Some sports seemed suitable for simulation during block life, but surfing was not one of them.
For several weeks, only those within walking distance of real waves in the UK were allowed to ride, leaving British champion Luke Dillon complaining in early May that “being at home is starting to drive me crazy. Surfing isn’t like the other sports you can do in your garden. “
And your living room, though? Because it turns out that being banned from the beaches doesn’t necessarily leave you landlocked, at least not if you have a ZX Spectrum in your attic.
It probably seems unlikely that a relic from the 1980s British computer scene could provide a solution for suffering surfers in 2020, especially when the current crop of simulations for other sports is so sophisticated.
But a little-known game about the humble 48K “Speccy” with a rubber key was in sight of the wave when it came to virtual sports 35 years ago, and is still probably the most accurate surf simulation that exists.
This is the story of Surf Champ, which spawned the first eSport tournament in 1985 and secured the presale that would make its creators millionaires, but instead left them on the verge of bankruptcy as it sank without a trace.
Where it started – the surf simulation pointing to the stars
Surf Champ was born from an idea of the nonconformist surfer scientist, dr. Norman McMillan, who wanted to conquer the world of sport with the help of his complex algorithms.
Dr. McMillan is still a scientist, with a long list of academic and research results behind him – one of his latest projects is a drop spectroscopy tool used by University College Dublin to help find a rapid diagnostic test for Covid. -19.
In 1985, he was a 40-year-old professor of physics and computer science at the Carlow Regional Technical College in Ireland, who had an idea he thought would revolutionize professional sport decades before anyone else managed it.
He had collaborated with academic colleague John Frayne and the famous astrophysics Susan McKenna-Lawlor, who would have played a leading role with NASA and Russia in experiments on international space missions to Mars, Venus and the moon.
They wanted a common project that would allow them to pursue their individual interests, but which could also be commercially viable. The thriving home computer game market in the UK seemed ideal, but what should be the first topic?
“I was a surfer,” explains dr. McMillan. “So, I knew about surfing and as a physicist I said that I could make a computer game with an appropriate mathematical algorithm so that it was accurate, which of course it was.
“That’s how Surf Champ started, then John came up with the idea of surfboard overlay for the keyboard. Susan’s specialty was ultra-fast programming for the latest space technology of the time, which would help work everything.
“Each of us invested £ 20,000 in our company, New Concepts, which was lucky at the time, but we needed more funds to get off the ground, so we went to the industrial development authority (IDA) in Ireland.
“They gave New Concepts the money we needed to launch Surf Champ as a product and they said ‘go and test yourself if you want more funds.”
Hone your onboard skills, using a ZX spectrum
Surf Champ’s slogan boasted of how it was “the game that teaches you how to surf”, which sounds a bit optimistic, bearing in mind that its surfboard measures 19 cm from nose to tail.
New concepts needed credibility – and who better to ask professional surfers themselves?
In the fall of 1985, McMillan and his son Doug went to Rossnowlagh beach in Ireland for the European Surfing Championships, and enjoyed great luck.
“There wasn’t a wave in sight,” recalls McMillan. “It was perfect for us because the surfers had nothing to do. They played non-stop instead and everyone said it was absolutely accurate.”
Among them was Jed Stone, then reigning English surfing champion, who would soon collect another title – at the inauguration of the World Computer Surfing Championship.
“They installed computers and showed us how to play,” recalls Stone. “So each nation was asked to select four surfers for a surf-off – which I ended up winning.”
“Your mind is thinking the same way you stand up”
At this point, Surf Champ was making serious waves in the surfing community, getting brilliant sponsorships from international and European surf associations.
But it was proving more difficult for beginners and casual game players to deal with, and its presentation was quite primitive, even for its time. Could you really learn to surf by playing?
Although he doesn’t feel that any game can capture the thrill of catching a real wave, Stone still agrees with the claims of dr. McMillan said Surf Champ was a way to teach you some of the skills you needed.
“The basic principles are there,” says the 66-year-old Newquay artist, who has been surfing for nearly 50 years and won an award for being Britain’s most inspirational surfer in 2014, when he retired from professional competition.
“Since you used the blackboard, you didn’t have the keys on your head.
“Did you know that if you leaned forward on it, it would have cut in the simulation wave. If you moved back, say on the back left of the table, you would have made a turn down.
“Your toes are on the board, so you’re actually riding the wave like that. I know it’s not your feet, but your mind is thinking the same way it would be if you stood up – so in that regard, is it was accurate, yes.
“The graphics look simple now, of course, but there was nothing else like this at the time, so it was a case of” wow, look at this “.
“Everyone was buzzing about it – he was a precursor to what they are doing now, in all sports.
“Many surfers played” True Surf “on their phones during the blockade, which is the culmination of New Concepts’ early initiatives. It is the same as Surf Champ, only without the feel of the board.”
True Surf looks much sharper – an iPhone has approximately 144,000 times more memory than the 48K spectrum – and uses real-time with a network of global cameras to get the same waves that actually occur on 21 classic beaches who can “visit”.
Surf Champ only had one beach – Fistral in Cornwall – but the idea was to add more in subsequent editions, with competitions offering prizes for the public throughout 1986.
None of this would have happened, however, so the first World Surfing Computer Championship was also the last.
“I’m still unbeaten to this day,” added Stone, with a smile.
What went wrong? The money ran out
Allowing people to surf at home was just the beginning of New Concepts.
Water skiing, water skiing and sailing were all in the pipeline. And, 20 years before Nintendo brought the Wii to market, motion-sensitive controls were.
Prototype models were made and more government agencies were interested in getting on board with sponsorship for training and exercise purposes – but for everything that happened, Surf Champ had to succeed first.
With a grimace, dr. McMillan explains what happens next and how his dream died.
He says: “I went to London in October 1985 to talk to several distributors and one of them said ‘right, it’s coming up for Christmas, we will give you an order for 180,000 now – can you produce 200,000?
“The game would have cost £ 12 and New Concepts would get £ 4 for each copy sold, so we would have made hundreds of thousands, which today would be worth millions.
“I said, ‘Wow … but wait, are you sure you can sell them all?’ And they said, “Yes, of course.”
“So we went back to IDA and said, ‘We ran out of money and we need a little more production help to fulfill this order.’
“But we were the first computer game company in Ireland, so they had no idea how that industry worked and how small the window to get it out was.
“They said, ‘Oh, no, this is just a marketing test. You have to test the marketing before getting full funding … and by the way, the maximum number of games you can produce now is 3,000.’
“They were just following the procedure but, just like that, they had cut our legs. It was a disaster.
“When I finished arguing with them, it was late November. They hadn’t changed their minds and there was no time left.
“The 3000 games we made were sold in the blink of an eye, but I knew we should have done it correctly, because it may be the only chance we’ve ever had – and it actually was.”
After unsuccessfully applying for an additional IDA grant to release Ski Champ – complete with a pair of miniature skis – New Concepts was told that the only way to get the funding they now desperately needed was if they used it to give Surf Champ a late full release in 1986.
“I said OK, but we can’t do it now on the Specter, because this was several months after it first came out and its time has passed – you can’t just come up with a game for the second time.
“Instead we did it on the Commodore 64. We got some good reviews, but we only sold 600 copies, and by this point we were completely bankrupt, so we had no money to continue.”
From the jaws of success, New Concepts had – to use the most appropriate navigation terminology – canceled.
So Surf Champ’s innovative ideas, scientific value and forward-looking marketing have only managed to go far. His plastic surfboard is now remembered as little more than a game trick when he promised to be much more.
“We had a hit and lost it,” says Dr. McMillan. “But we were ahead of our time – and as far as surf simulations are concerned, I’m still very proud now that some of the best surfers in the world have told me how accurate it was.”
Thanks to Damian Scattergood.