Thursday, November 20, 2008

Robots versus Ninjas

Time flies when you're blogging and so this post is about two weeks late, give or take, but now that it's here, who cares, right? For a quick refresher on the topic go here. Now that you're up to speed it's full throttle robots v. ninjas. The argument aimed by the ninjas (proponents of 7-man) against the robots (xball players) is both ironic and misguided. The core of it is that coaching turns the xball player into a robot simply following commands and if that wasn't bad enough these same coaches kill the ninja style of play by making game-breaking run-thrus almost impossible. At least the kind where the player making the move also survives. This view has a lot of advocates not least a chunk of the Middle Skool pros–those guys whose careers span most of the out-of-the-woods era of competitive paintball and perhaps even a few Old Skoolers. Doesn't however make them right.
Coaching is communication. And communication is a basic tennant of competitive paintball going deep into the forests of yesteryear. No one objects to a back player rolling his gun and telling his insert to make the move they worked out before the game started. Yet when a coach tells a player to go–bumping a gap in the snake or the like it's the ruination of the game. The plain truth is the xball player still must have the full complement of individual skills in order to be successful. All that those within the sound of the coach's voice get extra is information about the unfolding point. And more and more the notion of a coach "operating" a player, any player, like his robot is failing the practical test–it doesn't work very well and most of the time that's not the focus of the coaching going on–which is simply to provide more info in a changing environment. (The obvious "secret" to neutralizing coaching is rate of change; how fast things keep happening.) Even so, coaching can and does alter some things and it's a fair debate to question just how much. That said, coaching never eliminated anybody or stopped a single run-thru.
The real argument is over the nebulous skill called timing. Timing being that sense a player either develops or doesn't of when to do things though it's usually associated with making moves, judging the opportune moment and going for it. Hence the objection to robot-like players and "ruined" run-thrus. Of course the critical element that made (makes) timing valuable is LACK of information.
The irony in the whole argument is that xball has altered all of competitive paintball in ways those making the argument have apparently failed to recognize.
You gotta crawl before you can walk or run. Remember the example in the original post of how crawling has changed? 15 years ago crawling was the ninja style of paintball. And what changed it? The game environment.
How long has 7-man been a major format in the U.S.? Less than a decade or about the same amount of time as xball has been around. Is 7-man a more natural progression from the prior generation's 10-man than xball is? I think that's a fair statement but neither format is played the way 10-man was in the past. 10-man was a gun dominant game. Yes, the same basic rules applied and peeps worked for angles, moved up field etc. but the guns controlled the rhythm of the games and the first teams to push the pace were changing the way the game was played. I'd start the transition with Image followed by Dynasty but you might want to throw in turn-of-the-century Shock and old Lanche, too. (I've often wondered if the early electronic cheats weren't motivated by a desire to reestablish the old order of the game. Okay, too philosophical and not to the point.)
Regardless Dynasty epitomized the new game of speed and movement and xball formalized it with a tiny unforgiving field of play that demands skills sharpened to a knife's edge.
For those of you who've been around long enough the differences in the 7 minute 7-man game of today from even the last incarnation of 10-man is pretty stark and the style of play and broad skill sets demanded of players today owe far more to xball and teams like Dynasty than they do to the historic game.
There are no robots or ninjas, only ways to play the game that demand a different balance of skills. [Which reminds me, one of the better ways to introduce rookies to tourney ball would be on larger scale fields.]
I've little doubt this debate will continue but the important part of all this isn't who is right or wrong in the robots versus ninjas debate. The lesson is that so far in paintball's brief history very little prior consideration has been given to the consequences of the changes being made. Or the corallary that future changes will, whether intended or not, mold and shape the game in new and different ways. And, lastly, that any contemplated change should be rigorously examined for its likely consequences before being instituted.

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