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Laser tag gains foothold as niche sport, working toward legitimacy



Fog machines oozed smoke and generic rock music blared, while red and blue specters sped through the maze of walls and windows, lit only by black lights. Amid the occasional growl of frustration, voices blared, "Watch for activators!" and "Do not recharge! Do not recharge!"


It was the first competitive laser tag event at HeyDay Entertainment Center's Lasertron center at Interstate 35 and Indian Hills Road in Norman, held on Memorial Day weekend. Winding through the maze was Bob Holliman, who has been playing competitive laser tag for around 20 years, now haunts the Laser Quest center at 10944 N. May. 

"I was like other nerds: I didn't play a lot of sports," Holliman said. "Playing laser tag made me feel like an athlete, made me feel different than I did before, and that is addictive itself."

Several franchises exist in the market, including Lasertron, Laser Quest, DarkLight, and the first arena-style system, Photon, which opened in Dallas in 1984. Tournaments are one way to encourage enthusiasts to stay loyal to that one system, but Holliman is part of a new breed of cross-system players who don't stick to one brand.

For them, the future is at Armageddon. The tournament features as many systems as it can fit into a single weekend and is developing into the yardstick by which all laser tag players are measured.

"There is a die-hard, tight-knit community that has been playing for 10 years or so and really appreciate the differences laser tag systems offer," said Scott Altpeter, a competitive player for more than a decade. "Armageddon is a small tournament, but it is an important tournament that represents where laser tag should be going."

Armageddon was held July 4-7, carving out a large swath of the northeast, as players traveled in a tour bus from venue to venue. Each year, the tournament moves from region to region, finding a home wherever there is a large enough concentration of laser tag centers to support it.

Holliman's team slowly disintegrated over the last few years, and a hodgepodge squad was assembled just in time for Laser Quest's North American Challenge qualifier, but lost soundly. He'd almost decided to skip this year's Armageddon, but instead joined another group of players from all across the country and Canada.

He said he hopes Armageddon will lead laser tag away from a niche attraction to being considered a real sport. Although even Holliman smiles sheepishly when calling laser tag a sport, playing in a competitive round requires near-constant movement, teamwork, strategy and athleticism. It also requires dedication, according to Altpeter, with top players logging thousands of hours on their primary system.

Having a solid team is crucial in competing at the top level, as Holliman said one player cannot dominate a match. Some games can incorporate eight to nine players to a side and involve base defense and a need to incorporate positioning, rather than a free-for-all dogfight, so team chemistry goes a long way to determining a winner.

"You see different skill sets develop in players depending on their personality and their athleticism," Altpeter said. "There will be support players who are your snipers or defensive people that take positions and defend real estate on the field. Then you'll have players like myself that are aggressive, get on the other side to the other team's base, disrupt them and disrupt what they are doing."

Having a familiar team also helps when needing to adjust strategy for each new center during Armageddon, although a basic set of rules exists for all laser tag systems. Sensors are worn on the body and, usually, the gun. Tagging the other team's sensors with the weapon's laser wins points, while being tagged loses points. The games are often played in "mazes," which are dimly lit corridors with lots of walls and windows. Often multileveled, they look like miniature war-torn cities.

"The better laser tag players are those that like to dogfight or duel, and that means getting right up in someone's face, and it's more like fencing or martial arts then just a shooting game," Holliman said.

Body positioning is another learned skill that separates the novices from the competitive players, who constantly shift their bodies to shield their sensors from opponents. Watching two players standing toe to toe is similar to watching boxers bob and weave as they look for openings.

"A public player might walk out of the maze without having broken a sweat, but you won't ever see that with a competitive player," Holliman said. "They work harder, move more, are more flexible and know how to get their sensors out of your shot. Even a marginal amount of athleticism goes a long way in a game like Laser Quest."

If Armageddon is successful in maturing laser tag into a real sport, Holliman envisions a time where the old breed of players will be nudged out by more physical athletes.

Kevin Rogan, general manager of the OKC Laser Quest, said he is already seeing kids come in who could be on a varsity football team, but instead have chosen laser tag.

Of course, every player dreams of being paid to play, but Holliman said that is still a way off.

"If we were to compare laser tag to baseball, we aren't past the point of handlebar mustaches," he said. "I don't feel the real athletes have found the sport, yet. One day, they will and when they do, they will make the rest of us obsolete."

For the time being, players are just playing for fun, camaraderie and the bragging rights that go along with winning the major tournaments. Holliman has taken several stabs at Armageddon, but never won.

That is, until this year. With the sting of his poor showing at NAC, Holliman's team surprised the field by finishing the tournament in first place, with a record of 28-14, beating the second-place team by only one game. According to Holliman, it was his best performance of the year " one made all the sweeter by having come at Armageddon.

"I like to think that the game of laser tag is bigger than all the different companies who just offer different flavors," he said. "Armageddon stands for that. Systems come and go, some are more successful than others, but the game of laser tag just sticks around." "Charles Martin


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