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iCombat makes laser tag more real

iCombat makes laser tag more real

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FITCHBURG – Considering it is located in a suburb of Madison and in a former tile store, Camp Leatherneck is fairly realistic, minus the artificial turf.

Sandbags, a large tent, an old U.S. Army truck, a camouflage-draped cannon, stacks of tires and cinder block buildings in which to hide are on the set.

And while the setting is a step up from most traditional laser tag facilities that feature plywood mazes and neon lights, it’s the weapons that stand out at iCombat, the newest laser tag facility in Dane County.

When the 16,000-square-foot tactical laser tag operation opened Aug. 30, space-age looking guns with blinking lights and electronic sounds were nowhere to be found.

Instead, the business at 2919 Marketplace Drive, has an armory room full of what appear to be military-style weapons that mimic an M-16 rifle, M110 sniper rifle and a Glock hand gun.

In reality, the faux guns, which have the weight and look of the real thing, use a hybrid of laser, infrared and ZigBee radio technology that can relay shooting statistics to a computer.

A carbon-dioxide cartridge in each weapon mimics a muffled gunshot and provides a slight kick with each squeeze of the trigger.

“That’s why our technology is newer and better than anyone else because we are able to fit all of our electronics into the inside and still get the realism like a real gun would be,” said Andy Rasico, iCombat’s marketing manager. “It gives people that Hollywood experience.”

Children 12 and under are not allowed to play during open play times and those under 18 need parental permission. A 90-minute session, which includes multiple games, is $30.

The realism is designed to bring in real money in an industry that has seen a steady rise in popularity and revenue. It also could mean more profits for Universal Electronics Inc., Whitewater.

The contract electronics company, founded in 1980 by Richard Jensen, has $60 million in annual revenue. It’s there where the weapons were invented and are now built. They are used in more than two dozen iCombat facilities that are licensed by UEI around the world and at the UEI-owned Fitchburg location and a Waukesha iCombat that opened in June 2013.

UEI, with nearly 300 employees at manufacturing facilities in Whitewater and East Troy, also sells its products and systems to more than 600 haunted houses, paintball facilities, amusement parks and other businesses trying to cash in on laser tag’s popularity. In addition, UEI makes laser training weapons for military and law enforcement and rents its Waukesha facility for training exercises.

This year, sales in UEI’s iCombat division will be about $4 million, said Jensen’s son, Rick Jensen, iCombat president and executive vice president of UEI.

The November introduction of a new weapon designed for children under 13 that doesn’t resemble a military weapon will open new markets for the company and help push sales to $5 million in 2015, Jensen said. By 2020, annual sales could surpass $10 million.

“Things are taking off,” Jensen said. “I see it continuing to grow. We’re getting a lot of traditional laser-type places converting to our systems.”

The Fitchburg iCombat facility was remodeled, filled with props and equipped with weapons and computer systems for about $500,000. Each weapon’s unit, which includes a gun, vest and headband, costs about $2,000, said Rasico.

UEI entered the laser tag industry in 2005 when it made a product that converted a paintball gun into a laser tag weapon to allow younger players to use paintball courses. Work then transitioned into traditional laser tag equipment before moving into tactical laser weapons for military, law enforcement and entertainment, Jensen said.

According to a 2012 IBISWorld Market Research study of the laser tag industry, consumers under 18 make up nearly 70 percent of all laser tag players and from 2008 to 2012, revenue for the industry nationwide grew 2.2 percent to $378.4 million. An IBISWorld forecast shows growth at a faster rate between 2013 and 2017.

“Stronger consumer confidence and consumer spending levels will increase the rate at which consumers embrace the sport,” according to the report.

Scott Jensen, a former state Assembly speaker, is one of the iCombat investors. He’s also Rick Jensen’s brother.

“It’s a fun investment,” Scott Jensen said. “That’s part of the attraction to it. You certainly could invest in stocks and bonds and make a similar return, but this is something where not only are the investors enjoying it but we’re providing a lot of fun to a lot of people.”

For iCombat, the demographic is aimed at players age 18 to 34. That is why Rick Jensen believes there is room in the Madison market for his iCombat facility and Ultrazone, a traditional laser tag business that opened in 1995 at 680 Grand Canyon Drive on the Far West Side of Madison.

“They’re geared toward younger children,” Jensen said. “We’re a full, immersive experience.”

A game at iCombat includes up to 35 people split into two teams. Each squad has a base where players can recharge after being shot, change carbon-dioxide clips that have a limit of 150 shots and check team and individual scoring on a large flat-screen television monitor.

The experience is enhanced by sound effects that can include passing fighter jets, explosions and radio chatter. In one game, called Hell’s Bells, players try to shoot a bell in the middle of the base as many times as they can without getting shot. Throughout the game, the AC/DC song of the same name blares over the sound system.

A computerized check-in system prior to play allows members to swipe a card and activate their account, which keeps historical shooting data on each player. The Waukesha iCombat has 9,000 members and gets more than 100 new users each weekend, said Eric Kopier, general manager of iCombat.

“We haven’t found (the $30 cost to play) to be a deterrent,” Kopier said. “Once people come in, it’s easy to retain them just because of the experience we provide.”


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