Written by Quinn Nadu, Iconic Paintball
(Photo courtesy of PaintballPhotography.com) | Chicago Gaelic Park
Since the introduction of the event in 2017, the NXL Chicago event has been a flagship event that has connected the two sides of the country together to clash together. The NXL first made the decision to host an event in the Chicago area for a few reasons; the event is near a major landmark city, it’s close to one of the largest airports in the US, and it reignited a national event commitment to one of the most prestigious paintball communities in the country. For nearly 40 years, the Chicago area has been a hotbed of professional teams and players. With all-time great programs like Aftershock, and some of the top current pros in the league like Ronnie Dizon, Chad Bouchez, and LJ Woodley all coming from the region, the Chicago area is no stranger to elite paintball.
When the NXL announced in early 2017 that a major US NXL event would be returning to the historic city, players around the country were excited for a chance to compete for the Chicago Open Title. At the time, the NXL was in its third season as a competitive national league, and the advances they made in both event infrastructure and quality were notable. Now we will take a look back at some of the previous winners of the Chicago event and what it meant for the rest of the league during that time. The Chicago event seemingly is one of the best indicators of season-long success, as two of the last three event winners have gone on to win the season championship in the professional league.
(Photo courtesy of PaintballPhotography.com)
By the time Impact came into the 2017 season, they were coming off five event wins and two season championships during the 2015 and 2016 seasons. They were showing the world that they were the team to beat in the professional paintball landscape and looking like they were ready to dominate again in 2017. However, Impact started the first three events of the 2017 season slowly, losing to Dynasty and Heat in the finals during the first two events, and then not even making the finals in event three. This lit a fire under Impact and they came into Chicago motivated to prove themselves as the NXL’s top program. After coming out the first match and losing to Red Legion 6-2, Impact went undefeated the rest of the event, beating ac: Dallas to win the title.
Why they won: Edmonton Impact was fully entrenched in the debate as the best team in the World, and a win in Chicago would solidify their position at the top of the mountain. The Chicago event also proved to be a critical juncture in the season, where leaving the event without a finals appearance would likely mean the season title would be out of reach. They were able to arrive in Chicago and dominate so convincingly due to a few key reasons; Raney Stanczak, the continued emergence of Alex Goldman as the league's elite snake player, and Justin Rabackoff. Raney was critical to the success of Impact because he was able to fill the communication void between their elite attackers on both the snake side and dorito side of the field. This event specifically, Raney was able to close games consistently and provide a dominating gun off the break. Alex Goldman was maybe the most critical reason for their success. On a field with arguably the hardest to play snake side we have ever seen, Alex was able to dominate. Impact left Alex on an island in the snake corner for the majority of the event and he was able to make a bunker that less than half of all players at the event were making alive off the break. Justin Rabackoff also absolutely ignited this event, producing the most eliminations of any player present and he did so without even being in the top 15 for total points played.
(Photo courtesy of PaintballPhotography.com)
How it affected the season: Impact would go on to win the World Cup, and yet again, capture the NXL Season Championship. However, the 2017 season began to show the cracks in the dominant run of Impact and they would inspire other major programs to begin to develop their own “Super Teams” to compete with Impact over the next few seasons.
It's 2018, and the Red Legion is emerging from one of the darkest parts of their tenure as a professional paintball team. After becoming one of the most dominant teams the game had seen in the 2000s, they watched their roster get picked apart with the departure of major players like Fedorov, Mishka, and many others. For the first time in a decade, the Russians were rebuilding the roster with an infusion of young talent. One of those players just so happened to be a future superstar in Leonid Smotrov. After getting a taste of victory in 2017 at the NXL Atlantic City Open, the Red Legion was once again positioning themselves to take the crown as the best team in paintball. They would arrive in Chicago not knowing this would be the stepping stone that once again vaulted them to the top of the paintball world.
Why they won: Put simply, the Chicago event layout for 2018 was grueling. In a war of attrition all event long, the Red Legion were the last team standing. After feeding the snake with the relentless attack of Smotrov and Berdnikov and counter punching up the center and dorito side with the veteran guns of Karsliev and Kirill, they were able to win the event in dominant fashion against the Ironmen. Ironmen snake player Kyle Spicka was given the task of slowing down Smotrov, and while he was able to score eliminations against him, the unrelenting pressure from the center of the field was too much for the Ironmen to handle. The most stripped down reason they won this event was, quite simply, coaching. The Red Legion staff was scouting at an elite level, and had a strategic answer to every single team they encountered.
How it affected the season: The victory in Chicago would ignite the fuse that pushed the Red Legion back into the conversation as one of the best teams in the World. Their relentless style of attack would go on to produce some of the most exciting matches in the NXL over the next few seasons. Chicago was critical in reasserting the Russian’s style of play in the league during a time where methodical and slow-paced styles of play were most prevalent.
Retrospectively speaking, fans and players of the game would not know just how important the 2019 season would be. It would be the last full season of paintball that the world would get before COVID-19 would shut down the world in the following year. It had been six years since the epic finale at World Cup 2013 where San Antonio X-Factor had a shocking win over Edmonton Impact to win the World Title. Archie Montemayor and the rest of the team was hungry for an event win and to once again show that this hand built roster of Texans were the greatest players on the planet. The Russian Legion was emerging as the best team in the world and stood as a major challenger to San Antonio. They also had fellow statesmen in ac: Dallas dominating the league and consistently appearing in the top five. After a shocking win over the Russian Legion at the Philly Open, the battle for Texas that would ensue in Chicago would cement X-Factor as the best team in the world.
Why they won: When it came to winning the event, X-Factor would combine a perfect storm of team synergy, elite coaching, and clutch play from Archie and Raney Stanczak. Ryan Brand had, by this time, developed the reputation as a great coach. However, he was criticized for his lack of event wins. Many were questioning his ability to lead a team the full distance to the podium. The answer to the critics that Ryan had, was what we consider, a perfect gameplan. He strategically dismantled every team they encountered on the way to a perfect 7-0 record in prelims and finals. The superstar players across the entire X-Factor roster played in perfect unison with the calming presence of Raney Stanczak on the backline, and the relentless clutch ability of Archie Montemayor. Billy Bernacchia and Archie were both able to rack up eliminations all event long and ended up both finishing in the top six for total eliminations.
(Photos courtesy of MMPhotography)
How it affected the season: Chicago would end up being a critical win for the X-Factor organization for multiple reasons. For one, it legitimized their claim as the best team in the world and proved Ryan Brand as one of the best coaching minds in the sport. The points earned in Chicago would also be crucial in the season standings and lead X-Factor to winning the NXL Season Title by just three points over the Russian Legion. In addition, their victory over ac: Dallas would start to create the cracks in the foundation of the ac: program that lead to the explosion of their roster and scatter elite players like Matt Jackson, John Jackson, and Ryan Hall to rosters all across the league.
As we look forward towards the 2021 Windy City Major in Chicago, the landscape of the professional league is fiercely contested amongst elite teams such as Impact, Dynasty, Infamous, and Heat. Will one of these major programs leave Chicago with the first place trophy, or will we see an underdog team like Seattle Thunder cement themselves amongst the league's best? Tune in to the GoSports.com livestream on September 17th-19th to watch the best teams in professional paintball battle it out for the right to call themselves the best team in the NXL.
Special Thanks to Gary Baum of PaintballPhotography for contributing his photos for this article, check out more of his work at PaintballPhotography.com
Written By Quinn Nadu, with contributions from Matty Karpinski.