Five young men covered in blue and black protective uniforms are clustered together at one end of a field on the base at Camp Pendleton, each armed with a gun and poised to attack. They're mirrored, nearly 100 feet away, by five young men who stand at the ready, clad in red. Off the field, someone calls out "Five seconds!" and then "Go! Go!"
That's when the cacophony rings out, a chaotic mix of rapid-fire shooting and shouting. During the next few minutes, members of each team spread out, hundreds of projectiles flying at and around them as they stand and crouch behind variously shaped inflatable barriers. The combatants, as well as coaches and teammates off the field, constantly holler in code the locations of opponents. One by one, fighters are hit and retreat to the sidelines until one team is completely vanquished or so outnumbered that it can't win.
It's an all-day Saturday practice for the San Diego Dynasty, who are preparing for an international tournament in Chicago. The Dynasty are the world's most successful professional team in the short history of competitive paintball. And you likely didn't even know San Diego had a professional paintball team.
The team (dynastypaintball.com) was born a decade ago, made up of guys in their late teens and early 20s who'd gotten their start playing paintball in the woods for fun five or six years before playing competitively and rising up through the amateur ranks. Four guys from that original squad—Oliver Lang, Ryan Greenspan, Alex Fraige and Yosh Rau—are still on the team, each now 29 or 30 and surrounded by younger players. Greenspan and Rau were so into paintball as kids that they eventually got jobs at paintball-equipment store in Santa Rosa, Calif. They met Fraige and Lang on the amateur circuit, and all four came to San Diego to attend school at SDSU.
"The turning point," Greenspan says, happened in 2000 when he, Rau and Fraige played in a tournament called the Spyder Cup in Pennsylvania. First place fetched five Ford Mustangs, and they won. "That was when our parents were, like, Oh, you know, it's not that bad. You guys can play a little bit more,'" Greenspan says. "We were young and were able to travel around the world and kind of experience that, so it's been really good for us."
Greenspan is the only member who currently makes his living by playing paintball and participating in clinics internationally. The Dynasty, whose equipment and travel expenses are provided by sponsor paintball-gear companies Eclipse and Empire, play in two U.S. leagues—Paintball Sports Promotions and the National Professional Paintball League—as well as a European league. Greenspan also plays in a South American league.
"You have to really like to fly," Greenspan says. "I do about 180,000 miles a year. It definitely gets a little grueling, having two bags packed at all times."
This month, Greenspan went to Italy, then home for a day before heading to Puerto Rico for a week—all for sponsor-driven events. Meanwhile, Fraige, who now lives in San Francisco, and Lang, who co-owns Rubicon Deli in Mission Beach, were scheduled to go to Peru for an event at around the same time. "There's literally not enough time and not enough players to be able to cover all of the events," Greenspan says. "We have a pretty good international following. It's nice to be able to get out there and reach out to those people."
If Greenspan and friends are the grizzled veterans, guys like Mike Mesa are the fresh-faced newbs.
"I was watching these guys play professional paintball and winning tournaments when I was coming up in 2004, 2005, when I first started," Mesa says. "So, to be on this team, it's like a dream come true; it's like living your fantasy."
On the second day of that weekend practice before the Chicago tournament, Mesa, 22, found himself in the crosshairs of coach Mike Hinman, who wasn't happy with the young player's decision-making during a game—it had been Hinman who brought Mesa to the Dynasty a little less than two years ago.
"This game, I believe, is 90-percent mental and 10-percent physical," Mesa says. "You can be the most athletic guy; you can be the fastest guy running to each of your spots. But if you don't know what to do when you get there or how to do it—you know, what's the right thing to do in certain scenarios—you're kind of pointless."
The Dynasty finished a disappointing fifth in Chicago, but they took second in London a week later and led the European Millennium Series in 2012 overall.
"Everyone has their moments," Mesa says. "In this sport, it's hard to stay on top; it really is. More guys are constantly rising up through the ranks and getting better."