

“It was the first team with all young players,” said Chuck Hendsch, 39, who helped form Dynasty as one of the sport’s early players and served as president of the National Professional Paintball League (NPPL) for six years. “They set the trend that younger players are better. It became a more athletic game. They forced other teams to step up physically and forced teams and owners to look at younger players.”

And now, the opposition is getting younger, and Dynasty is not. Although the team has a farm system of sorts, any future version of Dynasty is not likely to dominate like the original.

“We’re hitting a wall right now,” said the team’s coach and longtime friend, Jon Almera. “They’re not kids anymore. The question is, are we earning a living, or are we just getting by?”

Of course, if you’re a member of Dynasty, “getting by” is not such a bad thing.

You live near the beach in near-perfect weather. Work consists of winning or losing a game that you enjoy so much you would pay to play it if no one paid you. You travel to places like South Africa, Tahiti, Thailand, the Philippines and France to teach other people to play and to sign posters.

Mr. Almera’s title of coach is mostly an honorary one. He acts as devil’s advocate, pesky older brother and landlord to two players, Mr. Fraige and Mr. Rau, who rent rooms in Mr. Almera’s million-dollar house. Mr. Almera, a contractor, built it himself, with help from Mr. Rau, a decent carpenter.

It is like a luxury fraternity house, with large, Spartan rooms and giant televisions. The furniture is scant. Boxes of equipment and clothing from various sponsors are stacked in almost every room. The gourmet kitchen is barely used, not with Boston Market down the street.

To be one of the world’s best paintballers is to live a rampant strain of bachelorhood. Hygiene is a relative term. The diet is takeout and energy drinks. One brand, Rock Star, is a Dynasty sponsor. Cross-training is a game of Halo. Garbage collection is not as important as the DVD collection. Relationships are fleeting. Travel is constant.

Dynasty has been nothing if not consistent. In addition to the third-place finish, it placed second in two other NPPL tournaments. So it still had a chance to win the overall season points title going into the fifth and final tournament, the Commander’s Cup.

The last tournament was played in late October in Orange County. Dynasty was ready; the team did not lose a game in the preliminary and quarterfinal rounds.

Then, in the semifinals, Dynasty triumphed over XSV And in the finals, Dynasty rolled over Stockholm Joy Division.

Five years. Five consecutive championships. How long can the paintball gods reign?

“I want to keep doing this until I stop having fun,” Mr. Fraige said. “Anyone on our team can go out and get a reputable job in the industry. We know so many people. We know how it works. I could get a good sales job. … But I want to be a player.”


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