A quiet revolution in sport has been taking place for years, but the coronavirus lockdown brought it into the mainstream. Helen Fretter reports on the recent boom in eSailing...
Competitive online gaming, or eSports, has been growing exponentially since the mid-1990s. “It is probably the biggest sport you’ve never heard of,” Wouter Sleijffers, CEO of Excel, one of the biggest British eSports brands, remarked at a gaming industry event in January 2020. That was, until the coronavirus pandemic and global lockdown. With the banning of recreational and competitive sport, eSports shifted from being an alternative to the only sport available.
Unless you are, or live with, a teenage boy, eSport is unlikely to have been much on your radar before this year. But competitive online gaming is massive, both in terms of participation numbers and spectators. Last year 100 million people watched the World Championships of League of Legends, a team strategy game (for context, the Superbowl pulls in around 98 million viewers). Enormous stadia host eSports events in front of live audiences in countries as diverse as South Korea and Poland, and top professional players can command up to £2 million a year.
Although many popular games are based on fantasy or combat scenarios, some do overlap with conventional sport: FIFA is a major eSports game, with turf-and-stands clubs like Manchester City and Paris St Germain also signing up squads of virtual players. But for most traditional sports the digital versions are quite separate from the physical activities.
However, during the coronavirus lockdown eSports have become a way for fans and athletes to indulge in sports they are unable to participate in or watch. New pro-am competitions sprang up, such as a league of real life NBA stars playing fan gamers on NBA2K, a sophisticated basketball game.
Many eSports usually live-stream on the dedicated gaming platform Twitch, but the dearth of live competition saw some eSports adopted by mainstream television. The NBA2K games were broadcast on US sports network ESPN. Formula One ran a virtual Bahrain GP, with gamers and drivers racing celebrity athletes such as Olympic cyclist Chris Hoy. The Grand Prix was shown live on Sky, as well as Twitch and social media.
The eSailing boom
Before lockdown, eSailing already had a significant presence. Virtual Regatta is the dominant online sailing game, having been created for the 2006 Route du Rhum. Today most major sailing competitions add a ‘virtual race’ component to their event websites to increase fan engagement.
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The Virtual Regatta offshore races can attract huge numbers of players, with 400,000-450,000 taking part in the virtual Vendée Globe and Route du Rhum. The races are run in ‘real time’ and can take weeks to complete. The inshore version of Virtual Regatta offers more immediate competition, with most races just a few minutes long. The inshore game is a much newer development, first launched in 2016. It also had a significant relaunch in February this year.
Anticipating the growth of the online sailing community, two years ago the governing body for sailing, World Sailing, launched an eSailing World Championship using Virtual Regatta’s inshore programme. Over five months competitors raced virtually, before a live final held in Florida.
The move was not universally popular, and World Sailing was certainly one of the earliest Olympic federations to embrace eSports. Nevertheless, some 170,000 players took part across 74 different countries and the experiment was deemed a sufficient success to be repeated in 2019, the winner taking home US$10,000.
With sailing paused around the world during lockdown restrictions, eSailing has, unsurprisingly, since seen huge growth. Virtual Regatta reports a ten-fold increase in inshore racing, with more than 200,000 unique users on the platform in April 2020 and up to 50,000 players on line each day. Over 330,000 players were competing in Virtual Regatta offshore races at the same time.
“It is the biggest sailing community in the world,” says Philippe Guigné (pictured above) founder of Virtual Regatta, “There is nowhere you can reach more sailors than Virtual Regatta.” Lockdown-specific events were hastily organised, starting with the Great Escape in late March, which saw almost 130,000 players race 3,900 virtual miles on a transatlantic in IMOCA, Ultime, Class 40 and Figaro 3 classes.
The event was popular not only with ocean racing fans, but also with many pro skippers who found themselves suddenly land-bound. “We had a unique opportunity that we could merge the fans and the champion sailors,” explains Guigné. “I used to be a pro sailor myself so guys like Cammas, Coudrelier, Peyron etc. are friends of mine. And they were very happy to do it because it was a good opportunity for them to build a direct relationship with the fans.”
As the 2020 season progressed and more regattas were cancelled, inshore and offshore events have only been able to run digital races and adopted Virtual Regatta, for example the Transat AG2R saw 77,000 players in the virtual race. Famous names like Tom Slingsby have also been taking part in pro-am inshore battles.
Not just play
But it is not just professional events that have adopted eSailing this year. Sailing clubs have been able to use Virtual Regatta’s ‘VIP’ mode to run online races for members, often at the usual club racing times, helping to maintain community ties during lockdown.
The game is free to play for individuals, with VIP format usually costing £10 per month, but is currently free to RYA-affiliated sailing clubs. Many countries launched eSailing National Championships, including Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
“eSailing is growing fast, particularly the inshore game,” reports Guigné, “Probably the most impressive is the growth in the UK where the RYA has done a brilliant job in coordination with clubs and World Sailing. They’re helping clubs keep activity up in the digital world. The result: the UK was the fifth nation in terms of players, today it’s the top nation.”
Some coaches have also developed the use of Virtual Regatta as a training tool. British Olympic sailing coach Hugh Styles has been working with sailors ranging from club racers to elite level using daily Virtual Regatta competitions via his website Timeonthewater.co.uk. He sets up the race parameters, with the right number of players to generate different scenarios.
“Then I can either constrain the environment or let chaos ensue!” he explains. Coaching within the game allows sailors to focus solely on strategy and tactics without the distraction of boat handling. “With many of the people I coach – both normally and in this game – a lot of what we do is help them with their ‘road map’, identifying key decisions around the course.
“The game is very, very good at helping people be able to work on just the thinking part, which we always struggle to do on the water, because usually we are focussed so hard on the detail of trying to sail the boat that we don’t have the extra capacity to do the thinking side particularly well.”
Styles believes Virtual Regatta is so effective as a teaching aid it will continue to be part of his coaching armoury long after the coronavirus lockdown ends. Just as America’s Cup crew now use simulators to rehearse manoeuvres onshore, now sailors of all levels can use eSailing to practice different scenarios before going racing.
Styles has been working with offshore sailor Henry Bomby, who is campaigning for the Olympic offshore class at Paris 2024. “Virtual Regatta is a great tool to sharpen up your decision-making,” Bomby explained, “I like to use the slower boats (offshore racer or J/70) to make it more strategy, fleet positioning and tactics-heavy over the motor skills of being good at the game!
“You can play with big fleets of up to 40 boats where things like pre-start positioning, starting and finding a lane are key, or with fewer boats where strategy, mark roundings and looking for the shifts/pressure are more relevant. I am happy to admit that I would never do tactics on a raceboat again without playing this the day before.”
Guigné is unsurprised by eSailing’s coming of age. “Sailing is a perfect sport for having a digital life. Even if you are a passionate sailor like me, how many days do you go sailing a year? Maybe 20, in the good years. That means for 345 days a year I am sailing just in my head. I love it, but this sport is very inaccessible.
“It’s why the marriage of sailing and eSailing is so strong: because the digital answer is you can. It’s too windy. You can. It’s raining. You can. It’s night. You can. You have no crew. You can. And the other big thing is that we are one of only a few sports where gaming meets the physical world so well.”
He cites details like the layline graphics and wind shadow effects, many of which were originally developed for America’s Cup television coverage. “On the water you don’t see the laylines, you don’t know if you have priority. In the game, we can display all that. Our games can deliver a lot of information to the players, and it’s why they’re so interesting to play.” Whether you think virtual racing is a poor substitute, harmless fun, or a useful tool for sailing, eSailing does look set to be part of the future.
One of the key ambitions for the 2024 Olympics is to open up events to allow public participation (for example, you will be able to run the marathon course on the same day as the elite athletes). Last year, Paris 2024 organisers announced that there would be an eSailing competition based on the new mixed offshore event: the first such eSports development at the Games.
Sailing – a sport that is notoriously difficult to make accessible to a wider audience – is proving to be an early adopter of the potential of eSports.
Not keen on racing? There are other eSailing alternatives… A new free eSailing game, Pancake Sailor, was launched by Australian programmers Marine Verse as a direct response to the lockdown. Pancake Sailor is a relaxed single or multiplayer game that allows you to sail a Laser-style dinghy around idyllic locations and encounter magical sealife creatures.
It is designed to be accessible to all levels of sailor, and gamer, and can be connected to a VR headset if you have one. “You really don’t need any gaming experience to play,” explained developer Greg Dziemidowicz, “You can’t capsize, it’s meant to be quite relaxing with simple controls but beautiful graphics and sounds. We created Pancake Sailor to cheer people up, share the joy of sailing and bring friends together in multiplayer.”
If your idea of escapism is sailing across the Pacific, then the Sailaway simulator may appeal. Originally designed as a teaching tool, Sailaway operates in real time using real world weather conditions.
Richard Knol, the founder, explains: “Sailaway is not a game, it’s a simulator. There is no way to adjust the wind, if you sail into a lull your boat lies still in the water, if you sail where it is night, your screen will be almost black. And if you want to have fun with it, you have to seek that fun yourself by setting out on a voyage, competing in a race. You have to pursue the joy yourself. Just like in the real world.”
Sailaway is not free (you can try it for free for seven days, after which it costs €19-39). “There is also criticism,” admits Knol, “Mostly by sailors who say that sailing behind a computer is nonsense and nothing beats the real thing. And they are right. But they forget that not everyone always has that opportunity. Work, family, health, finances, there are dozens of circumstances that prevent people from sailing as much as they would like to.
“I know a lot of people who dream of sailing through the Beagle Channel, or the Bering Strait, but they don’t feel experienced enough, or simply don’t have the time or the finances. Myself included.”
First published in the July 2020 edition of Yachting World.