Getting Physical with Battle Sports

Sports can be fun to play. Now I am aware that for many of you the concept of “sports” and “scoring points” may seem anathema. But you know, it doesn’t have to be that way because like I said, sports can be fun. There’s something intrinsic about human nature that enjoys being competitive with somebody else. Where competition isn’t just about intelligence and reflex but every aspect of the player. The thing is that sports can get a bad rap, since it can be seen as “jock” oriented or even because it sometimes involves the sun. But the universe of sports is full of the kinds of activities that gamers and literary enthusiasts of all stripes can enjoy on their own terms. To that end, please allow me to interest you to your new favorite weekend activity – battle sports.

“What are battle sports?” I can hear you say (which is spooky). Well battle sports are games designed to recreate some aspect of being in combat and turn it into a fun activity. So instead of trying to score points via some esoteric method involving ball and/or goal they instead are about using teamwork to overcome your opponents in a mock fight. The key is that these sports are all about the thrill of the fight while maximizing safety. With that, let’s take a look at some exciting options and the kinds of gamers that they should appeal to.

Kicking It Olde School

Surprise! These don't hurt!
Surprise! These don’t hurt!

We’ll start with Belegarth, which is a style of LARP. It focuses entirely on the martial aspects. To that end Belegarth combatants use boffer weapons. Those are weapons designed to be used at full strength, but without causing any sort of injury. The types of weapons available can range from the standard sword all the way to glaives, axes, and shields. This allows players to learn the specific techniques for their weapons in a way that hasn’t really existed for hundreds of years. Boffers are handmade, but groups like Belegarth and Amtgard will often have loaner weapons available.

Ready to bring it.
Ready to bring it.

Belegrath doesn’t include things like classes, so this allows play to be more about working with your teammates and getting better with your chosen weaponry. Coincidentally, if you’re the type of gamer that lives for fighting games, and picking a character, and learning their matchups then an organization like Belegarth might tick many of those same boxes. Over time you will definitely notice that your skills are improving. The flip side is that when you first start, expect to get killed a lot on your way to learning how a unit works and the proper way to not get stabbed.

On the other side of the spectrum is Amtgard, which also features boffer combat, but also includes the concept of character classes which should be familiar to anyone familiar with RPGs. Classes include Warrior, Assassin, Monk, and Barbarian. They also include classes that have non-martial and magical abilities such as Wizard and Druid. It’s these classes and the abilities that they offer that make Amtgard different. Wizards use special projectiles known as “Spell Balls” to denote that they are casting, and Druids can give enchantments to other players via the use of colored ribbon. The other classes may have special abilities that grant protections or allow them to make use of special attacks.

Have fun stormin' the castle!
Have fun stormin’ the castle!

These have an interesting effect for people just starting out. The classes and the special abilities that they offer gives a bit of guidance on how best to play. For example, at a recent event I played as a Monk, which is immune to almost all forms of magical attack and has the ability to deflect incoming projectile weapons without a penalty. That clued me in that I needed to charge down wizards on sight and was responsible for swatting away incoming arrows. Another new player was a Barbarian, who had the ability to smash shields, which turned every opposing shield into a target.

These are actually really, really accurate.
These are actually really, really accurate.

In other words, it makes it feel like you have some sort of chance when dealing with experienced players. Of course, that’s not always true. At its core Amtgard is a war game, and being good with your weapon is 95% of success. Knowing when to use your class abilities is a bonus to that. Of particular note is that as you continue to participate in events your character will “level up” and gain new abilities to use in combat. These characteristics really make Amtgard into something that should really appeal to RPG lovers out there who want to know what it’s like to experience Dragon Age first hand.

Heavy Metal

Moving on we come to forms of medieval battle sports that try to create a more historically accurate form of combat. The first of these is the Adrian Empire. Their combat features (and requires) full armor to participate in at the higher levels. The reason is that they make use of blunt metal weaponry, which would be downright dangerous if the proper protection isn’t worn. So remember kids – combat is like prom, wear protection.

What you gain from this is a true feeling of immersion. You can feel the weight of the armor and the heft of the weaponry in ways that the boffer based sports can’t really emulate. The best part is the crunchy feel of landing a solid blow against armor, and feeling like you’ve survived somehow. To say that getting into armor is on another level is a massive understatement.

In terms of the gameplay, the heavier armor slows down the combat considerably compared to boffer fighting. So matches in the Adrian Empire may be decided in only a few methodically placed shots. Watching these competitors it’s easy to understand how using the correct guard and knowing when to take initiative is key.

Adrian Empire Rookies, fighting the good fight.
Adrian Empire Rookies, fighting the good fight.

Something that is interesting about the Adrian Empire is that they have different levels of combat available, and participation in the armored sport must be earned. So early on, neophytes participate using shinai (the same bamboo weapons used in Kendo) and gradually learn how to use different weapons. I think that’s a great way to get people involved early, and know what they are working towards. It also means that the competitors at the highest levels know what they are doing.

It would be a mistake to leave out the other aspect that the Adrian Empire shares with the Society of Creative Anachronism – their deep sense of community. Belegarth and Amtgard also have wonderful communities, but for the Adrian Empire and the SCA there are multiple avenues to participate even if you don’t want participate in the martial elements.

This is a little bigger than usual.
This is a little bigger than usual.

Now if you wanted to participate in the SCA, their rules lead to a different style of combat entirely. Like the AE, they too wear full armor when participating in combat and tournaments. The difference comes from how they train and the weapons they use. While the Adrian Empire use blunt metal weaponry, the SCA instead use custom rattan ones. Rattan is a hardwood that is resistant to cracking and splintering. Things that splinter in combat can be very bad, and rattan is really a great option for preventing that.

What really differentiates the SCA from the AE is how their fighters train. Instead of shinai, they start off using boffer weapons. This means that if you go to an SCA event you are likely to be able to participate provided you look the part. It also means that when when armored up, the combatants still basically fight in the same way as they did before. This leads to SCA armored combat being quite fast and hitting quite hard.

That's a lot of people, and I'm pretty sure most of them could take me in a fight.
That’s a lot of people, and I’m pretty sure most of them could take me in a fight.

The large sizes of both the SCA and the Adrian Empire also allow them to stage battles that are truly massive. Several times a year, different regions host “Wars,” which allow for thousands of people to show up at the same time and engage in battles that are breathtaking in scale. Events can bring out 10,000+ participants. For a little bit of perspective, that’s the number of troops the English had at the Battle of Hastings.

Both the Adrian Empire and the SCA  would be great for people with an interest in tabletop RPGs and slowly perfecting a chosen form of combat.

Modern Warfare

While we’ve looked at groups that focus on the medieval period there are also battle sports that try to recreate the modern era. It more or less goes without saying that these games are considerably different than anything else we’ve looked at so far.

50% hiding, 50% lighting up the opposition.
50% hiding, 50% lighting up the opposition.

The first modern war game is paintball. It’s not really a secret that I’m a big fan of the sport. Basically the idea of the game is that players use paintball markers (or colloquially “paintball gun”) to fire paint filled projectiles to tag out opposing players. If you’re hit, you call the hit and remove yourself from the field of play. In many ways it is simulating small arms tactics. Unlike the other weapon based sports, paintball is more about using cover to prevent yourself from being shot and situational awareness. I’ve said before that paintball is a game of incomplete information, so much of the gameplay is based on trying to find the balance of looking for people and trying to keep yourself hidden. Of course, once you know what you’re shooting at, it turns into a game of high speed skill.


Looks cool, but seriously, do not try this. It is really close and will hurt like crap man.
Looks cool, but seriously, do not try this. It is really close and will hurt like crap man.

Paintball comes in 2 basic flavors. The first is called Speedball, where 2 teams meet in an enclosed, symmetrical arena and attempt to eliminate the opposing team. It’s fast, chaotic and absolutely thrilling. The other is called woodsball, and is played in a larger area with natural vegetation to allow for more opportunities to use camouflage. Coincidentally woodsball tends to feature more realistic looking paintball markers. However, no matter which type of paintball you have equipment for, it’s not mutually exclusive. So feel free to bring your Autococker into the woods and your M14 to the field. Paintball is great for people that enjoy first person shooters, but want something more visceral.

For people that are more interested in an even more realistic modern combat, there is airsoft. The biggest difference between paintball and airsoft has to do with the type of weapons used. Instead of balls filled with paint, airsoft guns fire plastic BBs. This means that airsoft guns don’t require the large paintball hoppers or air tanks, which allows their weapons to be far more realistic. Airsoft guns usually feature magazines and top mounted sights. Additionally they have considerably more range and a higher rate of fire than a paintball gun. On airsoft forums, the airsoft version of a gun will have its relevant stats compared with the real thing so that players can find the most realistic version available.

This dude is totally going to get wasted.
This dude is totally going to get wasted.

From a gameplay perspective, airsoft combat can take place over a much larger field than paintball. For example, at a range of 40 yards a paintball gun isn’t going to hit much of anything, but a good airsoft gun can make those shots. Between the extra range and firepower, airsoft games can focus even more on positioning and stealth, in addition to deadly accurate long range firing.

Just sniping. As you do.
Just sniping. As you do.

On top of that, different groups play with a variety of scenarios and may include things like classes called “Roles.” Basically, they are a mix of sporting positions and the classes of a LARP like Amtgard. Roles include things like Medic, Grenadier, and Rifleman. These generally determine the types of weapons that they use, and what their role on the field is going to be, although they are open to interpretation. Generally speaking, many airsoft groups have more of a focus on story and scenarios than paintball games do. So a good analogy would be to consider them the Amtgard to paintball’s Belegarth. This makes airsoft great for people that enjoy team based first person shooters likeCounter-Strike and Battlefield.

Game On

This may all seem a bit frightening, and that’s understandable. But as somebody who has tried many of these activities, I’ve discovered time and time again that the communities that surround them are gracious and very happy to tell you all about their hobby. If anything, your odds of making some new friend while playing are quite high. If anything else, I can guarantee that that everybody is 100% better than Xbox Team chat.

With that, I hope that I shared a whole new world of cool things to do on your favorite weekend. Whether you’re into medieval combat, tactical shooting or just going out to hit your friends with things, there’s something out there in the real world that you should try. That other team isn’t going to fight themselves.



Eric Carr

Occasionally has mad notions, and more often than not runs with them. Welcome to one of those.

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