After yet another exciting event at the NXL Windy City Major, I begin to look back at everything that occurred this past weekend. Beneath all the incredible stories that emerged throughout the weekend; Dynasty's win in dominant fashion, Columbus LVL going 4-0 and making their first Sunday, major programs like Impact and Heat missing the finals, or even the cinderella run from the short-handed Baltimore Revo roster, I find my mind elsewhere. Even with all these astonishing storylines, it's hard to take my focus off the changing of the guard that seems to be quietly, yet rapidly emerging in the professional paintball league.
Over the course of the last seven seasons of the National XBall League, major programs like Edmonton Impact, San Diego Dynasty, San Antonio XFactor, and Houston Heat have been the dominant teams of the professional paintball world. Winning an astonishing 21 of the 27 events that have occurred in the NXL since its inception in 2015, the sport of professional paintball has been largely under the commanding presence of these four programs. With their strong internal management, historically united core rosters, and resources for players, the lower half of the league has struggled to compete.
This event saw Alex Fraige lead the veteran Dynasty roster to a huge win, yet another to add to the long line of wins in their program's history. He was incredibly effective in the snake all weekend and his ability to consistently find penetration down the snake side of the field was unmatched. However, it was a team effort, as we saw the unbreakable guard of Marcello Margott, Yosh Rau, and Ryan Greenspan find a variety of ways to eliminate players off the break, close games, and control nearly every point in their favor from the back line. Blake Yarber was creating relentless pressure through the center of the field as well, and was critical in Dynasty's ability to shut down the snake.
However, the Windy City Major gave the paintball world the first convincing argument in nearly a decade that a youthful movement built on strong chemistry and dedication to one another is emerging. Void of all the substantial resources and historic reputation that the major programs have always enjoyed, teams like Columbus LVL, NRG Elite, and Portland Uprising are beginning to create the blueprint on dethroning the existing guard of elite teams.
The Staunch Dedication emerging in Young Programs.
Facing almost certain elimination from the pro division and sitting in 20th place overall on the season rankings, LVL was bold in the face of relegation and, in dominant fashion, came together to win all four of their preliminary matches. LVL snake player Justin Politi was succinct in his message about this event; "Our backs were up against the wall and we responded. We put in many hard weekends of work to prep for this. We finally got some long-sought results." And those results were clear, beating elite programs like Edmonton Impact with their merciless and ferocious war of attrition down the snake side of the field. LVL is reaping the rewards of buying into the core mission statement set out by team owner, Dave Pando. The plunder gained from their sacking of the pro division will enrich this young roster with critical experience and a taste of what ultimate victory can mean for them.
It's a unique and rare circumstance that young programs can stay together with their core roster in the modern professional paintball world. For decades, it has been commonplace for major professional programs to use these lesser experienced teams as feeders to develop talent for them to cherry pick at their leisure. However, these emerging programs all have one unifying and common theme between them; a staunch dedication to each other built on the unique relationship that is forged in the fires of the professional field. They have looked to the origins of the major, dominant professional teams who all share the common thread of an undivided and united core of players; the same players that fought their way up the professional ranks for more than a decade on their path to the top of the paintball world.
For the first time in quite a while though, these young programs seemed resolute in their drive to stay together and take over the reigns from these dominant but aging programs. The youthful Seattle Uprising squad is a perfect example. Whether it is the semi-pro or the professional division, they have been doubted. They silenced a bit of that doubt in Chicago after winning two of their four preliminary games against established professional programs, and then sneaking into Sunday by a margin of just half a point. They then beat the Ironmen in a stellar display of game-planning and audacious strategy. They fell short against Infamous for the second time in this event, but not without showing that this team of athletes, dedicated to one another during their journey through the paintball ranks, has no plans on being relegated from the division and is more than ready for the chance to take the reins of the pro ranks.
NRG Elite took a bit of a different path in their road to the pro division. The team owner, Alan Bufton acquired the ailing Boom organization just a few short seasons ago, and immediately went to work creating an infrastructure of support that rivals even the best teams in the pro division. His assembled roster started their time in the pro division slowly, but their coming out party in Chicago was a reflection of the brilliance and infrastructure provided by Alan. After going 3-1 in the preliminaries, they put up a strong fight against the greatest team in history, San Diego Dynasty, and showed some serious mettle that we haven’t seen from them before. Alan was clear in his motivations to assemble a young core and keep them together, and we are starting to see the fruit of his labor in the pro division.
Major Programs Still Focused.
Naturally, It would be foolish to assume that the dynamic and established programs at the top of the National XBall League will go out silently into the night. Dynasty, Heat, Impact, and XFactor have constructed programs focused on an elite core roster with new infusions of youth to help elongate their reign at the top of the professional paintball circuit. While the cinderella runs of LVL, NRG, and Uprising were certainly admirable, even eliminating pro division stalwart Edmonton Impact, the league is still very much in the control of these major historic programs.
San Diego Dynasty is no stranger to the process of building a strong, core roster of youthful players to take on the paintball world. They were among the first teams to do so, and it created a successful blueprint on how to win in the professional league that teams have tried to replicate for more than 20 years. All event long, they showed the elite level of play that fans have come to expect, but they are cognizant of the youthful takeover coming to the professional division. Even their more veteran players like Alex Fraige, Ryan Greenspan, and Yosh Rau are playing a renewed and refined style and may even be playing the best paintball of their careers. Dynasty has been slowly incorporating talented young players like Marcello Margott, Blake Yarber, and Mike Urena into their winning formula, with great success, to help continue the defense of their throne. Easily winning all four preliminary matches and marching all the way to the finals match against fellow giant, San Antonio XFactor, Dynasty put on a display of paintball prowess in their dismantling of XFactor. From the first horn they were in control on this match and easily won the event in typical Dynasty fashion.
From the start, Heat was built on a stable of top professional talent around the league, however, they were one of the few programs in history able to keep a superstar roster together for an extended period of time. They share in the brotherhood and bond of battle, the same bond we are seeing form in the new challengers to the throne of professional paintball in LVL, NRG, and Uprising. Heat was dominant throughout the event, easily dispatching every team they encountered on their way to Sunday. But, they saw themselves eliminated from the event against Revo in the quarter-finals. It was a bit perplexing as to why they weren’t able to overcome the short-handed Revo roster. Although, it should be stated that this roster is still loaded with 11 elite players that would be starting on any roster in the NXL, and they are led by one of the best coaches in paintball history, Todd Martinez. Alongside their dedicated owner Sarge Smith, this team is still destined for greatness. Perhaps it would be wise to consider this elimination an outlier on Houston Heat’s path for the season title, and with this team's history at the World Cup, they are still a favorite to win it all.
The new movement of youthful teams in the NXL also comes from a uniquely rare circumstance. These programs are substantially under-supplied in resources when comparing them against the top teams in the league. It makes their journey up the mountain of professional paintball even more admirable, as they produced at the Windy City Major in a meaningful way, with a major disadvantage in the resources historically needed to achieve greatness. With major programs paying salaries to star players, and providing every item needed to succeed, it's astonishing that programs who are mostly paying their way through the pro division are finding success.
San Antonio XFactor is headed by one of the greatest paintball patrons to ever emerge from the paintball hotbed of Texas, Alex Martinez. His consistent drive to achieve greatness in paintball has come as the result of his tireless dedication to building the sport of paintball in Texas to an elite level. From his humble, yet well-established field Alex did everything right. He assembled the best young players in the state of Texas, gave them the resources and guidance they needed, and set the expectation of greatness he demanded, much like LVL or NRG is currently trying to do in the professional league with Dave Pando and Alan Bufton.
Perhaps these teams should look towards XFactor as their inspiration to achieve their goals, because as we clearly saw in Chicago, XFactor has a tried and true method for success. After starting slow on day one of the event, Coach Ryan Brand stressed the need to adapt and modify their approach and preparation to always be on the cutting edge of strategy. XFactor came out on day two and took no mercy on their way to yet another Sunday finals berth. They disassembled the red hot and emerging LVL and Revo programs, firmly establishing that the league still runs through the leagues elite programs, even with their finals loss to Dynasty.
The Final Battle In Florida Will Define or Dethrone.
The sudden emergence of youth in the NXL, and the changing of the guard that is beginning to occur in the National Xball League provided some of the most exciting paintball of the year at the Windy City Major NXL event. The young programs of LVL, Uprising, and NRG showed the paintball world that they have no plans of submission to the elite of the NXL and their bond through this game may just drive them to the top of the league. But, major professional programs seem to have no plans of letting this happen silently, and are putting up a staunch resistance to this new wave of players as they continue to define what dominance in professional sports means.