The 2019 paintball season saw the rise and fall of household names and newcomers alike. Perennial contenders San Antonio X-Factor finally made it back to the top while once-dominant Edmonton Impact looked distinctly mortal. The ever-mercurial Seattle Uprising seemed, at long last, to put it all together, while newcomer San Diego Aftermath stormed out of the gate in Las Vegas only to tear themselves apart as the season went on. Several weeks removed from World Cup and sitting squarely in the paintball calendar’s winter dead zone, it’s time to look back at the major trends of the 2019 National Xball League season and consider what they might mean for the year ahead.
This is part one of a two-part recap of the 2019 NXL season. Part two, focusing on the NXL’s mid- and lower-tier teams, is available here.
San Antonio X-Factor Returns to Glory
After starting the year with an early-Sunday exit at the Las Vegas Open and a third-place finish in Texas, it looked like 2019 might be more of the same for a San Antonio team that had spent recent years beating their heads against a wall come Sunday. Despite substantial talent across the roster, the “best kids in Texas” had been unable to reach the same heights the team had early in its existence.
But in a recent interview with retired NXL front man Carl Markowski on The Playing On Podcast, X-Factor star Archie Montemayor said those first two tournaments were different from past years. According to Montemayor, the team felt they were “right there” heading into the Philadelphia Open.
It turns out he was right.
X-Factor went on a tear in the Philly prelims, beating PC Katana 6-3, TradeMyGun Outlaws 4-1, mercy-ruling Sacramento DMG 7-1, and winning a back-and-forth match against Moscow Red Legion 6-4.
More importantly, though, San Antonio got past Baltimore Revo and Seattle Uprising in the quarter- and semifinals, respectively, on Sunday, setting up a rematch with a Red Legion team looking for its fourth tournament win in a row.
What ensued was one of the best finals matches on record. X-Factor jumped out to an early lead, and Montemayor won a one-on-one with Red Legion’s Sergei Solnishkov to put San Antonio up 5-1 with less than six minutes left. But the Russians roared back, putting up two quick points and eventually tying the match 6-6 at the end of regulation.
In overtime, Montemayor, who entered the finals eight kills behind Moscow’s Alexander Berdnikov, showed why he’s one of the sport’s brightest stars. The last point came down to a two-on-two between X-Factor’s Montemayor and Colt Roberts and Red Legion’s Solnishkov and Denis Golev. Archie ran down the Dorito side, picked off Golev, then traded out with Solnishkov to complete a three-pack in OT, simultaneously sealing X-Factor’s first tournament win in years and earning himself the Golden Barrel for the tourney with one more kill than Berdnikov. All told, Montemayor logged 17 kills in the finals alone. Seventeen. Insanity.
San Antonio built on their success in Chicago, rolling through prelims, winning a Sunday grudge match against Edmonton Impact, and beating 2018 champions Houston Heat on their way to a finals match-up against ac: Dallas. X-Factor held off a late rally from ac: Dallas to win their second tournament in a row.
While their luck ran out at World Cup, losing to Houston Heat in the semifinals, X-Factor nonetheless won the season title and reasserted themselves as one of the teams to beat in the NXL. Nearly all of San Antonio’s roster is returning for the 2020 season with the exception of fan favorite Nick Slowiak, who was cut in what Montemayor called an incredibly difficult decision to reduce costs and free up playing time for young guns like Demetrius Ninios and Jesse Stephens. Growth from those guys plus continued excellence from Montemayor, Roberts, Billy Bernacchia, and Raney Stanczak — last year’s big addition — should make X-Factor, if anything, even more dangerous this year.
San Antonio’s emergence overshadowed what was perhaps the biggest story of the first half of the 2019 season: Moscow Red Legion got good. Like, really, really good. Heading into Philly, the Russians had won three straight NXL tournaments across the U.S. and Europe — Barcelona, Texas, and Paris. On their way to winning the Texas Open, Moscow pulled off a nine-second point to send their Sunday game with Edmonton Impact, a game in which they once trailed 5-1, to overtime. They, of course, went on to win that game and shame an Impact team that had just won the Las Vegas Open to start the season.
All of this is part of what made X-Factor’s Philly win so remarkable. Up to that point, Legion seemed to have an answer for everything their opponents tried to do, finding ways to impose their will even when down big to the best teams in the world. Leo Smotrov, their outstanding young snake player, reined in the hyper-aggression that sometimes hampered him in 2018 and became a consistent top killer along with Pavel Karsliev and future hall-of-famer Alex “Malloy” Berdnikov. Offseason addition Sergei Solnishkov did exactly what they hoped, acting as a reliable anchor in the back with Denis Golev. Veteran Kirill Prikhidni continued to be the team’s steady center, making smart plays and often closing out games. And of course, the Russians’ famous off-the-break shooting and technical prowess made it hard for teams to hold onto leads or even grab leads in the first place. When Red Legion scored those two quick points on X-Factor in the Philly finals, it was fair to wonder if Legion was about to shatter San Antonio’s dreams once again.
Sadly for Moscow, it was not to be. Their eventual loss in Philly set in motion what had to be a disappointing second half of 2019 for Moscow. Prikhidni, Smotrov, and Solnishkov all missed Chicago, and the team made an early exit on Sunday. Then at World Cup, Red Legion lost to Houston Heat in the finals, which left them just three points short of the season championship.
Regardless of 2019’s outcome, however, Moscow Red Legion had one heck of a first half and looks primed to be dominant and dangerous this season and beyond.
Edmonton Lacks Impact
Edmonton Impact won two events in 2019, Las Vegas and Prague. For most teams, that would be a good year. But Impact is not most teams. This is a team that expects to impose its will on opponents, and in recent history, they have.
Edmonton dominated professional paintball for most of the second half of this past decade, putting themselves in the “greatest of all time” conversation through strong teamwork and excellent individual play from guys like Justin “J-Rab” Rabackoff, Alex “Mouse” Goldman, Nick Leival, and Keith Brown.
After letting the snake god Keith Brown return to Tampa Bay Damage and cutting veteran anchor Raney Stanczak this offseason, though, this did not look like the team paintball fans are used to seeing. Bad vibes were coming off of Impact most of the season as they missed the cut at Philly and made early Sunday exits at Texas, Chicago, and World Cup. Their normally tight teamwork and methodical play disappeared at times, and they repeatedly let opponents back into games they seemed to have locked up. One need look only as far as Red Legion’s aforementioned comeback in Texas for proof of that.
Maybe most concerning, however, were the rumors of off-field drama that followed the team for much of the summer, with some Impact players wondering aloud whether their early exit in Philadelphia was a result of the team taking success for granted. At times the drama spilled onto the field as well. Part of the reason the Russians were able to come back and knock Impact out of the Texas Open was that Goldman, perhaps Impact’s best player, was suspended for the match after headbutting ex-teammate Raney Stanczak in an earlier game against X-Factor.
(The bad blood between Stanczak and Impact stretched back to the offseason, when Impact unexpectedly cut Raney from the team. Justin Rabackoff, in an interview for GoSports’ series 5 Sundays, said of Stanczak, “I just don’t like him. I don’t like him as a person, and I didn’t like him as a teammate. To me, he was a bad teammate and an even worse person. … We had a meeting about it, like, ‘Hey, Raney’s a good player, he’s got a great mind for the game. Can we work through this?’ … We decided as a team, as a unit, that he was not in our best interest anymore.”
Stanczak, for his part, said, “I honestly didn’t think they were that bad between us, but then, I guess, they’re not good. I don’t like them, you know, prying into my personal life, I don’t like them calling me names and trying to, like, talk bad about me. And if they’re gonna talk shit to me before the game, and then bonus-ball me on the game — you know, you wanna bully someone, don’t bully me. ‘Cause I’m gonna come fuckin’ knock you out. It’s like that little kid in the Christmas Story. Once my emotions go, I’m gonna be on top of you just pounding down.”
Considering how this season went, it seems unlikely that Stanczak and Impact will be burying the hatchet anytime soon.)
If Impact returns to form, they will have to do so without last offseason’s big additions, Greg Siewers and Tim Brusselback, who are moving on to L.A. Infamous and Seattle Uprising, respectively. Replacing them will be former L.A. Ironmen stars Kyle Spicka and Trevor Resar. One of the more interesting story lines for 2020 will be whether 2019 was simply a blip on the radar or a sign of the end of Edmonton’s dynasty.
ac: Dallas Stuck in Neutral
What does one even say to ac: Dallas at this point? Twice ac: Dallas reached the finals this year. Twice they came away with nothing but disappointment, yet again. For two (arguably even three) seasons now, ac: Dallas has been a perpetual bridesmaid, usually looking excellent through prelims and early Sunday games but falling short when it matters most.
In 2019, ac reached the finals twice, but they got smoked by Moscow Red Legion 6-1 in Texas and lost a close match to San Antonio X-Factor 3-2 in Chicago. They reached Sunday at every other event in 2019, just as they did in 2018. After 2018, the assumption was that ac: Dallas was close to winning tournaments and would likely get over the hump in 2019. But after a 2019 that nearly mirrored 2018, the ac crew has to be concerned.
Likely the most troubling issue is that there is no simple reason for Dallas’s struggles. Brothers Matt and John Jackson both looked outstanding this season, with Matt even winning the Golden Barrel for most kills in their losing effort in Chicago. Brad McCurley and T.J. Danner have both been excellent complementary pieces capable of winning points on their own at times. B.J. Heninburg, Dallas’s 2019 call-up from their feeder team, ac: Diesel, quickly became one of the more dangerous snake players in the league. And all this stellar individual play has been rooted in the smart, methodical (some might say boring) paintball ac: Dallas has always been known for. A team with this many good players playing such a calculated style of paintball should not have trouble closing the deal, yet that is ac: Dallas’s problem.
One might argue that ac: Dallas can still be too predictable at times, but Matt Jackson’s increasing willingness to act as ac’s playmaker and the addition of Heninburg’s dynamic play style have made that less of an issue. One could also point to the fact that Dallas rostered only six players last year in an era when many teams are trying to carry two full five-man lines, meaning ac was likely very tired come Sunday. But more than anything, ac: Dallas’s struggles point to one simple reality: It is really hard to win a professional paintball tournament.
Maybe 2020 will be the year that ac: Dallas finally breaks through.
That wraps up the major happenings in the NXL’s upper echelon in 2019. Check back next week for part two, where we take a look at up-and-comers like Seattle Uprising, Baltimore Revo, and San Diego Aftermath!