When I stopped the remote on ESPN2 for the U.S. Paintball Championships from Miami, Florida, I was expecting something akin to a jittery war film: aggressive dudes with guns, lots of shooting and ducking, the occasional “I’m hit! I’m hit!,” and perhaps a sobbing, downed grunt in the arms of his comrade, yelling his girlfriend’s name in agony as the medic looks on, wondering how to tell the poor bastard his leg has to go. Okay, I didn’t really expect that last part. But while the other stuff was there, I just wasn’t prepared for how boring this game could be: Even with multiple camera angles and an overhead view enhanced with CG circles indicating who was where, it was hard to tell what the hell was going on.
In theory, the game is simple: Two teams of seven try to take each other out on a rectangular field dotted with inflatable barriers. But everyone was dressed the same — covered from head to toe (wusses!) like combat ninjas. And with near-constant firing, you rarely knew when a player got hit; you just saw a ref run in from the sidelines or from a nearby watchful crouch and tap a frenetic gunman, who obediently stood up and left the field. That really and truly didn’t make it seem like war, and those were the moments I wondered why I was watching some lame approximation of it when real people are dying overseas. Maybe the ideal way to tell if something is a sport is if you imagine two countries in real-world conflict competing in it and then determine whether it feels like a celebration of athleticism instead of something creepy. Basketball? Yes. Soccer? Yes. Hockey? Yes. Staring contest? Yes. Paintball? Splat.