One of the great privileges of writing about the America’s Cup is the incredible access that you receive to some of the world’s most successful people and I’ve been fortunate enough in my time to meet the likes of Paul Allen, Cindy Crawford, Larry Ellison, Peter Harrison, Prince Albert of Monaco, Olin Stephens, Patrizio Bertelli…and Brad Butterworth. But very few have come close for sheer vision to Adam Placer. Who’s he, you ask? Well in commercial gaming terms, ‘Ads’ as he’s universally known is top of the tree as Global Marketing Manager for the Valve Corporation and you’re about to hear an awful lot more about him in America’s Cup circles.
With Emirates taking the decision not to renew with Team New Zealand for the next Cup cycle, the Valve Corporation has been swift to secure the naming rights to the world’s fastest team and in a statement released today have announced that the Kiwis will be known as ‘Steam New Zealand’ with immediate effect.
Gabe Newell, co-founder and CEO of Valve, the company that owns the ubiquitous gaming platform ‘Steam’ which every teenager knows only too well, was a quiet sub-supporter of Emirates Team New Zealand in the 36th edition having fallen in love with the country whilst sheltering during the global pandemic. Instead of ploughing money into his home team, American Magic, who he described as being ‘slow to reach out,’ Newell was courted by Grant Dalton and found kindred technological spirits in the team’s approach to everything from AI for race simulation through to Dan Bernasconi’s actual design team.
And now, the grand vision for the 37th Cup can be unveiled. In a call from Bellevue Washington last night, I was given first access by Adam ‘Ads’ Placer to the vision for the 37th America’s Cup which will be a global digital contest with a fully immersive experience combining Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing and Gameplay Simulation. But it’s also so much more than just another game – this time it’s real and the Cup is on the line.
Rather than the spectre of having individuals sitting behind screens playing solo, as has been done to great success with the likes of the Vendee Globe, players will form gaming syndicates and assign roles exactly the same as if they were competing for real.
Syndicates will be asked to appoint three team members – a skipper, a tactician and just one flight controller per boat. Hydraulic grunt will be battery operated and automated as grinding isn’t seen as being viably replicable in gaming and sail trim will be co-ordinated in real-time by Artificial Intelligence through a programme called Valve Opti-Trim ensuring near-perfect and standardised sail shaping regardless of boat position. The skill will be in maintaining flight and real-world tactics whilst things like the foil cant system will be replicated with the updated software mapped across all competitors to avoid any advantage being gained through hacking or software modification.
The global event will start in July 2021 with gameplay eliminations running through to December before the Challenger races begin in January 2022. The five top digital teams will then enter the Cup competition for real and at this point, the current real-world syndicates, those signing up to the Cup Protocol issued at midnight on the 31st March, will face off against the world’s digital elite. The winner of the Challenger series will advance to meet Pete Burling, Glenn Ashby and Blair Tuke of Steam New Zealand for a one-on-one Match for the actual America’s Cup in March 2022.
One of the big advances made will be that real-life live weather feeds from the Hauraki Gulf will be in place. The Valve Corporation have managed to replicate all of the established courses to feed in real-time wind and wave formations through a series of satellite connected course buoys and live-area mapping in a major step forward in immersive technology. With a VR headset on, players will see no difference to the actual on-water experience where even the wash of a passing ship or power-boat will be real-time captured. Iain Murray has been confirmed as the Race Director for both the Challenger and Match events whilst a global body will appoint international Race Directors for the pre-Challenger series.
As the competition gets down to the business end, the final contestants will be mandated to attend a daily press conference where the line ‘we’re learning every day’ will be explicitly outlawed as will all references to the ‘team back at the base.’ Speaking from Monaco last night, Sir Jim Ratcliffe was delighted with the new Cup format saying; “We wanted to think differently for the next Cup and we’re delighted with the proposed format and protocol, opening up these magnificent sailing machines to a true global audience. With the pandemic still prevalent, we felt at Ineos Sport that it’s right for the times and with the Valve Corporation’s advances in immersive technology we can bring America’s Cup racing into every home and let the world compete on a level playing field. Sailing shouldn’t be an elitist sport. Today is a good day for the democratisation of the America’s Cup.”
On the new Cup format, Adam Placer told me from Seattle: “Firstly the naming rights for Steam New Zealand was an absolute no-brainer. We have a fabulous sponsorship template to follow and big boots to fill with Emirates departing but we know that global gameplay during the pandemic has reached epic proportions and the Valve Corporation is perfectly placed to take the America’s Cup to the next level. Keeping the Cup in New Zealand virtual waters for now makes sense having assessed the Isle of Wight where as it stands today is just too difficult to map. But what we’re excited about is the technology we can deploy to bring immersive gameplay to the broadest audience and open up new territories for the sport. Fusing real-life and digital is now not just the future, it’s the reality and the 37th America’s Cup will be won by those with the best skills, not just those with the best opportunities.”
Signatories to the new Challenger Protocol published overnight will be asked to pay a NZD$1 million entry fee plus a platform subscription to Steam of $8.99 per month which ensures their passage through to the Challenger finals. The teams have been swift to rebrand amidst the changes with the British forming a new syndicate: Ineos Digital Innovation Optimisation Team Syndicate; the Americans have secured AT&T as principle partners to become American Magic ATT Racing Syndicate and the Italians have jettisoned Pirelli in favour of motorbike manufacturer Ducati to now become the Ducati Universal Luna Rossa Digital Syndicate.
The new Digital Cup Protocol was issued at 12.01am 1st April, New Zealand time.