For a brief moment in 2012, it looked like Ultimate Tazer Ball was the next big thing.
Maybe it was the pure outlandishness of the concept, or maybe the internet just loved “shocking” headlines packaged with sharable, bite-sized videos. Either way, Tazer Ball — a freakish amalgamation of soccer and rugby in which players could shock each other with stun guns — dominated the press cycle for several months.
But the attention didn’t last. America had had its fill of ultimatized versions of everyday sports, like the XFL and Slamball. Even Spike TV itself — the short-lived network that propped up the rotting corpse of hypermasucline programming in 96.1 million American homes — was in the midst of a last-gasp rebrand before folding in 2017.
Nevertheless, three friends — Leif Kellenberger, Erik Wunsch and Eric Prumm — had a dream. The wider American public had moved on from its brief infatuation with alternative sports, and the three realized the sport they’d bet on — professional paintball — wasn’t going to expand beyond its niche market anytime soon.
They needed to branch out, to swing for the fences with a new sport that could, at the very least, land them a lucrative TV deal. And during a paintball conference in Chicago in 2011, Ultimate Tazer Ball was born.
From a Google search, you might think Ultimate Tazer Ball dominated the early ’10s. There is no shortage of Ultimate Tazer Ball clips and headlines and interviews. But for the most part, all the clips and headlines and interviews feature the same highlights, the same grabby puns and the same quotes from Kellenberger, Wunsch and Prumm. It’s like the sport lived and died in the lifetime of its initial PR push. It made headlines, circulated highlights, grabbed a ton of attention and even made it to Stephen Colbert.
And then, just like that, it vanished.
But what about the guys who actually played the game? The professional paintballers who ran around tazing and tackling each other in the hope that the sport — and thus the players — would hit it big?
About a year after that fateful night in Chicago, Kellenberger, Wunsch and Prumm had recruited around 20 paintballers for an all-expenses-paid trip to California and the opportunity to “try out a new sport.” Exactly what that new sport was, they didn’t say, and that’s where we’ll let Derrick Weltz — former star of the Toronto Terror team — take over.
It was around 2012, so I would’ve been 25, somewhere around there. I think it was Eric [Prumm] who called me in December. He was like, “Hey, I wanna fly you down to California, give you $500 for the weekend, come try this sport we’re developing.”
And I was like, “Okay, what is it?”
“It’s just a mixture of [American] Gladiators and dodgeball, something like that.”
He wouldn’t say more than that. He was just really vague about it. But I went anyway. I’d known those guys for a couple years and considered them friends. Basically everybody knows everybody in paintball — you fly around and go to different tournaments and you end up seeing the same people and becoming friends. So since pretty much everybody involved was from the paintball industry, I went.
Plus I was young. It was something new and a paid trip to California. I didn’t really even hesitate.
“We had no idea what we were doing until the night before.”
Soon enough, there were about 20 of us in the hotel in California. But it was still all hush-hush. No one really knew what the sport was, besides the vague explanation that it was “American Gladiators meets dodgeball.”
Turns out, they didn’t want to tell us until we signed a non-disclosure the night before we were supposed to go out and play this new sport. We had no idea what we were doing until the night before.
Upon handing out the non-disclosures, they finally told us what we were in for, but they didn’t force anyone to do it. They were like, “You guys are here, it’s paid for. But if you don’t want to play, that’s fine, we understand.”
I think all 20-ish guys who were there ended up playing. We were all friends, including Eric, Erik and Leif, so it was just like, we’re here for a fun all-expenses-paid weekend to hang out with all the other paintball guys… and then go and taser each other.
“By no means was it enjoyable.”
Their original plan was to have it be a little mini-tournament where the winning team would get a cash prize. But once we all found out what it was, we decided that instead of killing ourselves doing this, we would just split that prize money among everybody.
We’d still do this for [Eric, Erik and Leif] and still play it competitively to get good marketing materials. But this way, everyone got a little bit. And then if it succeeded, we’d all get more.
I’ll admit I was kind of freaked out by the tasers at first, so the first thing I did to make sure I could handle it was to just taser my leg and get it over with. Because if it was something I couldn’t handle or if I were afraid of it, it just wouldn’t have been a good thing.
But the tasers were turned down a lot, so it wasn’t too bad. I mean, after we all signed the contracts, everyone had the tasers and we were all tasering each other in the hotel. It was a good time.
I mean, by no means was it enjoyable. You definitely didn’t want to be tasered. It hurt, but it wasn’t awful. It was more discomfort, like a bee sting. But it was turned down enough that it wouldn’t affect your cardiovascular system or anything, or if I tased my forearm my hand wouldn’t cramp up.
Half of it was the sound it made. It just made this really loud sting noise. It’s hard to describe; it just sounded like it would hurt. But that combined with the sting led to an overall sort of shock factor — no pun intended. It was snappy and intimidating. Like, you’d be running and get focused on scoring, then all of a sudden you hear the shock noise coming at you…
You’ll see the videos. Some guys get shocked and just run right through it, continuing on, but other guys would try to dive or slide around it. There were a couple guys who stood above the rest; they just had an extra gear. They were able to fight through it.
“They wanted it to be big, they wanted it to be flashy and they wanted to sell it to TV.”
The next morning we went to a nearby indoor soccer field. They’d rented it for the day and put UTB logos and marketing material all over the place. You wouldn’t know where it was, the place was covered in UTB everything — you can see it in the original videos.
Because that’s all it really was. It was all about brand imaging — they wanted it to be big, they wanted it to be flashy… maybe kinda gimmicky, and they wanted to sell it to TV.
So they had put lights in the jerseys so they’d flash, a bunch of crazy over-the-top stuff beyond the tasers. We also played outdoors one day so they could get different lighting.
And since it was mostly bent around making a pitch video, the game was never 100 percent finalized. Like we didn’t really know what to do, especially those first couple games, because nothing was very crazily developed. [We knew] you didn’t have to give up the ball, you’re supposed to score the ball, and if you have the ball you’re open to being tasered. It was just all about your willpower. If you could fight through it and keep running with the ball, then you could keep going.
But then the rules kept fluctuating. I mean, the game was in its infancy, so it was kind of expected. The first day, we played with three different-sized balls because they didn’t know the size of the balls they wanted to use. Eventually, there was a basketball key in front of the net called the Shock Zone.
So if you were in that area, whether you had the ball or not, you could be shocked. Outside of that you could only be shocked if you had the ball. There were also rules around not shocking each other in the junk, I think, but we also avoided doing that since we were all friends. Plus the areas like your ribcage, where your skin is a bit softer, getting shocked there actually sucked, so we’d try to avoid that too.
But I think that was really it for rules.
“We’d just go out there and have fun and try to make a million bucks at some point.”
It was basically full-body contact, which a lot of people didn’t realize. [That] was probably, honestly, the worst part of it. Forget the tasers, it was basically rugby. Guys just laying their shoulders into each other with no padding. And we were all just paintballers. There were athletic guys and we’re used to pain to a degree, but we weren’t used to full-body contact sports.
Everybody had their strengths. A couple guys come to mind: Thomas Taylor, Damian Ryan, Jerry Desvarieux. At least Thomas and Jerry, like if they were football players, they’d be running backs. They were tanks. If you got in front of them, they’d just run you over. It was such a short-lived sport, but it would’ve been fun to see who would’ve risen above the rest and become the Michael Jordan of Tazer Ball.
On the field, we were just putting on a show, but off the field it was a lot like wrestling. Behind closed doors, we were a close group. We were all buddy-buddy.
The whole idea behind it was to just entertain and put on a good show to capture attention. I don’t want to say it was staged by any means, because it wasn’t. We didn’t plot who’d win or lose or anything. We’d just go out there and have fun and try to make a million bucks at some point.
“It was almost like a startup.”
Despite all the videos, we really only played it maybe five or six times, getting flown around to different spots to play. We went to Thailand, which made sense because at the same time there was a paintball tournament [there].
A lot of people in the industry were already there, and we could draw from the paintball market for audiences as well. Because in the paintball world, the pro players are basically celebrities. Jerry, Damian and everyone — we’d help pull that initial audience.
And it did end up receiving a lot of local attention in Thailand too. Anybody that was at the facility but had no idea that we were going to be there would stop and watch the whole thing, because it had that wow factor. Like, Are these guys really doing this?
It was almost like a startup company. We all wanted to see the sport succeed. Because if it succeeded, we would too. So the potential to sign a big TV deal kept us going.
“We had our 15 minutes of fame and burned out.”
Eventually we [signed] a one-year deal. I don’t remember exactly which TV company it was. But for that year, we didn’t do anything for it, nor could we if we wanted to. It felt like they’d done it just to get us to sign over the rights so that they owned it even though they had no intention of doing anything with it. They just didn’t want anyone else to have the rights to it.
I think it was just a bad deal, and you don’t really know anyone’s intentions with that, so it was disappointing.
I also remember other conversations happened where TV companies wanted to bring in their own players, like the American Gladiators — I don’t know if it was the actual American Gladiators, but that’s the idea they had. Like massive guys, your prime athletes or whatever. But Eric, Erik and Leif didn’t want to do that. They wanted to stay true to the guys who were there that first night in the hotel. They wanted to get the contract and pay us.
In hindsight, we’ve always said it probably would’ve been better for them to take a deal and do whatever they could’ve with it. Instead we just kinda had our 15 minutes of fame and burned out. But those guys wanted to see us all be successful. If one of us was going to make it, all of us were going to make it.
Luckily I don’t think anyone was banking on it to be the next huge thing. No one was basing their retirement on it as far as I know. But at the same time, we were all like, It would be cool if it happens.
But then it just fizzled out.
I just see it as a fun moment of my life. Sometimes we’ll talk about it when I run into the other guys. It was something crazy and wild. We were young. I don’t regret it. Hell, I’d do it again.