It's early November just outside Orlando, Florida. Members of a Lincoln paintball team, Dark Side Out, huddle together before the overtime period of the World Cup final.
The players are exhausted, having played eight matches in three days. But minutes later, the team lifts the trophy following a hard-fought 4-3 victory against an opposing team from Tampa, Florida. Dark Side Out has won the World Cup.
"The World Cup is the big shebang," said Bart Hepker, 31, who is in charge of Dark Side Out and was the team's captain for the tournament. "It's the mecca of our sport."
More than 450 teams from around the world competed. Dark Side Out won its division, a feat the team and its members have relished.
"It's very rare," Hepker said. "That was my first one, and I've been playing since I was 13."
The team won its eight matches by outscoring opponents 38-7 en route to the title, and qualifying to move up a division next season.
Matches are 5-on-5, and the object is to have the most points at the end of a 10-minute period. To score a point, a team has to push a buzzer on the other end of a 120-foot-by-150-foot field dotted with inflatable structures that provide cover.
When a player gets shot, he or she is out for the remainder of that point. As soon as a point is scored, they may reenter the match.
"When most people think about paintball they just think of a bunch of people running around in the woods shooting at each other," Hepker said. "This format, called 'XBall,' is more strategy-based and that's why I love it."
Hepker is not unique in falling in love with paintball at a young age. Elliott Webster, 29, is a captain for one of Dark Side Out's D4 teams. Like Hepker, he took up the sport early.
"I got into it when I was 13 or 14 but never really played competitively like I do now," Webster said.
Dark Side Out was reestablished as an amateur club four years ago, drawing many of the players on the team today back to the sport they love.
"A bunch of these guys who we play with now have played together for a long time, and the timing was right that we all just decided to do it again," he said.
"It's a very fast-paced chess game," Webster said. "You have to be able to communicate with the guys you're on the field with and be able to adjust on the fly."
"I think it all starts when little kids play games like cops and robbers or capture the flag," Hepker added. "From there, people learn about an organized sport that really emphasizes itself through competition."
Today, Hepker is a semi-professional who frequently travels to play in Texas, where he says paintball popularity is sky-high. He hopes to one day become a professional paintball player, and appreciates the support of his wife, who recently gave birth to their first son.
"He is busy every single weekend from now until November," said Amelia Hepker, Bart's wife. "It's definitely a commitment, and if I didn't commit to it, then it wouldn't be possible. But the way I've watched him grow makes it all worthwhile."
Bart Hepker says the sport is on the rise in Nebraska, noting the evidence he's seen in recent years.
"I have people messaging me all the time asking how they can play or get on a team," he said. "I just tell them to come out and play with us. Look up the closest field to you and come play. We always love it when new faces show up."