Let's talk 50cal. A chat with GI Sportz' Dave 'Opie' Thomas

Following on from our '50cal is the future' post that almost broke the internet – ok, nowhere near breaking the internet, but it certainly fuelled a conversation – we decided to catch up with GI Sportz' Dave 'Opie' Thomas to find our more about their views and approach to the 50cal side of paintball.

Opie is a bit of a legend in the game and has played through all levels of paintball. Most notably he played with some of the sports' most iconic and loved teams – such as Image and Trauma – during paintball's explosive growth period in the nineties and noughties. So his experience and knowledge of the industry has been driven by his passion, dedication and successes as a player.

Before we get deep into the questions, here's an overview of Opie's playing career:

1 Started playing in 1989 in Northern California at the age of 15
2 Joined the Professional Team California Black Diamonds in 1991 at the age of 17
3 Played and won first Professional tournament – Boston Open in 1992 at Canobie Paintball
4 Joined Professional Team Image in the summer of 1995 with Billy Ceranski
5 Joined & played with Team Image from 1995 until 2000
1995 1st Place Amateur World Cup
1996 1st Place Pro NPPL New York Cup
1997 1st Place Pro NPPL World Cup
1999 1st Place Pro NPPL Boston Open
1999 1st Place Pro NPPL Atlanta Open
6 Joined Team Trauma/Baltimore Trauma with Rob Staudinger from Image
2001 1st Place Amateur NPPL World Cup
2002 Won all NPPL Amateur Events ending in 2002 World Cup
Joined NXL 2003
2004 Finished Eastern Divisional Champs
2005 NXL World Champions
2006 NXL Texas 2nd Place
2006 Intercontinental Cup – 1st Place
7 Retired from Professional play 2007

Here we go.

What is your key role at Gi Sportz?
I’m Chief of Operations, based in our Montreal manufacturing facility.

So, let’s talk 50cal. As you know we recently launched a 50cal version of our Etha2 because we feel that 50cal could really help the industry get more kids involved with the sport without the fear factor of getting hurt too much. And our Etha2 ROCKS! But people out there still seem very sceptical about 50cal. What is your take on it? Why do you think people are still sceptical today?
I think everyone has been wary of change in this area.  50 cal has been around since GI Sportz created it in 2009. The purpose of 50 cal is to enhance the playing experience for all, especially those who are being introduced to Paintball for the first time.  The Low Impact format caters to those potential patrons who may be concerned about the impact of .68cal paintball.

This isn’t the industry’s first rodeo when it comes to 50cal and people seem to think it was a huge failure the first time round, with lots of rejection. Do you agree with this sentiment? Was 50cal doomed from the outset?
The initial introduction of the concept was aggressive and tried to make a complete switch from .68cal. I do agree that the concept wasn’t well-received at the time.  In hindsight it was marketed to the wrong audience. The concept was sound though. The idea of using 50 cal as an introductory version of the game, used for the Entertainment/Recreational segment of the paintball business, has succeeded in growing participation and has now expanded the playing demographic down to 6 year olds.  Just like when a consumer tries go-karting, they are driving a car that is restricted, to make sure everyone has a fair and fun experience. 50 cal is the same concept.  People can be a little intimidated during their first paintball experience. The last thing we need is a new paintball enthusiast being deterred from playing again in the future.

Do you think 50cal is probably more relevant now than it ever has been? It seems the simplest and most obvious answer to quash the ‘paintball hurts’ issue. And park owners NEED more people playing so they can thrive.
Yes 50 cal has an important place in the industry, and is now a very important part of the continued growth strategy for our company. ‘It Hurts’ is the number one reason people choose not to participate in paintball as an activity. It is our largest barrier to new players, making it the most important aspect to work on and improve. We recognised that in 2009, and have worked to alleviate the problem through several initiatives, including the Splatmaster program, which has become very successful for participating fields.

Paint. A lot of people out there have raised issues about the quality and consistency of 50cal paint over the years. Is this any different to the issues with 68cal balls?
The primary issue is the continued downward pricing pressure.  Everyone wants to buy the cheapest paint and have it perform like the most expensive paint.  We as a company have made a choice to only sell high quality 50 cal paint because the breakability and overall performance of the paintball are the key to the success of a 50 cal growth strategy.  50 cal Low Impact is not meant to be a cheaper alternative to 68 cal, but rather a product to increase the overall acceptance of the game.  With regards to pricing pressure, our hopes are that more dealers follow that train of thought and purchase a higher level of product that will have the required performance abilities necessary to meet that expectation.

So do you have to approach 50cal paintball manufacturing in a different way?
Yes, we have to make the ball extremely brittle but still be able to survive the manufacturing process and fire through a rental marker.  Our GI Field and Empire Marballizer 50 cal are made very similar to our Tournament GI Sportz 5-star and Empire Ultra Evil.  We have also re-introduced the RPS Advantage formulation to handle the extreme heat in the Southern markets to make sure players have the same fun experience no matter what climate they play in.

Would you say – honestly speaking – that mistakes were made the first time around that you (GI Sportz) are in a better position to address nowadays? Every day’s a learning day right?
Yes, I would say that Richmond’s initial vision to change the format to 50 cal across the board was too far of a reach than the market could accept at that time. It was too drastic a change, although he did open the doorway to help grow the paintball pie, and more importantly – improved the experience we offer as a recreational industry. A few short years later, 50 cal is universally acknowledged as a positive growth-step that made the Paintball Experience more fun and enjoyable for all ages.  The concept of 50 cal was revolutionary and it is playing an integral part in the re-growth of paintball participation. We needed to evolve into today’s Entertainment market.  The customer demographic has changed and we had to adapt.

What steps are you guys making to ensure the quality and consistence of 50cal paintballs matches the expectations of players and park owners?
We have redeveloped our paint formulas to match the expectations of this product and game format.  This ball needs to fly through the Opus, FT-50 or Splatmaster markers and break on its target with minimal force so the game is fun filled for all ages and walks of life. 

In fact, I guess players and park owners have completely different requirements anyways? This must add more complications to the process. So hitting a middle ground must be tough.
Making paintballs has become much more complex since the early days.  GI Sportz prides itself on being the most customized manufacturer in the world.  We have made custom paintballs for hundreds of customers based on their respective climates, variations to the games they play, and performance requirements for leagues and events all around the world.  50 Cal has just become another customized product, which we ensure performs with the ultimate playing experience in mind.  We have the responsibility to make sure this product supports the idea of an excitement filled day of paintball with little to no pain or mess.

Which then highlights why you need different grades for 50cal, just like with 68cal?
Yes, we need 3 variations. 1 JT Splatmaster for use in the JT Splatmaster guns and at extremely low velocities 2. GI Field designed for General Field Play and slightly higher velocities  3. A high end branded product for use at  Destination facilities looking for the brand value of the higher priced Empire Marballizer

So with the smaller ball is a 1 star 50cal ball much harder than a 1 star 68cal ball? Or is the grading all relative? 
Originally, the answer would have been ‘yes’, but we have actually discontinued the 1-Star 50 Cal product as it did not provide the right experience.  Everything is now bundled into GI Field, Empire Marballizer and JT Splatmaster, and the field owner has the ability to pick skus based on breakability and climate conditions.

Would you say you guys are behind 50 cal even more so these days?
100%, We see 50 cal as a product that helps the industry grow the participation by lessening the age required to play, improving the playing experience by all, and allowing the game to be exposed to more potential players, through venues like Zombie Haunts and Shooting Galleries. Operators also have the ability to run the games in a smaller location with less clean-up.  Once people realise the strong benefits of 50 cal play, it’s hard to argue against the advantages it has over 68 cal for new players.

We also had a few people commenting on 68cal Paintballs so while we have you in the hot seat lets ask those questions:

I know you can only speak for GI but over the years Paint has become bigger then smaller, bigger again and currently we seem to be pretty small. Any reason for this?
I believe the up and down shift of the sizing of the paintballs from various manufacturers is a result of others trying to develop a better product.  As for GI Sportz, our paint has remained relatively consistent with a size range of .684 to .690.  When making paintballs, there is an acceptable range of sizing.  We are not cutting metal or injecting plastic into a mold, we are encapsulating a liquid inside of a malleable shell that goes through a drying and curing process which can cause the balls to shrink or expand depending on the formulation.  Overall the size of paintballs has remained the same with some variances being seen batch to batch day to day.  This is just the nature of the Encapsulation Beast.

A lot of the comments we received about Paintballs (both 50cal and 68cal) were around the quality and hardness of some paintballs. GI make a huge range of paintballs and obviously some are harder than others. Paintball Parks will often want to buy the cheapest ball possible, which can lead to a ball that is either too hard, or too brittle. Do you think this approach by some Parks is damaging to the industry?
In our opinion, Yes.
The constant expectation that there will be a decrease in the price of paintballs every season, by both player and field owner, has a direct effect on the quality and fragility of the paintballs.  This change began in 2005 and has been a serious contributor to the decline in participation as the fields have been driving customers away with a poor playing experience, driven mostly by “Poor Quality, Hard Paintballs”. 
All paintball manufacturers have been forced to change their formulations and source cheaper raw materials to compensate for the steady and consistent decrease in the average sale price of paintballs.  Since I started working with GI Sportz in 2001, the wholesale price, per case of paint, has been cut in half!
Today, we have stores selling tournament grade paintballs for less than wholesale pricing.  This is 17 years later with the price of everything else in the world going up! The only way to deliver paintballs at a greatly reduced cost is to put cheaper raw materials into the product, which makes it harder and impacts performance.
It is our responsibility as a manufacturer to make the best quality paintball. One that provides a great playing experience relative to the price of the case. It is the field owner’s responsibility to purchase high quality paintballs that provide a good experience, and to understand that, if you price your business correctly, you can afford to buy the right paint, market your business, provide good equipment and thus the right playing experience!

The overall ‘Experience’ that some Paintball Parks offer needs to be better. Gone are the days of kicking a bunch of branches together to make bunkers and putting a flag at each end of the field. Paintball Parks need to offer more and that should start with answering customers questions, the first one being “Does it Hurt”.  How can they honestly answer this if they are using hard paintballs?
I agree and it is not just about the paintballs, it is the overall playing experience for the participants and their moms watching them play.  All Field Owners and paintball enthusiasts need to think about the importance of the overall customer experience from arrival to departure.  The Field needs to be safe and well laid out.  The Player needs to be properly trained by friendly and knowledgeable staff on how to use the equipment, and what to expect when playing the game.  The playing equipment itself needs to work well, be clean, and shoot at the right velocity.  The Paintball Mask needs to smell clean, be dry when they put it on, and not fog or have a million scratches.  The Mom needs to have a clean safe place to watch or wait. Her experience must be considered also. Most importantly, the player needs to come off the field yelling and screaming how Paintball is the best thing they have ever done.  If we accomplish this, we will have more players, more enthusiasts to buy product and our game can climb back to what it once was.

Any last words for the fans out there?
The most important job and responsibility of any of us who have lived our lives in this great game and industry is to help grow the game.  It’s our responsibility as players, store owners, field owners, employees of both, manufacturers, and distributors to make sure this game continues to grow and prosper by providing a great playing experience for all players, new and old.  People are far more conscious of how they spend their money on now than they ever have been.  Paintball has a lot of competition for people’s money, the last thing we need to do is shoot ourselves in the foot by not caring for the experience that is had by all!

Wise words. Thanks for your time Opie, we know you're a busy guy so we'll stop bombarding you with questions. Always good to chat.

To learn a little more about the man himself check out this piece from way back: Paintball.com Opie