by Tim Ford
The term ‘Arena’ conjures images of Maximus Decimus Meridius screaming, ‘Are you not entertained?’ in the movie Gladiator. So did the new Super League Triathlon Arena Games live up to the hype?
Over the weekend we saw the launch of the inaugural Super League Arena Games. A new format from the most innovative triathlon company in the world as they look to navigate the new "COVID-safe" era for events.
This format of racing is a combination of both real and virtual racing (although there is nothing virtual about the effort the athletes put in) in which athletes swim in a pool and then ride and run on their trainer and treadmill on Zwift.
Now, I am happy to admit it, I am a triathlon tragic. I love swim, bike and run and have been so excited by everything that Super League have done for the sport. I complain that Ironman is boring to watch but still find myself sitting in front of the screen watching athletes for hours at a time.
So when all events shut down we saw a massive shift towards eRacing. Ironman launched their IMVR, a suite of cycling events went onto Zwift and Super League launched their own eRacing bike series. With the exception of my excitement when Lionel Sanders used an invisibility boost to win a bike race, I have struggled to get into it.
I cannot put my finger on what exactly it is about eRacing that doesn’t float my boat. I have just admitted to watching an Ironman for 8 hours (which is not edge-of-your-seat viewing). When I heard about Jan Frodeno attempting an indoor Ironman I tuned in and struggled to stay engaged. I tried to watch the Super League eRacing and again, I just couldn’t get behind it.
Here is a completely random non-triathlon fact about me. I love computer games. I can sink literally hundreds of hours into levelling up my characters in a Final Fantasy game that is 20 years old. But put me on Zwift and I ride the same loop every time (Tick Tock) and have levelled up to nearly level 50 without any real interest. It is like that part of my brain is just not there.
So when I heard about the Arena Games I was underwhelmed. Not because I didn’t think it was a great concept (because I do) but because I didn't think it was for me. I think it is amazing that Super League have worked so hard to come up with a format of racing that not only gives fans something to watch but also an opportunity for the professional athletes to race AND try to make some money.
Now, with all my random waffling (or as I choose to see it, scene setting) what did I think?
What Did I Like?
Macca and Will McCloy have now been working together to commentate these events for years and the rapport that they have developed together is half of what is great about Super League Triathlon. On a recent MX Endurance Podcast, I asked James Bale if the figures like watts and pace were going to be engaging to the lay-fan and he said, “that is where Will McCloy comes in” and he was right. The way they explained the action and what all of the numbers meant made the viewing experience extremely compelling. Even when the Zwift footage randomly switched to the last-placed female while there was a sprint for second, the desperation in Will’s voice emphasised just how much was on the line and how exciting what we were watching was. In some ways, this small technical hiccup actually added to make the whole experience even more compelling.
The Coloured Jerseys
What a stroke of genius to take the Super League coloured jersey concept and apply it in this new way. Each athlete is given an individual colour to match their avatar. It made it incredibly easy to follow who was who and who was doing what. Again, for people who aren’t as au fait with the stars of our sport, turning the athletes into the triathlon Wiggles was a great way to make it easy to follow.
While it is great watching athletes battle it out on the road, it can often be hard to tell just how hard or fast they are going. That was not a problem for the Arena Games. Showing how fast the athletes were running, how many watts/kg they were pushing and having them swim in a pool (which is very familiar to me as an Australian) put everything into context. There has been lots of talk about how these sorts of statistics are going to make racing more exciting and now I get it.
You put some of the strongest athletes in the world together for anything and they are going to push it and that is exactly what we saw. What can I say, it was enthralling to watch. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I was absolutely bombarding my wife with what all the statistics meant. The points system meant that every stage meant something. I could not believe how hooked I was so quickly. I was as desperate as Will McCloy when we missed the women’s finish and was on the edge of my seat as Gomez made his attack at the end of the final stage.
What Didn’t I Like?
Every time I even contemplate giving my honest thoughts on something I can hear Will McCloy’s voice calling me negative and I definitely don’t want you to think that I am being negative about the Arena Games. I do however think there are some things which could make the experience even better next time.
One of the best things in a race is watching the athletes cross the finish line and collapse or congratulate each other and show the emotion of what they have just achieved. At regular Super League events, when they have finished with a swim or ride they have still needed to cross the finish line.
I found watching them finish these races a little anticlimactic. Imagine watching them stumble off the bike after buckling themselves for the win to then have to run a lap of the pool to a finish line. In reality, it probably isn’t safe to have that sort of finish line at the moment so I completely understand why they haven’t implemented it but even some crazy graphics on the screen when they finish the race would add another layer of excitement.
It is probably just that seeing Zwift avatars triggers some deep-seated resentment with my own avatar after hours suffering with him. I found watching the athletes on the treadmill or on their trainer much more compelling than their avatars in Zwift. Also, when you build a Zwift world for a race, turn the crowd NPC number up 100 fold… Or…. Put them in a volcano to make the world more on brand with the Arena Games style. This is maybe just a personal preference but watching the avatars who look like they are just out for a casual jog while you are hearing how close the racing is formed a bit of a disconnect in my brain.
Yeah yeah, low-hanging fruit but I heard Will and Macca talk about how great this would be in an actual arena with thousands of people in it cheering and I completely agree. This new racing format is something special. I know that Super League has already indicated that they anticipate this sticking around well after we return to regular racing and I really hope it does. I think we will see a new style of athlete shine in this new form of racing. Imagine a Lionel Sanders doing this sort of event. He can put power down like no one else and doesn't need to worry about handling or anything!
We heard multiple times that running on these self-propelled treadmills is harder. We know that bike positions can be altered to maximise power when riding on a trainer. The tactics completely change when the swim is in a pool without drafting.
While it is a sort of ‘blessing in disguise’ that Super League has been forced to create this new format of racing, I wish it could have been launched in what I can only refer to as its ‘final form.’
Without intending to, I was not that interested in the Arena Games when they were first announced because I lumped it in with other forms of eRacing which has failed to captivate me this year. In hindsight, I should have given Super League the benefit of the doubt. I have watched every single piece of triathlon content they have produced and I have loved all of it. They have demonstrated just how exciting a triathlon can be and that is exactly what the Arena Games are: an exciting new format of swimming, biking and running that will hopefully scratch the itch for all triathlon fans not only during a pandemic but moving forward in general.
A huge congratulations to Chris McCormack and his team for putting on an incredible event during truly challenging times.
If you haven’t already checked it out, stop reading and tune in immediately.
Tim Ford is the CEO of MX Endurance and a member of our team of coaches. He has gone from being a complete novice weighing well over 120kg to a top athlete with a 4:06 PB for a 70.3. Through his time in the sport he has learned skills which help him to assist athletes of all levels and abilities.