HONG KONG: Picture your stereotypical darts player. Middle-aged and overweight, with a gut spilling over a waistband, cultivated through years of swilling beer during tense matches.
But a radical transformation is taking place and the game that was once the preserve of grown-ups in dimly lit pubs has been reborn in the 21st century, with teenagers and young adults eagerly flocking to dedicated darts bars.
A new breed of dynamic young player has emerged, playing a high-tech version of the game complete with flashing lights, electronic bleeps and a computer that does all the troublesome maths for you.
Welcome to the world of soft darts, which has been big in Japan for some years but is now hitting the bullseye as it sweeps across Asia, with a rapidly swelling fanbase and its own high-profile tournaments, the most lucrative of which is this year offering a prize pot of HK$5 million ($650,000).
One of the game’s top players, Singapore’s Paul Lim, describes the differences between the traditional game and soft darts—where the arrows’ steel tips are replaced with plastic points and the electronic board calculates your scores—as similar to those between snooker and pool.
“If you look at snooker and pool, how many more people play pool? It’s a lot easier. People get a lot more enjoyment because it’s a far simpler game,” said Lim, who was the first ever darts player to throw a perfect nine-dart finish during a world championship, in 1990.
“I’ve been playing steel-tip for 38 years and I’ve been involved in soft-tip for about 15 years. Soft-tip is much faster and simpler. This is made for people not to think, just to have fun.”
While soft-tip darts have been around for decades—darts manufacturer Harrows says the electronic game was developed in the United States in 1977 —one company in particular is blazing a trail around the world.
Dartslive, which both manufactures and distributes soft tip boards, is linking up all the machines they provide to venues worldwide electronically, allowing players on opposite sides of the planet to step up to the oche and take each other on in real time.
Launched in 2003 in Japan, the company expanded its operation overseas in 2009 when it opened a venue in Hong Kong. Since then it has spread rapidly to 14 countries.
“When we started in Hong Kong, every month I would say we would have about 500 new players. It’s a cool atmosphere, almost like clubbing. People come in for a few drinks. It’s entertainment. It’s fun,” said Lim, an early proponent of the game.