Where do I start? I guess the best place to start is how and why outdoor laser tag? That is a great question. My oldest son, Joe, and I were watching a Clint Eastwood movie called Heartbreak Ridge. In that movie they are doing some military training using military M.I.L.E.S. gear (Multiple Integrated Laser Emitting System). While watching my oldest son suggested that it would be a really cool game to play. Over the next few weeks the idea grew some legs and we were looking online for a possible manufacturer. In 2003 we found a company in the UK that sold a similar system. We flew there and placed our order the following week.
We received the shipment in early July 2003. I started out by testing the waters with local neighborhood kids playing after school. Each day we played it seemed like 5 more kids would call my son and ask if we were going to play that new laser game again. Through some trial and error, we managed to figure out some great games and a new play format that resembled paintball, and incorporated key game play from some popular video games (Metal of Honor, Call of Duty and Halo). I think we were really onto something as our mission game play appealed to the local teens and more importantly reminded them of their favorite video games. We also had the chance to go to 2 different summer camps to demonstrate the new game, and it was a huge hit!!
By November of 2003, I had become aware that there were a few different people in North America that had purchased the gear, but no one had yet to attempt to monetize and commercialize the idea. I suggested to the other would-be owners to meet in Las Vegas for our first industry convention. The group, if everyone had attended, would only consist of a handful of people. There were only 8 original owners and they came from areas like: 2 fields in Atlanta GA, Goshen NH, Tempe AZ, Omaha NB, Greenbay WI, Ottawa Canada, and Freehold NJ. I was also able to convince the manufacturer of the gear to attend the convention as well. Believe it or not, in January 2004 everyone but one owner attended the event. The amount of energy and brainstorming in the room was amazing. I was determined to open the first field and tryout these new ideas and start the concept in the US.
On April 1, 2004 we opened Combat Sports first laser tag park at Black Bear Lake Day Camp in Millstone. We used a very small area on the top of a hill (maybe 2 acres of land) and the play needed to be modified to work with the terrain and space constraints. The owner at the camp seemed very interested in what we were doing and kept a close eye on our operation. He also suggested (I am being very polite) that we should host a few FREE events for his camp as a gesture of thanks for allowing us to lease his land for use. Again, the game was a huge hit and many players played came to play on a regular basis. I remember our biggest barrier to success was attempting to advertise / explain what this new form of laser tag looked like and why it was so cool. Little did I know that it was never our biggest barrier, as the word of mouth spread like wild fire. Our first company setback occured in December of 2004, when our landlord, for annomity sake will call him “MM”, and old owner of Black Bear Lake indicated that he was going to repurpose the space we were using for horseback riding and we would not be able to open in 2005. I immediately went into conversations with a group that had approached me during the summer to move our operation to their land, enter the Boy Scouts of America. Over several visits and discussions we had a lease prepared and were ready to move to their land (Quail Hill Scout Reservation) in Manalapan NJ (a very populated area). But the other shoe had not dropped yet, we came to find out in January 2005 that our old landlord had in fact gone to our equipment manufacturer and bought equipment right from under us and was going to open in the spring as an attempt to take our place. MM even attended the regional summer camp convention and used OUR brochure and pictures as if it were his own. He only change the brochure with his new logo and phone number. Heck of a way to introduce a new competitor, but I have realized over the years that anyone can immitate you. The bigger question is can you innovate and continue to drive a better user experience?
We reopened our doors in April 2005 on a much bigger piece of property (10+ acres). We were able to develop some great playing fields, a nice picnic area and leveraged a parking lot across the street that had 60 spaces for parking. We enjoyed tremendous success over the next 5 years. In 2010 we were at the peak of the business in many ways. One way was the award that we received in Las Vegas at the International Laser Tag Association’s annual convention. We were awarded the best laser tag website award in the world. I must admit I was very proud and at the same time humbled by so many other talented laser tag businesses around the globe.
In 2006, we again innovated and added the first mobile laser tag operation in the Northeast US. We were able to go on the road and bring laser tag to elementary, middle and high schools in the area, as well as colleges, summer camps and local birthday parties. Our desire to raise the proverbial bar in our industry has given us a good number of industry enhancements by persuading industry manufacturers to make changes like:
1) Removing Friendly Fire (a choice that can be set both ways)
2) Changing sound effects to be more PC and mom friendly
3) Wiring for the head piece to a more robust form of cabling
4) Going from a 2 sensor head piece to a 3 sensor head piece.
5) Laser tag unit design to maintain a sci-fi vs realism look to the units
We also made significant operational innovations:
1) Video gaming style mission play to mimic current day video games, ie Fortnite, COD, Halo, etc.
2) High throughput system for large venue and mobile events
3) Created, patented, manufactured and sold 2 different types of head wear for the industry
4) Gear storage and transportation bins
5) Commercializing a product called Squirtag using water tag equipment for large scale water wars
6) Commercializing a product called Foam Ball and using for large scale “Nerf-like” wars
7) Created and implemented a world-class team building program format that reinforces and rewards team work during game play. This program is also provided to numerous Fortune 500 companies located in NY, NJ, PA and DE.
It is our quest as a company to push the envelope in the laser tag industry and develop offerings that will optimize the laser tag user experience. While we will never denegrate our predecessors, traditional indoor laser tag venues, we truly believe that the video gaming mission format that we created will be very popular for many years to come. In fact, traditional laser tag was initially inspired (George Carter – Inventor) by the movie Star Wars. Just as Star Wars inspired and captivated an entire generation of people, so too are video game franchises like Fortnite, Call of Duty, Battlefield, Halo and more capturing and inspiring today’s generation. In our early years, there was much to be learned from “traditional laser tag” venues as their marketing, operations and overall business models were very similar to ours with the exception of the game play and gear.
In 2010, on very busy days we would often see over 20 birthday parties a day during our peak season April through October. But with that success came the traffic on the road that Combat Sports was located. It didn’t take long for our neighbors to take notice to the traffic and make a whole bunch of noise at “city hall”. Over a lengthy dispute with the township that created a mountain of legal bills and 2 years of my life, we were told that we were unable to continue operations at that location. To think we had a run a successful business and been a good community member (donations to schools, not-for-profits and hosted our local township’s police department and recreation department) for all those years and now we were unable to continue. Fortunately during the battle with the township I was able to secure a new piece of land that I purchased in August 2012. The toughest part was that we were hit in October 2012 with Hurricane Sandy and then given the verdict to cease the Manalapan Combat Sports operations in late December of 2012. So 4th quarter was bleak at best and we now had to build out a new location that was over 20 miles away from our customer base.
The move came with many challenges and the least of which was to build out some playing fields for immediate usage at the new location. We started by creating a graveyard field in what used to be a field called “fences”. We took the fences, some paint and a chainsaw to create a new and exciting field for our newest zombie game. After that we built the hills and tunnels field, that today is our current urban combat village. Here is a picture of the original graveyard field (which was taken down in 2017).
Our next project was in 2014 to rebuild the 2 story fort. The fort was in very poor condition with wood rotting and some of the upstairs walls were actually falling off. It took us almost 2 months to rebuild the fort using the original telephone post base. Here is video showing the transformation of the site:
Our final project was the urban combat village that was started in 2016. It is still a work in progress as we are currently considering making the entire village 2 stories. Here are a few pictures of the current village:
After working on getting the play to work based on the traffic flow through the city, we have been able to create a lot of different missions for both day time and night time laser tag play.
While we have expanded many of our offerings, we are still at the very core a very unique laser tag experience at a great value. We continue to push the envelope with replicating games that are similar to the large mainstream video game franchises. A recent big video title called FortNite also became the target of our 2018 play as we looked to create a similar laser tag play environment to enable local youth to live out their video game fantasies. We will continue to innovate to ensure that we remain relevent with the local youth. We are always ready to embrace new ideas and look for talented local youth to join our staff in the quest to be the top tactical laser tag site in the world. I learned a long time ago, nothing that is worth while is ever easy. As a company we have taken our lumps, but I am proud to say after 15 years that we have survived and innovated to provide a one-of-a-kind experience for local youth to play laser tag and have loads of fun. Looking forward to another 15 years of laser tag FUN here in NJ.