Kevin Blake

Is it time for racing to dip its toe back into the video games world to attract a new audience?...Kevin Blake thinks so.

  • Monday 16 November
  • Blog
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Thinking outside the box in pursuit of a new horse racing audience

The question of how horse racing can attract new followers is one that has been a hot topic for many decades. The debate over what demographic to target, and in what way to approach them is ever present, and opinions will always vary. However, there should always be room for new ideas and those that have worked well for other sports should always warrant extra attention.

The world has changed an awful lot since March and “what are you watching on Netflix?” is now perhaps only second to “this Covid is mad altogether isn’t it?”, as a conversation filler in this part of the world. Since then, the sheer volume of people I heard from or read on social media that started to take a much greater interest in Formula 1 racing after watching Drive To Survive on Netflix has been remarkable. People who never paid attention to it at all are now engaged followers.

For those that aren’t familiar with it, Drive To Survive is a behind-the-scenes documentary created as a collaboration between Netflix and Formula 1, telling the story of a full Formula 1 season. The viewer gets to know not just the main players, but the supporting cast on the teams. The intricacies of the sport are embraced and thanks to the quality of the production and storytelling, the strengths of the core sporting product are shown in the best possible light.

McCoy on another winner with documentary

There is absolutely no reason why horse racing couldn’t be showcased in this way. Programmes such as Jump Boys and Being AP have shown how well our sport, and the stories within it, can translate to the big screen. The sport itself is a feast for the eyes and the game is full of characters with stories to tell.

AP McCoy at the UK screening of the successful "Being AP"

A season-long documentary in the style of Drive To Survive that followed the fortunes of a small number of trainers, their teams and stable stars would have any amount of potential to be a wonderful showcase for our sport and the people within it.

The key to such a documentary achieving its intended goal would be delivering it on a prominent streaming platform such as Netflix to get it into the living rooms of new audiences. It is no good preaching to the converted, we need to reach new horizons in audience terms.

To take the conversation a little bit further into left field, if one really wanted to speak to a younger audience, the best way to do it would be to speak in their language.

For hundreds of millions of young people of all backgrounds, video games are a common denominator. In 2018, US$135 billion was spent on video games around the world. Recent years have seen eSports, competitions between gamers, grow at an astonishing rate. The mere notion of people wanting to watch other people play computer games will be one that may seem odd to many readers of this column, but the popularity of it is undeniable.

Indeed, the worldwide audience for eSports is projected to grow to almost 500 million people this year and betting on it is a substantial growth area. It is an absolutely colossal business and it would be an error to trivialise or underestimate it.

The popularity of eSports in 2020 has led to huge growth in betting on it.

The power that video games can have for increasing the popularity and understanding of a sport really shouldn’t be underestimated either. There are likely to be plenty of people around the world that can say an interest in horse racing was triggered, nurtured and developed by playing one of the many horse racing games that were around in the 1990s and 2000s, with the Gallop Racer and G1 Jockey series of games being the most popular.

Created in Japan, the G1 Jockey series was the most popular of these games and developed a cult following around the world. It offered a highly-immersive simulation of race riding and the level of realistic detail/nuance in both the race-riding elements and the wider storylines made it very popular even with industry professionals. Indeed, no shortage of the younger generation of current jockeys spent endless hours playing it.

If one needed some evidence as to what sort of thirst there would be out there for a new horse racing video game, have a look at the response that this tweet from M3 Media got during the summer when it mocked up a cover for a new racing game featuring Oisin Murphy.

Time for a new racing game to get back in the saddle

It has been almost a decade since the last horse racing video game, Champion Jockey: G1 Jockey & Gallop Racer, was released in English and since then eSports and online play has taken off to an incredible extent. A new version of G1 Jockey that enabled online multiplayer play would have a great amount of potential to grow interest in horse racing among young demographics of all backgrounds all around the world.

Imagine a worldwide season-long online tournament that led to the best players facing off in a live-stream 40-runner Grand National or a 20-runner Derby at Epsom with a winner-takes-it-all prizes? I’d watch them!

Now, I wouldn’t have the slightest clue what it would take to persuade Koei Tecmo, the Japanese company behind G1 Jockey, to develop a new English language version of the game. However, if there was a possibility such a move could be stimulated by outside investment/partnerships/sponsorships, or the offer of attractive licensing deals to use British/Irish tracks and/or participants in the game itself, it would be something worth exploring.

I’m sure plenty of readers will think much of the above to be pie in the sky, but racing has been trying plenty of tried, tested and failed methods for attracting new audiences for long enough. Maybe it is time to try something a bit different that will put the sport in front of millions of eyes, that otherwise wouldn’t see it.

Kevin Blake
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