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“Oh,” Colby Gallagher's mother said when he told her his plans for the weekend. He was going to Toulouse, France, to play paintball.
International weekend trips happen about six times a year for Mr. Gallagher, 21, of Sylvania Township, a professional paintball player on a team that travels to tournaments throughout the United States and Europe.
“It's really fun,” Mr. Gallagher said. “But we don't get to do much touristy stuff.”
He's a senior majoring in business at Bowling Green State University and has been playing paintball for 10 years. A friend from elementary school invited him to play, and he gradually got hooked.
The game is a version of capture-the-flag on a field with lots of inflatable, can-shaped obstacles. When a player gets hit by a paintball, he is out. The object in a 10-minute game is to eliminate the other players and get their flags.
“It's just a grownup game of tag,” said Jamie Wright, a friend of Mr. Gallagher's. “You get an adrenaline rush out of it.”
Paintballs are similar to bath beads in structure. Getting hit with one feels like being snapped with a towel and occasionally leaves round bruises, Mr. Gallagher said.
Paintball used to be an underground sport. People would play in the woods and wear camouflage, but now it is getting more recognition. People are playing out in the open, and audiences at tournaments are growing, said Mr. Wright, 25, of West Toledo.
Mr. Wright plays in a high-level 10-man paintball team that also goes on the National Professional Paintball League circuit. He first got interested in paintball when he saw it in the movie Gotcha! He's been playing for seven years and played on a professional team for two years. He met Mr. Gallagher at Action Enterprises, a paintball equipment store in Toledo that is now closed. They played on the same team for a year.
The sport is getting recognition as people see that there are plays and strategies in it.
“It's kind of like chess on the ground,” Mr. Wright said.
Mr. Gallagher started playing on a local paintball team about six years ago and worked at Action Enterprises. He kept playing more and more at tournaments, joining better and better teams until he joined a pro team last February.
Mr. Gallagher's team, Bad Company, is based out of Washington and has seven players from there and from as far away as Denver. The team plays in two different leagues, the National Professional Paintball League, which has five tournaments a year, and the Millennium Series, which has six events in Europe each year. The team, ranked No. 5 in the United States, placed fourth at its most recent tournament in New York last month. There the team played against 115 teams, about 15 of which were professional. The team placed eighth in July at Toulouse, the World Cup of the European series.
Bad Company has two-day practices before each tournament. The players travel to Florida, North Carolina, or the northeast to practice anywhere there are good fields and good teams.
Back home, Mr. Gallagher practices on his own with friends on a paintball field in Ann Arbor because it's centrally located.
Paintball can be an expensive hobby. A case of 2,000 balls, enough for an afternoon's play, costs about $60. Being outfitted with clothes, goggles, face masks, air or carbon dioxide tanks could cost $200, while some players may spend as much as $3,000 on just a paint gun.
Mr. Gallagher's team is sponsored by Kingman International Corp., a company that manufactures paintball guns; Raven USA, a paintball accessory company, and Zap Paintball, Inc., a British paint manufacturer. The team makes money when it win tournaments, but usually it wins paintball equipment and makes money by selling it. Only a few players can live off the money they win in paintball tournaments.
Most professional paintball players are 20-35 years old, but Mr. Gallagher has seen novices as young as 14 and players as old as 60.
Audiences for paintball games have grown significantly in the last three years, he said. His team signs posters to give out to fans, usually younger players. They also sign and give away their jerseys at the end of each tournament.
There are about 12 national-level paintball players in the Toledo area and about 5,000 amateur players.