Paul Nicholson reflects on the boom in online darts

Paul Nicholson column: The online darts phenomenon, Phil Taylor's resurgence, and dealing with social media abuse

Paul Nicholson reflects on the rise in online darts in his latest column but also opens up about the social media abuse he and other players have suffered.

Paul Nicholson has been at the forefront of the online darts scene throughout lockdown as both a player and commentator with the ground-breaking Modus Live Leagues, while the PDC Home Tour has also given us competitive action to watch while providing star names with much-needed match practice.

However, while this new concept continues to evolve and bring so much positivity to the game in these uncertain times – such as Phil Taylor reminding darts fans that he’s still got it – there have been several players, including the Asset himself, who have suffered social media abuse despite their best efforts to win and entertain.

In his latest column, Nicholson reflects on these trolls as well as the highs and lows of the past couple of months, the ongoing development of online darts, the players who have impressed him most and whether the Power has what it takes to win a potential online World Championship!

Progression never stops

I was part of the testing phase before the online Modus tournaments even launched, constantly ironing out the wrinkles for around nine days. We were all a bit nervous – as you would be before any new ground-breaking project – and although there were some minor hiccups to begin with, it’s been a huge success.

The biggest compliment I can pay Modus is their continual need for progression and making the tournaments even better, from investing in the highest quality webcams with the best resolution to introducing the new two-camera set up, as well their incredible work ethic behind the scenes.

It started with just an afternoon event – the ‘Icons of Darts Live League’ – before the ‘A Night at the Darts’ was added, and now the two have combined to create one giant session of darts for six days a week from Monday to Saturday. And now we also have the Champions Series, featuring Phil Taylor, taking place on Sundays.

They’ve been working seven days for the past seven weeks to get this off the ground and ensuring everyone has the best possible internet connection and technology to make it run as smoothly as possible. I’m shattered with my playing and commentary schedule but I’ve had days off!

It’s also helped that their network of players who don’t have PDC Tour Cards – such as Taylor, Fallon Sherrock, Raymond van Barneveld and Martin Adams - is as vast as any other promoter within the game, so the standard has been high and we’ve also unearthed newer talents that some fans may not have heard of before.

The feedback we got from the two-camera set up, which allows viewers to see both the board and the player like they would in a televised event, was very good and that’s what fans want going forward on a permanent basis.

It gives you greater insight into a player’s body language and character during certain match situations which you wouldn’t usually pick up on during a noisy televised event, while you’ll also see how their technique is holding up during lockdown.

There’s been so much testing behind the scenes and I just hope everyone realises how hard the Modus team, including George Noble, Jason Thame and Phil Barrs, are working to make the product even better with every passing week.

Challenges of the online oche

It’s been extremely tough, especially in the first couple of weeks when I didn’t know what to expect – but by week three I felt it was all finally beginning to click with my doubles and they helped me top the table.

When you haven’t got a PDC Tour Card, it’s such a boost to score some 100+ averages in tournaments like this because it makes you believe you’ve still got it.

Speaking to most of the players, they’ve all found having no opponent physically in front of them the hardest aspect to deal with and nobody to bounce off other than the sound in their ears from the headsets.

We’re usually so used to watching opponents throw, retrieving their darts and walking back before we return to the oche so it’s quite disconcerting to try and create your own playing rhythm.

It’s taken some players several days of competition to adapt as it’s not something you realise will be such a factor until you try it.

As well as the good days, there’s been some bad ones. Believe me, there’s been some choice words aimed at certain parts of my practice room! I’ve not enjoyed losing, especially ones I feel I let slip away.

Guys are taking this seriously, it’s not a 'fun league' and we all want to be the person who wins it. There’s also plenty of bragging rights at stake on both social media and WhatsApp groups.

Emerging stars to golden oldies

I’ve been impressed with a lot of the talents that I didn’t know too much about but Wessel Nijman is showing way more potential than I previously thought he had when I’d commentated on a couple of European Tour events he featured in.

He’s been so good on such a consistent basis and I believe when we eventually return to ‘normal’ darts he’ll be a force to be reckoned with on the Development Tour and a future start of the PDC.

Overall I’d say David Evans has been the revelation of the tournament. He’s played everybody at their best over the past five weeks and he’s beaten us all with some incredible displays.

He’s averaged as high as 113 during a night session and during that game against Mike Warburton he looked as good as I’ve seen anyone all year. Yes, it’s only one match but he’s been consistent throughout and very hard to play against.

The fact he hasn’t got a PDC Tour Card and he’s putting in these stats is incredible, and it won’t be too long before he’s troubling the very best in the game.

Martin Adams has played some tremendous games and despite being over 60 years of age he’s still able to produce great stats and high checkouts. I’ve lost count with the number of times he’s taken out 121!

We all love the way he calls out his scores in a jovial way and I’m sure he’s bringing smiles to the faces of viewers too. With his standard and enthusiasm for the sport still this high, I don’t see him retiring for a few more years yet.

Power switched on

Phil Taylor has delighted his fans during his numerous guest appearances on Modus league nights and also the Champions Series on Sundays, so it’s no surprise to see people talking about whether he could still compete at the highest level.

When he retired after losing to Rob Cross at the World Championship, there was a large proportion of his brain telling him that he was still better than most of these guys. Potentially everyone except one or two.

He still thinks that now because he’s wired slightly differently compared to most darts players and maintains the same swagger and confidence of old.

These Modus Live Leagues have given him the vehicle to prove that and brought a huge smile to his own face as well as his army of supporters around the world.

He gets to stay in his own home without any of the travelling around the world that used to tire him out, and to play the sport he dominated for so many years. And to cap it off, when a night of competition is over he can be back on his sofa with a cup of tea within five minutes.

When he’s happy, rested and confident, is there anyone more formidable?

I’m not sure we’ll ever see him back on the full-time circuit again but if this kind of tournament continues even when lockdown is over then Phil Taylor will be a very big part of it.

Based on the standards we’ve seen from him, if we had a proper affiliated online World Championship with a defined structure that’s fair to everyone who wants to enter then Taylor would be very hard to dispose of.

Whether it was a leg or set play format, I wouldn’t be surprised if he won it.

Home discomforts

At the time of writing (Tuesday May 12) there have only been 21 ton+ averages in 150 matches in the PDC Home Tour and four of those came on Monday night.

But that’s completely understandable when you consider that these star names and Tour Card holders only have one night and three matches each to get used to it.

If you think about the first week of the Modus league, we were told we’d be playing five out of six days, so you could find your feet on the first and have a chance to bounce back if you didn’t do so well.

Knowing you have opportunities ahead of you makes it easier to relax and take the pressure off but the guys in the PDC have to hit the ground running from the very first dart.

Also, it might not be as formal as a proper tournament but there’s also the pressure they’ve put on themselves to be the first person holding a trophy at the end of it.

Another reason why the quality isn’t as good as we might have expected is that the likes of Peter Wright, Gerwyn Price and Ian White are so used to playing in optimum tournament conditions and might not have found it as easy to switch on their serious darting brain in a setting they prefer to relax in.

Of the opening 25 nights, 15 ‘top seeds’ crashed out so the format has clearly been a real leveller.

Every board and set up is slightly different and only two players have played on the same one – Peter Wright and Dimitri van den Bergh because they are in the same house. Some players have rooms with better lighting than others and there’s also been problems including barking dogs and noisy neighbours!

Overall I think the PDC Home Tour has exposed why players do perform better in traditional tournaments because it’s so much easier for them to switch their darts brain on.

Keeping the trolls quiet

Everyone associated with darts is very proud about how strong our integrity is within the standing of sport as a whole. We’ve only had one huge case that went the wrong way when Gilbert Ulang was banned for seven years, but I can’t think of anyone else who doesn’t give their all.

It therefore makes me sick to think that most players within the Modus league and the PDC Home Tour have all experienced a social backlash of some kind when a result hasn’t gone the way that a supporter or punter wanted it to.

If darts was so predictable and easy to bet on then the bookies wouldn’t be in business! Historically darts has always been so difficult to bet on because of the small gap between a very good pub player and a professional, especially in short formats.

But there’s not much we can do about this hurtful kind of social media activity and we feel pretty helpless about it.

I heard about the tweets directed at Kyle Anderson by reading through his own feed as he’d responded to some of them and I just can’t understand how anyone would cast aspersions on someone like him?

He’s only just recently recovered from Covid-19 after weeks in isolation away from his family yet still put his hand up to play in the tournament despite a lack of practice.

Kyle did his best but was then subject to abuse just because someone made the wrong choice on who to bet on and lost a few quid.

These people just don’t look in the mirror and think we should take the blame for their shortcomings.

In regards to my incident last Friday, I hadn’t looked at social media at all from the start of play because I find that’s the best way of just focusing on my thing and not worrying about what anyone else thinks.

I’d been enjoying some pretty good performances and won a few games but a defeat to David Evans stopped my chances of topping the table.

Then Martin Adams beat me 4-0 and I was devastated because that was the first time I’d been whitewashed since the Modus leagues began.

But then I switched my phone on and was greeted by some seriously nasty messages which insinuated I was cheating. I had no idea that was the only scoreline that could mean Adams topped the group ahead of Evans.

I didn’t know the situation but even if I did, I can’t believe anyone would have the audacity to call me the worst thing you could call any sports person.

A lot of us have been subject to this kind of behaviour, which is horrible to receive but unfortunately it’s pretty much part and parcel of what we do until every account has to be verified.

Some players have thicker skins than others and I’m not one of them. I’ve shed many tears over the abuse I’ve received down the years – enough to fill a water tank – and I’m not ashamed to say that.

If I don’t get good results I give myself a backlash which is hard enough, so to get it from others makes it hurts even more. I care what people say about me and my fellow professionals.

I had a lot of messages from everyone involved in the competition – as well as David – giving me support as they all understood that I’d given my all and just happened to lose a game of darts 4-0. That’s sport.

I have blocked people and not responded but then I’ve been branded a coward for doing it, so you can’t win!

The only time I’ve been confronted in real life, however, was in Benidorm in about 2013 when a man with an “all you can eat and drink” wristband on shouted “You cost me £50 because you lost to Huybrechts at the World Championship. I can’t believe you did that.”

At that time in my career I didn’t care what I said so I went right up to him and said: “That game could have cost me £100,000. If I’d won it I could have got in the Premier League and ranking points to qualify for the big events. Does that make you feel better?”

All of a sudden he seemed shocked with the logic and he apologised immediately. The next day I made the final of the tournament - but sadly not all stories of this nature will have happy endings.

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