Stories Of Americans Passionately At Play

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Pro Paintball: Not Your Ordinary Team-Building Event

Think You Can Run A Pro Sports Franchise? Can You Handle The Heat?

As play progressed in the PSP West Coast Open, it became increasingly obvious that the Houston Heat faithful were starting to get a little tense. Conveniently seated next to the co-owner of the Heat franchise as I was, I inquired as to the source of the angst. And Danette Kelley-Smith tried—God bless her, she tried—explaining it to me. It had something to do with the convoluted way in which teams in the highest two divisions of the PSP are ranked, seeded, and most importantly, relegated during the course of a season. But there was way too much for me to absorb without a whiteboard and stick figure drawings in multiple colors.

Suffice to say that the Houston Heat, despite being an elite team with a stellar track record, still found themselves only a misstep or two away from being relegated down from the Champions to the Challengers division for the next tournament. Which, as luck would have it, would be the World Cup, the glamour event of the PSP schedule. This would be like the San Antonio Spurs having a bad couple of games and then finding out they’d be playing in the NBA D-League playoffs as a result.

“How can this possibly happen?” you may ask. Well, the straight answer is, “By being one of the unfortunate teams to occupy the lowest two seeds in your division.” The relegation system is used most famously in soccer’s English Premier League, where the bottom three teams are routinely banished to the Championship division. But that happens at the conclusion of an entire season. In the PSP, you can go from being highly-ranked in your division to being relegated completely out of it over the course of one weekend.

Unbeknownst to me, this was shaping up to be that type of very bad weekend for the Houston Heat.

I had come to Riverside for the second day of competition, and was met with little in the way of panic that morning. The Heat had split their two games the previous day. But when they lost to Omaha Vicious in their first game of this day, eyebrows were raised among those who would know to do so. Like their owner, for example.

Still, a Heat win in the day’s final contest—preceded by a little help from other teams—would create a logjam for second place, out of which three teams would emerge to move forward to the next day’s semi-final round. Which three teams that would be would be determined by a combination of points scored, points given up, and the combined ordinal value of the team coaches’ Social Security numbers. It was somewhat complex.

Now, as for that “little help from other teams” thing…

Houston VcK was in the role of spoiler in the next game, against potential logjam-ee Moscow Red Legion. But less than four minutes into the twenty-minute game, they were already down, 2–0. Bless their hearts, though, they came back and took the Red Legion into overtime before succumbing, 4–3. I was told that this helped the cause tremendously. Who was I to argue?

Using a bit of reverse rooting psychology, we tossed our support in the next game to the undefeated Tampa Bay Damage. The logic was simple—concede the top seed to Damage while burdening their opponent with a crippling loss that would eliminate them from the scrum of tie-breakers for the second, third and fourth seeds. Everybody signed off on this strategy. Except, of course, Omaha Vicious, the team we’d nominated for defeat. They came out Vicious-ly and went up 4–2, sending nervous murmurs throughout the grandstand. Tampa Bay righted the ship though, inflicting the appropriate Damage to Vicious’ hopes.

The stage was set for a three-team tie for second. The mathematicians were poised. “All” the Heat had to do was beat Moscow Red Legion. After losing the first point convincingly, two impressive point wins put the Heat up 2–1…but that only set the stage for a four-point rebound run by Red Legion. With more than half the game in the books, the Heat needed a miracle to avoid either running out of points to give (the first team to score seven wins) or time (if neither team gets to seven, the team that leads after 20 minutes of play is the winner).

No problem.

It took just over a minute for the Heat to score their third point. And another 90 seconds to log their fourth. The next point was hard-earned, chewing up a big chunk of time, but the Heat were reward for their efforts with a 5–5 tie, a ton of momentum, and just 3:17 remaining. It was a brand new…ball game? Shootout? While I was deciding on the appropriate terminology though, Red Legion quickly struck twice, with their seventh and deciding point coming on what appeared to be a costly mental mistake on the part of the Heat.

Danette, along with the rest of the Heat faithful, was stunned. In the space of just a few minutes, her team had seen its opportunity to play for the West Coast Open championship vanish. But things quickly got worse as the realization hit home that the loss had not only dropped the Heat out of the final four, but also out of the top six—and into the dreaded Ocho-Finals.

I’m not sure I’ve ever come across an “Ocho-Final” before, but in short, it consists of two games in which the lowest-placed four teams of the tournament play for their life. And of specific relevance to my favorite pro paintball team, a loss the next morning against the San Diego Dynasty would result in relegation. They wouldn’t even be able to compete for the coveted World Cup that just two years prior they’d won.

Houston, we have a problem.

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