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 2020 and beyond.
This is part two of a two-part recap of the 2019 NXL season. Part two focuses on trends among the NXL’s mid- and lower-tier teams. Part one, focusing on the NXL’s top-tier teams, is available here.
Is Seattle Ready to Live Up to Its Name?
For years now, Seattle Uprising has languished in the NXL’s lower-middle region, occasionally making Sunday but never making much noise when they’ve gotten there. After Vegas and Texas this past year, there was little reason to expect any significant change to their regularly scheduled programming. The team finished 16th in Las Vegas and 13th in Texas, and it appeared their reportedly renewed focus in the offseason was for naught.
Then came Philadelphia. Just as Philly marked a turning point for San Antonio X-Factor, who won their first tournament in years there, the NXL’s third event of the year was a critical juncture for Seattle Uprising. The team finished 4th, its highest ever finish in an NXL tournament, and it frankly would not have have been shocking to see them go even further.
Uprising brought a balanced attack to Philadelphia that shows up just looking at simple stats. Heading into Sunday, all five of their top killers had 16-plus kills, with Brandon Olsen leading the way with 18. This balance made the team surprisingly versatile for a team outside the game’s elite group. Their consistent off-the-break shooting frequently allowed them to just cross up, play smart, and force the opponent to run into their guns; but when things got hairy, Seattle showed good communication and excellent timing on run-throughs to break points open or swing the man-advantage back in their favor. They ultimately fell to eventual tournament winners X-Factor in a game where they simply looked overmatched, but overall, the team looked the best they ever have.
Chicago, however, made one wonder if Philly was a fluke. While they did mercy-rule San Diego Aftermath, they were mercy-ruled themselves by Baltimore Revo, lost 5-4 to TradeMyGun Outlaws, and let X-Factor run away with a match 9-4. Granted, Graham Arnold apparently dislocated his shoulder in their first game of the weekend (an injury he quickly returned from), but Uprising did not look much like the contender from a a couple months prior.
With that in mind, it was hard to know what to expect from Uprising at World Cup. That uncertainty lasted all of one game.
Seattle opened the tournament with a dominant 6-1 win over ac: Dallas, then followed that up with a 4-2 defeat of Edmonton Impact — a game they held onto despite a strong push from Impact late. The team went 4-0 in prelims using much the same tactics that brought them success in Philly. Tight break-shooting frequently gave them the man-advantage early, and Tommy Tucker was a consistent force on the Dorito side, often making big moves in high-pressure moments to swing points in Uprising’s favor.
Unfortunately their World Cup finish was similar to Philly as well, as they lost in overtime to eventual World Cup champions Houston Heat. But Seattle Uprising looks ready to consistently contend in a way that few lower-level teams have. They’re getting balanced production from across their lineup rather than relying on one or two hot hands in any given tournament; they’re adding former Sacramento DMG and Edmonton Impact playmaker Tim Brusselback to an otherwise unchanged lineup; and most importantly, they’ve shown they’re able to regain control of critical points against even the top teams in the world.
The Mid-level Challengers Make Some Noise
Seattle Uprising was not the only mid-level team trending upward in 2019. Baltimore Revo proved they were ready for the big time, and Tampa Bay Damage looked something like the Tampa Bay Damage of old after struggling mightily through the first three events of the season.
Baltimore Revo never finished higher than seventh in 2019, but they nonetheless looked excellent in tournament after tournament. They consistently beat the teams they were “supposed” to beat, and against the NXL’s elite, Revo showed they belonged (even if they didn’t win) en route to a seventh-place season finish. Like Uprising, Baltimore got production from all over their roster, with Max Traylor, Henry Sentz, Stephen Omara, Dan Zaleski, and Matt Darula each posting team-high kill counts over the season’s five tournaments. Josh Pike, Eddie Painter, and Mike Zuppa (a mid-season addition) also put in consistent work. Maybe as much as any team in the NXL, Baltimore was able to hit the field every tournament knowing they could rely on every single guy on the roster. Happily for Revo, that entire eight-man team is returning for 2020, and with the addition of Frank Antetomaso from San Diego Aftermath, Revo looks primed not just to contend with the top teams but to start beating them.
(I also just want to thank Revo here for giving us one of the funniest moments in paintball last year in their ongoing rivalry with New York Xtreme:)
Tampa Bay Damage took a decidedly different path through 2019. After a roster shuffle in the offseason that brought Keith Brown back home to Florida following his stellar stint with Impact, Damage struggled mightily out of the gate. The team finished 12th and 15th at Vegas and Texas, respectively, looking noticeably less cohesive than the 2018 Damage squad that habitually finished around the middle of the pack. Through two tournaments, Tampa’s offseason moves were not having the intended effect.
The team realized something needed to change, and quick, if they were going to pull out of their nosedive. They added veteran back player Bryan “Agent” Smith to help stabilize the roster and brought in coach Joey Blute to hold players more accountable.
The results were immediate. After going 2-2 in prelims, Damage beat Impact 4-2 on Sunday in Philadelphia before getting 6-0’d in the quarterfinals by season-long nemesis San Diego Dynasty. Perhaps not an ideal finish but certainly much better than missing Sunday two tournaments in a row. Maybe most encouraging was a moment in Damage’s match against Impact when GoSports’ Lauren Kelly reported that, after losing an early point, Damage players began complaining that Impact started early and should have been penalized, but new coach Joey Blute quickly shut it down, telling them to “let it go” and refocusing them on the next point’s game plan. Accountability indeed.
Damage continued to play well at the Chicago Open and World Cup. They went 3-1, including a win over ac: Dallas, in the Chicago prelims before again being knocked out by Dynasty, 2-1, on Sunday. Damage reached their season peak at Cup, going 3-1 in prelims with wins over Revo and New York Xtreme, then beating Revo again on Sunday before losing 7-6 to eventual silver medalists Moscow Red Legion.
Considering the team’s strong finish to 2019, the future seems bright for Tampa Bay Damage. The addition of stable coaching clearly agrees well with the players. Brothers Jacob and Jason Edwards, after looking a bit out of control in the first two tournaments, got back to playing the type of smart, steady paintball they’ve excelled at in the past. Keith Brown, who was great all season long — he led the team in kills at every tournament except Chicago and posted a kill-to-point ratio under .700 only once — reached another level as the team began playing as a more cohesive unit, using his elite snapshot and fantastic run-through timing to tear up opponents. (He seemed to have a particular vendetta against his old Edmonton team, consistently elevating his game when the teams played each other.) Perhaps most importantly, the entire team seems to be having fun playing paintball together again. Add in offseason pickup Brad McCurley, and Damage may soon be title contenders once more.
The Bottom-end Struggle is Real
This feels almost redundant at this point, but it bears repeating because it is a problem the NXL has yet to solve or even address: Pro paintball’s lower end, the bottom six to eight teams in the NXL, seem to be little more than cannon fodder in most tournaments.
This is not to say these teams don’t have value. As Houston Heat player and YouTube star Ronnie Dizon argued on Carl Markowski’s Playing On Podcast, even low-tier teams strengthen local paintball by giving young players something tangible to look up to and see that the professional dream is achievable. From my own experience, I can say playing with and watching members of Green Bay Boom and L.A. Infamous at my local field have been some the coolest experiences of my paintball life. (Both teams have some of the nicest paintballers I’ve ever been around, by the way.)
But if America’s “big four” sports can tell us anything, it is that parity is likely the most important factor in a sports league’s growth, and for most of the past decade (and maybe much longer than that), paintball has been dominated by only a handful of teams at the top. The last few years have seen the same few teams stuck at the bottom, occasionally notching a surprise win over a quality team but mostly going 1-3 or 0-4 for the weekend and heading home early. Teams like Green Bay Boom (now NRG Elite), ML Kings, and TMG Outlaws don’t seem to have much purpose beyond filling out tournament brackets.
So what can the NXL do to fix things? Unfortunately that question does not have an easy answer. The current relegation system, in which the bottom pro team switches places with the top semi-pro team at the end of each season, is great for up-and-coming divisional teams but not ideal for young pro teams trying to find their identity. The 2019 season saw Scottsdale Elevation, a promising new pro team in 2018, bottom out and lose their pro spot after only two seasons at the top level, aborting any chance for them to learn and grow. Similarly, 2019’s new pro team from the relegation system, San Diego Aftermath, stormed out of the gate to reach the semi-finals in Las Vegas but quickly devolved into a mess of bad communication and reported in-fighting. Aftermath never won another game after Las Vegas, which led to players bailing on the team ahead of World Cup. In mainstream sports, bad early seasons like these tend to be looked at as growing pains for new teams; but paintball’s current structure and the instability of funding for most squads often mean these teams simply fold and disappear. One possible fix might be to protect newly-promoted pro teams from relegation for, say, three seasons, but it’s difficult to say whether this would change much long-term since it’s not the only issue keeping young teams down.
Another factor, and one which Elevation’s fate also bares out, is that bottom- and mid-level teams cannot hold onto their own players. Even after Elevation’s disappointing finish to 2018, playmaker Mike Urena stuck around, suiting up for Scottsdale in the 2019 Vegas and Texas Opens. But ahead of the Philly Open, Urena jumped to Sacramento DMG, Edmonton Impact’s feeder team, and left a gaping hole in Scottsdale’s roster. This scenario is not uncommon. Nearly every time a player makes a name for themselves on a lower-level team, a top team comes along and “poaches” them, robbing the young team of the talent that helped them achieve success. Even famous names like L.A. Infamous, who lost John Parrish to the Ironmen last offseason, are not immune to this.
But there is no easy solution to this problem either. It’s hard to blame players for wanting to play for the best teams possible, especially when the top teams can offer compensation that lower- and mid-level teams simply cannot. Any sort of standardized contract system that would tie players to their original teams for a set time seems unfair until professional paintball teams can all compensate their players more or less equally (which seems very far off).
For now, it seems the shortest path to parity might be through the actual gameplay itself. One possibility might be for young teams to devote serious effort to finding new and different ways to play that might minimize the advantages of championship contenders’ talent and experience, much like the spread offense did for football. Wrinkles like that might be tough to find in paintball, but it would be interesting, for example, to see a young team try tiring out an older team like Dynasty by just launching at them at max speed point after point. Another option could be for the NXL to focus on faster-playing field layouts that would discourage simply grabbing a lead and then locking the field down. This would obviously have to be balanced with layouts that still reward smart, strategic play, but I think less endless laning is a paintball future everyone can get behind. Here’s hoping the 2020 NXL season provides.