The Rochester Foam Dart League has attracted dozens of players in the relatively short time it's been around. The league started in February 2015 as the brainchild of Justin Dangler.
"A couple friends and I rented out some space at some of the rec centers locally and just started trying different games," he says.
RFDL now has 15 to 20 games in its repertoire, including familiar favorites like Capture the Flag to relatively newer ideas such as Humans vs. Zombies (the game that seemed to take over college campuses in the early 2000's).
On game night (there are five opportunities weekly; see below for more info), anywhere from 20 to 30 people will show up – their prized dart guns in hand. It costs $10 per session, and every sixth session is free. RFDL provides gear and darts, as well as safety goggles.
"Most people bring their own gear, though," Dangler says. "A lot of the guys like to modify the stuff they own and try to make it better for certain games." The only restriction is that darts can't go faster than 120 feet per second.
"This one will shoot up to 100 feet per second," player Michael Ngo says. He's got a dart gun strapped across his chest, a pouch for more ammo on his waist, and a brightly-colored gun in hand. Ngo joined the group within the past few months and comes nearly every week, he says.
"It's nostalgic for me," Ngo says. RFDL does the organizing, which makes it easy to just show up and enjoy, he says.
"As a kid, you'd just have a couple neighborhood kids and you'd have to figure things out on your own," he says. "This takes it to the next level."
Ngo reconnected with his old high school friend, Michael Guenther, through RFDL. The two hadn't seen each other since graduation. Guenther's started playing about a year ago after finding the league on social media.
"I was looking for something to play in the winter because I play paintball in the summer and stumbled onto this," he says.
Guenther says that the two sports are not so different in that they're both fun and provide exercise and an adrenaline kick. Foam darts don't hurt as much as paint balls, though, and they don't go as far or fly as fast, he says.
On a Friday night, Ngo and Guenther take to the field inside Rochester Sports Garden for their first game: Capture the Flag. About 20 people – mostly young adults – position themselves among inflatable bunkers as the whistle sounds.
Within milliseconds, bright neon darts begin flying in every direction as players duck and dodge their way through.
"Go red team!" shouts a young boy from the sidelines. A birthday party (RFDL sponsors those and corporate events as well), just wrapped up and the adults have an audience tonight. Guenther sprints back from the other team's side to reload. As he does, a young boy presses his face against the glass. Guenther gives him a thumbs-up and the boy squeals in delight.
Soon after, Ngo appears – carrying the other team's flag. The whistle blows and the players immediately go into "cleanup" mode. The turf is littered with neon yellow and orange foam darts.
For many of the adult players, coming to games is nostalgic. Guenther says that playing with foam darts reminds him of playing the same way when he was a child. "Me and my brother used to tear around the house shooting at each other," he says.
His parents weren't the biggest fans, but the activity did get the boys exercise, he says. Ngo says that, for him, playing in the league is better than going to the gym.
Fitness is part of Dangler's goal with the league.
"It gets people out of the house," he says. "We live in such a technology-driven society now that this gives you the ability to play video games for an hour but in real life and you're getting a pretty good workout at the same time."
Within each hour-long session, members play anywhere from two to five different games, with league leaders explaining the rules and safety protocols. They then act as referees. Members sign a safety waiver, but Dangler says that it's largely a precaution.
"It's basically to cover any slips, trips, and falls," he says. "We don't have a lot of injuries since we're shooting foam darts. That's one of the benefits of this sport over something like paintball – there's a lower risk of someone getting hurt."
In addition to the league's five weekly game nights, RFDL also works with the Webster School District on the district's fitness program and teaches a related class at RIT. By next year, Dangler hopes to expand that portion of RFDL to local rec centers, "so they can sign up for soccer or they can sign up for baseball" or they can sign up for the league, he says.
"It's a great way for younger kids to make friends," Dangler says. "And for the adults, they're always exchanging emails and Facebook messages and whatnot."
That's the case at the Friday "adult" game. Players chat as they help pick up darts between games. But once the whistle blows, they suddenly morph back into big kids – sprinting in every direction. There are a few brief moments of calm as players reload, but soon it's right back to the action — with darts flying in every direction.
Dangler says that he doesn't know of any other groups like RFDL locally, or even on the East Coast. There was a short lived national Dart Tag tournament that ran from 2009 to 2013, but now, most related tournaments appear to take place in other countries, particularly England and Canada.
Still, Dangler is optimistic that the concept can catch on here. The league has grown from a handful of regular players to hundreds in just the past year and a half, he says.
"You don't have to be a scholar, you don't have to be a professional athlete to play," Dangler says. "Everybody has different skill levels and with this, they all kind of blend together. So far, it seems like there are enough people who are enthusiastic about this sort of thing to keep it going and keep it growing."