Special Ops Paintball

"We Are Woodsball" just couldn't last

An SP-8 with a Special Ops T2W Stock. Image Copyright David Muhlestein, Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Over its first few decades, competitive paintball evolved from a survival game to an outdoor event played in the woods to a more defined tournament-style approach. Many major paintball manufacturers at this time primarily moved along with them to increasingly focus on the tournament aspect of the sport. While some manufacturers still focused on the beginner crowds (with a woodsball, mil-sim or speedball focus), most high-end companies had abandoned the woods. It was into this relative woodsball void when Special Ops Paintball came onto the scene in 2004.

The Beginning

Special Ops Paintball, from the beginning, wanted to be different from other companies in that its focus would be in the woods and it would be geared towards a higher-end crowd. By 2009, the company's flash in the pan, though, would be over.

2004 was a good time to start a paintball business. The economy was doing well and there was a resurgent interest in paintball as a whole. While there was high competition among high-end gun manufacturers catering to the tournament crowd, there really was a void of high-end woodsball gear. Special Ops (or Spec Ops, as it was commonly known) recognized this and, with their "We Are Woodsball" motto and a large cash infusion to start the business, they entered the market guns, metaphorically, blazing.

Special Ops had two main product lines: high-end equipment upgrades for other manufacturers equipment (sometimes already installed on, and sold with, paintball guns) and soft goods, which included clothing and vests. Their upgrades were intended to make guns, such as the Tippmann A-5 or the Smart Parts Ion, even better for woodsball players. Whether the equipment improved performance is debatable, but it was well-built, good-looking and expensive. Initially, these high prices weren't a concern as people had disposable income and spending a hundred dollars for a gun stock, for example, was within the realm of possibility for many paintball players.

Woodsball Culture

Manufacturing and sales, though, was only one part of the Special Ops formula. The second arena of interest was the woodsball culture itself. Special Ops wanted to show that woodsball was more than just the entry-level game for paintball players, but it could be an end unto itself. They tried to build on this mentality by showcasing their vision of the woodsball culture with videos, guides and RECON, a woodsball-centric magazine (which, from a personal standpoint, published my first paintball article - a review of a vest). They also created the Brigade which was a forerunner to the ever-present social media we see today (think Facebook for paintball). One of their features, the game finder, was particularly useful as it allowed people to post games and for players to meet up (When I moved to a new city, I took full advantage of it to identify new people to play with and fields to play at). They even created a pilot for a TV series (that was never picked up) and spearheaded the SPPL - the Scenario Paintball Players League - a national woosdball tournament.

The result of the all-out focus on woodsball was that Special Ops was, at least externally, very successful early on. They had a constant line of new products and a dedicated following of players. Internally, though, things weren't going as well. I don't have firsthand knowledge of everything that occurred within the company, but from a very solid source (a former employee), things never quite went according to the business plan.

The Downfall

Special Ops, as a company, had three things that really went against them. The first was that the economy tanked and people quit spending on paintball, particularly high-end upgrades that had questionable benefit to your actual performance. Second, the overhead of designing gear in house and manufacturing it in relatively small orders was very high so that, despite the high prices, there was a very small margin on sales (to the point that the company was never profitable, even when times were good). Finally, and probably the most troubling, is that the company's management wasn't capable of adjusting the company's business model to fit the change in economy or to realize that the market may not be able to support even one high-energy, high-cost woodsball paintball company. Their approach was "go big or go home" and, unfortunately, the "go big" goal wasn't to be.

The end result of this was that Special Ops Paintball closed its doors in 2009. It was briefly resurrected as a soft goods-only company in 2010, but then its assets were sold and the company, as it originally was formed, ceased to be.

The Legacy

Special Ops Paintball definitely left a legacy. It showed that players are still interested in woodsball, but it also showed that no single company can define a sport. Woodsball will always be composed of new players as well as dedicated players who sink their money into it. From a company's perspective, though, creating and producing high-end woodsball gear might not be a viable business platform unless it is on a very small scale. Maybe, someday, someone will try it again, but I'm skeptical whether the business model will ever be able to succeed for the long term. The ride was fun, but "We Are Woodsball" was not meant to last.