Tuesday, April 24, 2012

History Lesson: OLCA

Everyone thinks that e-tape is the best when they start out.
Thankfully, I've learned a thing or two since then.  (2006)
I've always had an interest in human history.  Seeing how we've gotten to where we are now as a result of the acts of others, tracking that progress to learn from their success to make our own has always been important to me.  I never really thought that organizing laser tag games in the summer of 2006 would have me rambling about a history that a few friends and I began.  I don't mean to showboat, but instead to share how we've gone from something casual with friends to a major annual event that gets some attention around the hobby these days.

It started with Laser Challenge gear, initially released with the "Team Force" sets by ToyMax in 1996.  I got a set for my birthday just before moving from the east coast (New Hampshire) to Omaha, Nebraska.  Starting over from scratch making friends, I found a few folks at school who had a few Nerf Blasters, Super Soakers, and Laser Challenge sets.  We'd play every now and then, but it was nothing consistent.  It wasn't until a few years later in 1999 when a friend and I rode our bikes to a store and purchased some more Laser Challenge gear, this time "Team Force 2000", with some money from mowing lawns.  We started to build a little collection to have games with friends in the neighborhood.  But again, it was nothing consistent, just impromptu games.

Later, as a high school freshman, I was asked by some upper classmen what I was doing one weekend and I had no plans.  They were getting together a big laser tag game using the Laser Challenge gear, so I was more than excited to join them.  We met at a lake with a paved path around it that runs for miles.  On one side of the lake was the team assembled from my high school... about 30 players.  On the opposite side of the lake, about 2 miles away, was another high school-assembled team of about the same size.  We all had bikes, radios, and Laser Challenge Gear.  When the dust had settled and our team was victorious, it was a whopping 6 hours later.  This game of epic proportions had me itching to organize something of my own.

The first of many: Independence Eve Blast #1
I made a few friends in high school with Laser Challenge gear that we used at local parks for small games.  We had about 8 sets between us, so our games weren't ever very large.  Later, after I graduated and enrolled in college, we decided to keep playing laser tag as a way to get together amidst our busy lives.  It was the summer of my second year in college when we started up in May to organize a larger-scale game with our 8 sets and a donation of 10 sets from a friend we knew.  I'm almost certain the sets that he donated were some of the ones used in my first big game back in high school.  To help us organize the games, we decided to open a forum (since social media sites like Facebook hadn't really taken off yet) and on June 6th, 2006, we had our first game planned by that forum.  We called it the "Omaha Laser Challenge Association."  The game was a complete flop, but we picked ourselves back up and tried it again the next week.  We planned games as we could and had a few cookouts too.  We even played a game on July 3rd, the night before Independence Day, under the cover of fireworks overhead.  The inaugural season of the OLCA concluded in early August, but this was the tip of the iceberg.

Over half a decade of laser tag at this park
After talking it over with the friends that had helped me set up the OLCA, we decided to take a big step forward.  Collecting more gear to loan out, setting up a summer season schedule, and ironing out rules and regulations really helped solidify things.  On May 21st of 2007, we officially started our "Second Season" with the creation of the "Fight Night".  These were weekly games that met on the same night of the week, same time, and at the same location.  This meant that folks could plan ahead to attend games by working them into their schedule.  With about 20 sets of gear to loan out and average attendance sitting between 10-15 people per game, we were off to a good solid start with our new setup.  We continued the tradition of the "Independence Eve Blast", which was the cookout and game we held the year before on July 3rd to make it an annual event and pushed forward with expanding our public armory to share with people who came to play.  Friends of friends of friends started to be the norm for our attendance as word spread about our group.

Nothing like a good ol'fashioned run-and-gun
Season 2 was arguably the most significant step the OLCA took towards build a reputation for itself as an active laser tagging group.  It was around this time I started to look around online to see if others were doing similar stuff.  I discovered groups like the Auburn Lazer Tag Club, Middle Georgia League, and other laser tagging groups that were organizing events like us.  Now we were in a position to start networking, trading ideas, and sharing stories with other groups around the United States.  We started building relationships with folks whom we hadn't met before but shared a common love for laser tag, regardless of the systems we were using.

Season 3 and 4 saw the most exponential growth
As the seasons passed, our numbers grew.  Our average attendance for Season 3 in 2008, games took a significant spike.  We started seeing normal attendance averaging about 18-20 players a week and our armory expanded to meet this need.  Continued purchases of Laser Challenge gear on sites like eBay helped keep costs down as we continued to provide gear for free.  Season 4 in 2009 saw average attendance break more records, seeing games with between 20-25 players each week.  The attendance and support for the group was growing at an exponential rate, but as we got more players, our gear started to get pretty beat up.  With our aging Laser Challenge gear seeing weekly use, we were spending more time repairing old gear than we were working on new projects.  It was becoming difficult to manage things and the founding members that had helped get the OLCA started were getting increasingly busy with real life.  It looked as if the OLCA was primed to go the way of so many other groups when their leadership get over-exterted.

Sundawg repairs a damaged V2 Sensor Vest
Season 5 in 2010 really signaled for change with our average attendance in the 30s and our Laser Challenge gear really showing it's age.  We switched from using the forum to plan games to utilizing Facebook as a way to reach over 100 members that had signed up to the OLCA's group.  A big problem we ran into was that there was no more decent Laser Challenge gear being developed.  We were unable to get folks into the hobby because the equipment wasn't available outside of an eBay auction.  Jakks Pacific had been in control of the once-good name of Laser Challenge since ToyMax went under in 2002.  The gear we were using for the OLCA mainly consisted of euqipment circa 1996-2000.  With all of our gear now over a decade old, waving the Laser Challenge flag was getting harder to do.  Most other laser tagging groups were using the Lazer Tag brand with LTTO and LTX and it was getting easier to see why.  However, the OLCA had collected a 40 piece Laser Challenge armory with nearly all of our customized equipment designed specifically for this system.  With no future for Laser Challenge and a slight collection of Lazer Tag products starting to build, we decided to give the newer stuff a test run.

First game with Lazer Tag gear (2010)
After Season 5, I got some veterans together with a few sets of Lazer Tag-brand gear together at a small park to see first hand what all the hoopla was about with this gear.  We had been using the gear to supplement our Laser Challenge stuff before, but had never played a game strictly with LT-brand gear.  The game was a success and, although we missed our front-and-back sensor vests, the gear worked well and had no problems with sunlight hits, resets, or the sensors getting covered up; all issues we had been dealing with while using our LC gear for years.

LT Gear becomes a common sight in 2011's games
Our LT-brand collection started to grow and, by the time Season 6 hit in 2011, nearly half of our games were being played with LT-brand gear.  There were even games we would schedule that would use LT gear during the dalyight hours, since it performed well in those conditions, and LC gear at night.  However, lugging a 40 piece armory of LC gear and a 12-piece armory of LT gear to weekly games was becoming unrealistic.  It also meant that large-scale games couldn't be played with the LT gear since we still didn't have that many units of it.  New players in the OLCA preferred to use the new LT gear and even veterans were starting to see the benefits of using this system.  While we still complained about the lack of back-mounted sensors to shoot cowards as they fled, we couldn't deny that in general, folks were easier to hit with the dome on their blaster and that the quality of the gear looked to last much longer than our rapidly aging LC Armory.

Midwest Laser Tag Association is born from OLCA (2012)
As of April of 2012, a decision was made among the veterans and founders that have helped run games, repair gear, create new equipment, and iron-out rules to make significant changes that would ensure that laser tag, regardless of how, would still be played every summer.  The plan included the expansion of our Lazer Tag-brand armory to be used as our full-time system for the foreseeable future as well as the Fight Night now being held every other week during the summer to help alleviate preparation duties of those who help run the games.  Technically, 2012 marks the 1st season of laser tag with the new "Midwest Laser Tag Association", but instead we see it as a continuation and upgrade of the existing Omaha Laser Challenge Association's 7th season.  The namesake may have changed, but the spirit and concepts that have been laid through 6 years of hard work and dedication to this hobby and sport shall continue on.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review. I enjoy a good history too. It will be interesting to see how you keep the group together as you all get older :) I personally think being involved in laser tag is preserving the kid in me even as my own kids start getting older.