Paul Nicholson column: How stumbling across online darts could unearth a future world champion of the sport

Paul Nicholson has been involved with the Modus Icons of Darts online tournament

Paul Nicholson reveals what it's been like playing in the groundbreaking Modus Icons of Darts online tournament during lockdown and how it could shape the future.

The coronavirus pandemic may have caused the professional darts calendar to come to a standstill - just like every other sport around the world - but that hasn't stopped players coming up with innovative ways to stay active during lockdown.

Major winner and leading commentator Paul Nicholson is one of the founding participants of the Modus Icons of Darts Live League, which began at the start of April and features a group of six players battling it out from their own homes remotely in a round robin format from Monday to Saturday each week.

Not only is this giving players valuable match practice in a competitive environment but the action is streamed online, giving fans an opportunity to watch live darts during this period of isolation.

So in his latest column, the Asset reflects on the different pressures of being involved in a tournament from his own house, the logistics of getting it all set up, and what the ramifications are for the future.

Could there one day be a world online darts champion?


FEELING THE PRESSURE...AT HOME

The first game I played in the Modus Icons of Darts Live League was against Mark Webster and, I’m not going to lie, I felt very nervous and I didn’t know why.

I was playing in my own room, surrounded by my own stuff and there was nobody else in it. You’d think there'd be no reason to be nervous at all!

But when you’re doing something that’s so groundbreaking at the time, you don’t want to fail and as sports people we don’t want to lose, which adds to the pressure. It did feel really odd.

Also, having nobody else in the room actually negatively impacts the usual match rhythm that we’re all so used to in a normal playing environment with people. We have earpieces in so you can hear your opponent call their shot before we can throw our next darts.

It takes a little bit of getting used to but after a couple of days playing against people I’m very familiar with like Raymond van Barneveld, Andy Jenkins and Mark Webster, I got more familiar with the format and timings, so my results certainly picked up.

There were teething problems, such as the streaming and sound quality, but over the first week of competition we’ve ironed those out and I think we’re onto something big here - and it’s only just the start.

Even when lockdown is over, I really think this has the potential to last and stand the test of time - but more on that later.

LOGISTICS

As you can imagine, getting involved in this isn't so straightforward. Everyone needs their dart board up with a surround and a proper lighting solution as well. If you just had a normal light bulb going onto the board it wouldn’t be sufficient. As professionals we obviously all have those and I’ve personally got the Winmau Plasma, which looks great.

Then you need an HD webcam focused on the board and it also has to be attached to a tripod, which is roughly at the height of the bullseye to give viewers the best angle and broadcast of where the darts are landing.

The webcam is also attached to a laptop, which hopefully has a high-speed internet connection.

There are another couple of devices we need at our disposal. One is a tablet which has the Dart Connect scoring system attached – this allows us to keep track of the scoring.

The scoring that viewers will see on the broadcast is done differently via the use of sound, which is done through our phones on a zoom call! The four people on that call are the two players, the referee George Noble and an official from Sport Radar to do the scoring which viewers will see.

Every player has an earpiece or some kind of headset while they are playing to communicate hands free.

As you can tell, it’s quite a logistical operation to make it seamless for the viewer and we did have to undergo a few days of testing, where we discovered how much better it looked using a tripod at the right height, before the tournament began.

We made sure we all had the right equipment and now we’ve developed the blueprint of what every other player must do to compete in these Icons of Darts Leagues.

PIONEERS

Those who have been involved at the start of what we’ve done feel an immense sense of pride.

George Noble, who I believe is the best referee in the world of darts, has been fundamental to all of this, as have Jason Thame of Modus Sports and Phil Barrs, who has been a journalist within the game for years.

If it wasn’t for those three I don’t think this would have got off the train tracks and spiralled into what it is.

These guys have been working 18 to 19 hours a day, working with broadcasters, sponsors and using their own ingenuity to make sure it balloons into something quite big.

Fortunately, they also had people like me, Raymond, Mark Webster, David Evans and Andy Jenkins all willing to put in their time to play and test it every day to make sure it looked great.

We feel so proud of this product and the PDC can also be proud of what they’ve managed to do as well.

'FRIENDLY' RIVALRIES AND INTEGRITY

I can reveal that after two of the six days in the first week of competition I felt awful about my overall results and how I played!

No sportsperson likes to lose, and I despise it, regardless of what tournament I’m playing in. I could show you some of the group chats that have occurred over the past week and yes there is some banter but at the moment it does seem very gentlemanly.

I’m not sure how long that will last though!

There has been some good banter in the PDC’s Darts at Home and that has opened up a nice portal of friendliness that you don’t often get to see with big-time darts.

With players like Devon Peterson and Nathan Aspinall, who incidentally won the opening two Wednesday nights, they are both characters and this is a great vehicle to showcase a bit more of that.

There seems to be more banter with it to make it more of an entertaining way to watch the darts rather than a traditional ranked tournament that has so much pressure attached to it.

This brings out the smiles from the players and I think fans like the opportunity to see what their heroes are really like in a more relaxed setting.

It’s taken a long time for fans to see what some players are really about, like Gerwyn Price for example, and there are plenty of others who are still a bit of a mystery until they do this type of thing.

However, the one word that will still go through the mind of every player before they throw a dart is integrity.

In this global situation which is very difficult, we are trying to entertain people at home but must also maintain our integrity. So whatever game you see from the Modus Icons of Darts or the PDC Darts at Home, I’d like to think 100% of the players will be fully focused on trying to win.

I can guarantee you if I lose a leg or a game I feel awful about it. We’ve had this conversation with the promotors and the governing body before the project even started and we reassured them all that integrity is the first priority and the entertainment is second.

The players who get themselves involved in this should be sharper and prepared than those who didn’t when the tours are able to resume again later this year.

Obviously the Icons of Darts isn’t available to those players with PDC Tour Cards as they are only allowed in PDC sanctioned events, but they’ll be better prepared for the tournaments they do compete in.

By putting something on the line – even if it’s pride or a league table – that’s match practice. They’ll see the benefit of this.

A WORLD ONLINE DARTS CHAMPION?

If there was a brief sent out by the PDC to all the players saying that you needed certain equipment to qualify for an online tournament such as this, then I would then ask why there isn’t a tournament in the future to crown an online world champion.

As long as the internet connection is good and you have the right tech, you could have players from all over the world coming up against each other in a big tournament – albeit not ranked.

Obviously they can't be ranked because the conditions are not the same for every player. If you have someone who lives in a very plush house like Michael van Gerwen, who has a large air-conditioned practice room for example, then he could well have an advantage over someone else who doesn’t.

Everyone has different homes, lifestyles, temperatures and even dart boards manufacturers. I know boards are all meant to be the identical, but they’re not.

However, I still firmly believe we’ve stumbled on something really impressive and we could potentially unearth more genuine talent this way than the traditional old school way.

BARNEY v TAYLOR

Raymond van Barneveld got one over his old rival Phil Taylor last week in their soft tip match for charity on an electronic Target Nexus board.

It was a good standard of game and also very close in the final scoreline after they’d both enjoyed periods of superiority throughout it.

Barney flew out of the blocks but then had to produce a stunning late comeback to win it after Phil owned the middle part of the game.

It was also educational for a lot of people who don’t know a lot about soft tip darts, such as legs being won on the outer bull, which counts as 50 in this type of game.

One of the things we wrestle with in the UK – perhaps more than anywhere else in the world – is this idea that darts is ‘just’ 501 on a steel tip board. If you go around the globe and broaden your horizons a bit, you’ll find that in the States, Australia, New Zealand and Asia, they play different types of darts with different types of boards.

However, with the grandeur the sport has had during the last 30 years, we’ve been force fed 501 darts with trebles, doubles and singles.

What this game did was educate people to think there are different ways to play and that being soft tip, it’s also safe for children.

I’ve played a lot of steel and soft tip darts in my career and one of the best compliments I was given came from Adrian Gray who said I could “separate both brains in the flick of a switch”.

If you think of a finish like 115, for instance, a soft tip player will go bull, 15, bull because that’s the biggest target on the board. You don’t want to be left on a double. But in steel tip darts, that would make no sense because the doubles are bigger than the bull.

Both players utilised the tactics well for the Nexus board but ultimately Barney did so a bit better.

I do think there was some kind of ego trip going on with the backdrops as far as Barney is concerned!

He knew he’d be playing online and every viewer would see him throwing so why not put all your trophies on display! It was Phil’s choice not to flaunt any in his living room but I personally loved what Barney did.

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