By Kate Yien

He does final checks on his pouches, paintball marker and mask. The plan is simple: Push up the left flank, capture the flag and get out. With a whistle blow by the referee, the team surges forward. The backman sprays at the enemy’s forward most players, keeping their heads down while Jeffery van Dorsser and the roamer sprint from cover to cover. Popping out from a corner, Jeff taps down two players with his marker. They raise their left hand signifying a hit. Amidst the shouting and rattle of gunfire, he snatches the flag while dashing to friendly lines, ignoring the paintballs zipping over his shoulder and his fogged-up mask. Score one for us.

This is competitive paintball in South Africa, from a Canadian’s eyes.

The warehouses of Scarborough, Ont., hide Toronto Paintball & Airsoft Store, one of the only airsoft and paintball retailers in the GTA. A single sign sits outside the warehouse, the only landmark hinting at the store’s existence. 

A door with "Paintball (&) Airsoft", next to a sign saying 'Toronto Paintball & Airsoft Store.'
The door front of Toronto Paintball & Airsoft Store located on 63 Howden Road, taken on Feb. 25, 2020. (Kate Yien/T•)

Jeff is the owner of the store. And thanks to corporate sponsorships, he has played paintball in countries across the world, including South Africa and Indonesia, and collected trophies that point to his global travels.

A man point an airsoft gun at the ceiling to check that it is empty.
Before this airsoft M4 rifle is opened, Jeff must check that it is unloaded. He points it in a safe direction and pulls the trigger, also known as ‘check clear (weapon)’ in military circles. Taken on Feb. 25, 2020. (Kate Yien/T•)

What he remembers most from his international competition are the friendships he’s made and the opportunities to travel: “I’ve met so many wonderful people from paintball games, whether it’s in Indonesia or the United States. We all have that same love for the sport.” Jeff remains in contact with many of these former competitors through Facebook and Internet forums.

Somehow, paintball tends to draw the type of individual who is not afraid of getting hit in the face, and unafraid to dish it out. Regardless of stereotypes like peace-loving Swedes or brawl-loving Canadians, most paintball players on the field bring a level of aggression that would impress the most jaded of drill sergeants. “Almost everyone I’ve met in paintball fields loves the more aggressive side of paintball,” says Jeff. “You are hurting people in a controlled manner and not as painfully as something like mixed martial arts.”

Jeff disassembling the rifle to get to its internals. See how many guns you recognize in the background. Taken on Feb. 5, 2020.(Kate Yien/T•)

“There’s an unspoken code of conduct: You could be yelling at someone (in a game), but it’s all left behind once you step off the field.” 

Jeffery van Dorsser

  Regardless of your skin colour or culture, no one forgets the first time a group of people tried to shoot them with paintball markers. A .68 calibre paintball powered by compressed carbon dioxide makes a whipping noise as it zips past your ears. On impact, it splits open, leaving neon smears, dark bruises and colourful memories that never quite go away. 

Vitaliy Novikov, a Russian-Canadian paintball and airsoft player says: “When I saw my first opponent, I froze. I was much more afraid of getting shot afterward, knowing how painful it was.” Coming in baggy clothes was something he learned from other players and online guides.

Sebastian Yao, a Singaporean paintball player says: “When I was shot for the first time, it knocked my mask out of position. I was stunned in that moment but it was such an adrenaline rush.”

Cody Baxter from Alberta says that niche communities like paintball rely on the Internet: “Social media creates a sense of community that ignores your physical dimensions. It’s self-expression and keeps the sport alive where it might otherwise become obscure and die out.”

For Jeff and many other paintball or airsoft store owners, the Internet has become their lifeblood, whether it’s for sales, business connections or advertising. Stores like Badlands Paintball and Toronto Airsoft & Paintball rely on the Internet to expand their reach from a town or city to swathes of Canada, and sometimes the U.S.

A man putting a cover on a hollow gun buttstock.
Final steps of reassembly. The hollow stock fits batteries for the rifle, not snacks. Taken on Feb. 25, 2020. (Kate Yien/T•)

Like it is for many communities, the Internet acts as a cornerstone of the airsoft and paintball collective. A skim through Reddit’s r/airsoft reveals posts by members in Japan, the U.S., South Africa, and more. Facebook groups tend to be smaller, made up of people who play in the same fields or live in the same area. YouTube features thousands of channels showing everything from product reviews to recorded paintball matches and even paintball news. Despite coming from drastically different backgrounds, these users are united in their discussion of the best gear, tactics and equipment for the sport (even if the comments section says otherwise).

A man with an airsoft rifle on a yellow sheet of plastic board.
An assembled and cleaned airsoft rifle, ready for the field on Taken on Feb. 25, 2020. (Kate Yien/T•)

With the COVID-19 epidemic, the Internet has become even more important — not only for YouTube rants, but also for communal solidarity in the face of global isolation and unrest.

On March 24, the Canadian government ordered the closure of all non-essential businesses in the country, but allowed for online operations to continue. For paintball and airsoft fields, their survival depends on groups of people willing and itching to shoot each other, which is not possible at the moment due to quarantine. Most, if not all physical retailers have closed leaving online stores as the only way to get equipment for games.

With everyone looking forward to the end of quarantine, perhaps the Internet will suffice in keeping this community together during these uneasy times. Even after years, Jeff’s friendships from paintball never quite go away.

“We may not see each other until a few years, but we always remain in touch; ready to shoot each other and laugh over a couple of drinks (afterward).” 

-Jeffery van Dorsser


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