Inside a mammoth warehouse on a remote industrial complex along Eight Mile Road, Joey Rubio has built a cathedral to mock combat.
Here, Airsoft enthusiasts equip themselves with mock rifles and put on fatigues. They strap on combat boots and equip themselves with grenades and magazines.
Inside CQB City, it’s all-out war.
Competitors navigate the 60,000-square-foot Middle Eastern-style city, hiding in broken-down cars.
From weekend thrill seekers to members of the countless law enforcement agencies who train inside the complex, hearts are racing.
Snipers lie in wait. Smoke fills the air. Explosions rattle the arena.
Inside exists all the unpredictability of a battlefield.
And every element is designed and implemented by Rubio, a 13-year Army veteran, who devised the idea for a real-life combat complex with his buddies in a bar — as a way to earn a little beer money, he jokes.
Seven years later, it’s brought him a lot more than pocket change.
“Once this started taking off it was a shocker,” Rubio said. “It was like hitting the lottery. It totally took on a life of its own.”
The story behind the city
Rubio was born and raised in Boston and moved to California after joining the Army in 1980. He was stationed with the U.S. Army Ranger unit in Fort Ord, a military post established in 1917 along Monterey Bay.
Rubio spent 13 years in the military — six of those as a helicopter pilot — before opening a paintless dent repair company, better known as DentPro, in 1991.
Rubio built the business into a thriving franchise, starting with locations throughout the Bay Area and eventually nationwide. Meanwhile, in his off time, he developed a passion for Airsoft rifles.
“I have to admit, I was taken in by the realistic-ness of this as a game,” he said.
Rubio joined a team, mostly consisting of law enforcement officers, who drove several hours once a month to compete against other teams in outdoor arenas.
For Rubio, it was worth the drive, but the distance certainly presented inconveniences for competitors — as well as agencies that use the weapons and arenas to recreate training scenarios.
One day, over beers, Rubio and his buddies talked about how difficult it was for law enforcement agencies to find a place to train. They’d either have to travel long distances, or jump through hoops to reserve a place for just a few hours.
Rubio thought it would be great if agencies had a permanent, local facility able to conform to their training needs. And just like that, CQB City — which stands for “close quarter battle” — was born
Rubio purchased a warehouse, built a replica of a traditional lower class Middle Eastern neighborhood, with small, shanty houses — similar to what the Army uses for training — then opened his doors to law enforcement and military agencies, including police departments, the FBI, the Coast Guard and more. Eventually, CQB City opened to the public, as well.
For Rubio and his visitors, it is a convenient place to play the game and a way to burn a few hours once a month. Nothing more.
“I thought it would be a hobby,” he said.
Instead, CQB City developed a cult following.
Airsoft enthusiasts and gamers who spend hours with a controller in their hands flocked to the world’s largest indoor Airsoft arena, addicted to the realistic combat.
“This is an adrenaline rush,” Rubio said. “Sometimes I feel like a crack dealer. ‘Hey, first round is on me.’ After that, they’re hooked.”
Once a month turned into every weekend.
Rubio sold DentPro, his business of 15 years, and went all in with CQB City.
They play because ‘it’s intense’
For $30, anyone 10 years of age or older can spend an entire day going to war with dozens of other competitors — if not more than 100 — focused on completing any number of objectives in order to win.
For those looking for the real “Call of Duty” experience, how does CQB City compare?
“It’s fun, in a different kind of way,” said 15-year-old Shawn O’Hare of Pleasanton. “I got a big wallop on the back. It hurts but it’s worth it.”
Why do they play?
“It’s intense,” said 16-year-old Ryan Gaugherty of Lodi. “Someone could come around from behind and shoot you.”
While the game is safe with the proper gear, getting shot still hurts. But that doesn’t stop weekend warriors from rushing into an arena filled with thousands of plastic pellets zipping through the air.
“I play because of the thrill of getting shot and knowing that was a kill,” said 6-year Airsoft veteran Brayden Seasher, 14, of Galt.
The future of Airsoft
While the realism of the weapons is what draws many enthusiasts to the game, some have criticized Airsoft for just that reason.
In Oct. 2013, a Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a 13-year-old boy after mistaking the Airsoft rifle he was carrying for an actual AK-47.
As a result, California state senators advanced a bill in January that would require all imitation firearms to be painted bright colors.
Critics of the bill say Airsoft owners will simply paint their weapons dark colors after purchasing them, or encourage gun-toting criminals to paint their weapons bright colors in order to fool police.
Rubio said it’s important to educate Airsoft owners on proper conduct in order to avoid another shooting like the one in Sonoma County.
“We’ve been playing with guns since the beginning of time,” he said. “It’s a male thing. Kids are going to find a way to do that. We want to make sure those kids aren’t playing on the streets so those type of incidents don’t happen. Having these things on the street — bad idea.”
He added, “We treat these things as if they’re real weapons. Inevitably, these guys will go into the police academy, go into the Army, become hunters, and we want to make sure they’re learning proper skills when they’re using them.”
As lawmakers debate the direction of Airsoft, Rubio has plans to expand his booming business.
Connected to the complex is another warehouse of the same size. Rubio hopes to construct another battlefield there, maybe a jungle. For Rubio, the possibilities are endless.
“It’s a fantasy world for the kids and for the guys who love playing this game,” he said.
Contact reporter Kristopher Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org.