I like sports and I don’t care who knows
The club level of Findlay Toyota Tower at Sam Boyd Stadium is nearly empty when I arrive Friday afternoon. Hours earlier it was bustling, I must imagine, with Supercross riders, Milestone S.r.l. team members, members of the press and public relations staff for the press conference announcing Monster Energy Supercross – The Videogame. While this is happening, I’m stuck at San Francisco International Airport. Strong winds push smoke from the fires that devastated the North Bay towards the airport, prompting cancellations of several flights including mine.
When I do arrive in Las Vegas, my first time in the city, and move my way past the sad slot machines that dot the airport terminal, I question why I am there. I have no interest in Supercross or Motocross or any motor racing sport. My sole experience with dirtbike racing was roughly 20 years ago. A neighbor kid had just got one and my brother and I were invited over to watch him ride. He let us try it out as well. I don’t really remember getting on the bike or riding it, but distinctly recall crying my eyes out on his couch with blood pouring out of my mouth after I drove straight into their wire fence without a helmet on. Outside of the various Excitebike games I’ve played over the years, it was my only dalliance with a sport I was being sent to Vegas to cover.
A $20 Lyft ride later I am at the stadium. The food and most of the press are gone. A few of the Supercross riders remain to answer questions and play the game for promotional b-roll. Tara, the lovely PR representative whose infectious laughter will ring through the entirety of my trip, quickly grabs me a bottle of water and sets me up in front of one of the several flat screens playing the game. If I thought it looked great in its trailer, it is stunning to see in person. Monster Energy Supercross is the second game from Milestone to use the Unreal 4 engine and it puts it to good use.
My first track, appropriately the Las Vegas course from the 2017 Supercross season, is in the middle of a torrential downpour. The wetness of the mud looks true-to-life and the bikes and riders look absolutely amazing. I know it’s no surprise that a racing game looks damn good, most of them these days do, but in my naivety, I didn’t expect this much polish from a developer I had to Google before my plane took off.
As I begin to play my first race, I am joined by Enrico Toniolo, Product Manager for Milestone and one of the few team members who made the trip from Italy. He joined the company just this year and is a huge fan of racing and the racing games it has produced for the past 17 years. In our conversation, a much-needed distraction from how awful I was doing, we talk about Milestone and how the company has fared in the United States with its lineup of games.
Most people probably only know the developer from Ride or Ride 2 or even the beautiful looking Gravel that was announced earlier this year. Its catalog is stuffed with European centric racers like MotoGP, Superbike, World Rally Championship. It’s also worked on several Motocross games, a sport that is roughly the EU equivalent to Supercross. The success of that series in the states has been slowly growing Toniolo tells me as I run off the track yet again, but from it, the company learned of the great demand for an authentic Supercross game.
“We were listening to the fans,” he says. “Whenever we were looking at the comments online for MXGP3 we got a lot of US fans asking for the Supercross video game. MX [Motocross] is stronger in Europe, but we know Supercross is very strong in the US and we wanted to get there. We just decided to do it this year because with the technology and improvements we scored with MXGP3 we were sure we could now provide a quality for this game that fans deserve.” I finish my first race in dead last. Before I can try another track, we are scooted off the couch so one of the riders participating the following night’s Monster Energy Cup can play.
Outside of the gaming area of the club level are wall-to-wall windows giving us a look at the track being built below. 500 dump trucks of dirt will find their way in and out of the stadium over the next two days as the Monster Energy Cup track, designed by riding legend Ricky Carmichael, is constructed. This track is planned as post-launch DLC and Milestone photographers will take approximately 1,000 pictures of it to get it as exact as possible.
I ask Toniolo about the track editor feature. He tells me the game is about 85% complete right now with polish, physics, and the track editor still in development. Players will be able to create tracks in a variety of shapes and sizes, in either an indoor or outdoor venue. When complete, creators can share them online where a voting system will let players pick their favorites. We’ll also be able to inject our tracks into a custom rider career mode.
“If you’re going to ride with the official riders, they’re going to have the same tracks in the same order,” he explains. “But then if you want to do the career with your own custom riders, not only can you customize the rider’s bikes and looks, but also the weights and the dates and stadiums. So for instance, if you want to run Vegas or Minneapolis and then another track you can create your career as you want.”
“The thing is when you play the career with the custom rider you start at the bottom so the 250 and then you go up until you reach 450, hopefully, the top of the leaderboard. The more you play, the more you get better, the more chances you get to get sponsored by official sponsors. We actually got in contact with official ones of the Monster Energy Supercross and in the game, they will contact the players and tell them they’re doing a really good job and offer to sponsor them.”
It’s obvious to me a lot of care is going into making this. Milestone has its niche and it’s working it well, but as I sit in the back seat of my Uber as a journalist from COGconnected tries to explain Fallout: New Vegas to our old middle-eastern driver, I wonder if anyone will care? Is Supercross that big of a sport to warrant not just a game but also flying members of the games press to the middle of the desert just to unveil it? Honestly… a Supercross game. Who gives an eff?
At dinner, I meet a few of the other journalists who made the trip. I don’t remember all their names, but I recall three charming Machinima members, a Hardcore Gamer writer who ends up as the absolute stud of the night, and my COGconnected friend. After steak and wine I decide to do Vegas up right, and by do up right I mean drink a lot. Four or five Red Bull and Vodkas and one drink I can’t even remember buying quickly join the five glasses of wine I consume at dinner. The next morning I turn my bathroom into a biohazard zone. Sunlight pains me. My friend replies to a text I don’t remember sending and as I pray for him to come to Vegas and just kill me, he hits the nail on the head when he texts back exactly how I am feeling: “By now you should feel like someone beat you up, took a dump in your mouth, and then you caught the flu.”
After potentially ruining a perfectly good bathroom rug, I take another $20 Lyft back to Sam Boyd. With a few Powerades in me, I am starting to feel like my normal self and can finally hold down the food I am eating, something I couldn’t earlier do when I foolishly ordered a $30 cereal and bagel breakfast.
The stadium is slowly starting to fill for the night’s Monster Energy Cup when I arrive and make my way up to the press level of the Toyota Tower. Two game stations are set up for anyone to try out. I pick up a controller and again I finish in dead last, this time on the Minneapolis track. As someone who doesn’t play racing games that don’t include turtle shells and banana peels, there are a few elements I have to get accustomed to. Steering feels natural enough and I quickly figure out the proper way to utilize my rider’s body weight with the right thumbstick. Braking into corners is a lesson I must relearn as bikes don’t brake the same way karts do. I also, for basically the first time since I spent a weekend enjoying Gran Turismo 4 back in college, have to remember to shift gears.
I’ve never driven a car with a manual transmission and I don’t see myself bothering to learn at this stage of my life. In Supercross, there are two transmission options: full and semi-automatic, the latter of which was the only option available for the demo. With a full transmission, I would have to upshift and downshift my gears. With the semi-automatic, I only worry about upshifting. If I miss the visual cue to do so, the grating sound of my engine is a quick reminder.
Finally wrapping my head around the controls, I devour a big, salty stadium pretzel and give the Vegas track another shot. 18th place is the best I can do. Another attempt at the Minneapolis track places me in 11th. I am getting better. Just four attempts in and I am already making my way to the front of the pack, gunning for that checkered flag.
Before the start of the Monster Energy Cup, I am able to walk the track built at Sam Boyd to get a feel of what the riders will be facing at 65 miles per hour. Each step adds a pound of mud to my Champions as I follow the massive group of Supercross fans. We go up the whoop section, around the rhythm section and walk right through Joker Lane. I take pictures by the finish line and really start to take everything in. Like the first time I walked onto a professional football field, I gain an appreciation for the sport I’ve never felt just by being there. On television, it looks so small but in person it’s huge. By traversing this track on my own two feet, I get a great sense of what every rider must account for when they take to the dirt.
Back on the press level, my shoes ruined, I take from my quick experience on the track and try to apply it to the game. I think about my speed going through the whoop section. I consider alternating between braking and taking my finger off the accelerator trigger when going into turns. I think about that track path and mud from it still on the soles of my shoes. With everything going through my mind I somehow manage a third-place finish. I tell myself my little epiphany about the sport is the sole reason for my newfound success, but finally figuring out how to properly use the rewind feature is the largest contributor to that finish.
When I was told the left trigger initiated the rewind feature, I assumed I would just have to hold it down for it to work. It felt like the natural thing to do and when it didn’t work, I wrote down on my little notepad this part of the game needed work. Every time I attempted it I could only get it to rewind about half the time. When I couldn’t reverse crashes, I thought the feature was only usable in situations where I drove wildly off the track.
Like with most things in life, I am just really wrong. The rewind feature does work, with a single press of the trigger, and it gets me out of so many troublesome turns and wayward jumps. That third-place run is my last attempt before the Monster Energy Cup begins. I spend my remaining moments in the tower watching a little blonde British kid get mad at me when I tell him he keeps pressing the downshift button, putting his bike in neutral. I chat with his dad who tells me the kid has a bunch of these types of games, but never plays them because he’s far more interested in doing the real thing. I share my experience from decades ago which is greeted with a laugh and a look telling me just how stupid I was to not wear a helmet.
It was around this time a charming fellow named John (or Jon, didn’t really ask him) from GameZone points out something I and a few others hadn’t noticed before. As you race along the track, the jersey of the rider will flap in the wind. It’s such a small detail and easily missed among the rest of the beauty of the game. When we finally get to watch a real race in action, it’s the first detail I notice. That’s a level of care and appreciation for the sport that, again, I just didn’t think I would see from a developer I’d never heard of until this weekend.
Our seats for the Cup aren’t seats at all. The main stage of the event has two decks on the left and right where we can watch the race from the middle of the track. A column of speakers near the front keeps me at the rear of our deck, offering a great look at the back section of the track. As I nibble on appetizers and make small talk with PR people and the other writers, the spectacle begins.
The Monster Energy Cup is divided up into three races. If a racer wins all three, they get one million dollars. In between those three racers are slower classes of bike, including a single race of kids as young as seven-years-old. It’s quite emasculating watching a kid ¼ my age riding around the track on something I’ve been too scared to get back on after my one traumatic experience. Far more emasculating was watching one of these tykes crash, get up, shake himself off, get back on his bike and finish the race.
The first race of the Cup gets underway with a bang and pretty quickly Marvin Musquin takes the lead. As the race enters its fourth or fifth lap, I waltz over to one of the game stations set up on the deck to give it another go. Appropriately, I pick Musquin as my racer and Vegas as the venue. Under the stars of the desert sky, I put everything I have into that race. I remember everything from my previous attempts and let the general exciting vibe of the crowd at the stadium flow through me. It all clicks and several laps later, as the real Marvin Musquin takes the checkered flag, my Marvin Musquin crosses the finish line in first place.
I did it. In just a handful of races, in a game genre I’m really not too familiar with, I go from worst to first. I am so cocky at this point I immediately play the Minneapolis track again, this time in the first-person goggle mode – which is something I never do when given the option – and still manage to wreck the competition. Feeling absolutely full of myself, I retire from playing after that race. I want to keep that winner’s spirit flowing through me as the night goes on. Marvin Musquin wins the second of the three races an hour later and, as the lot of us are having drinks and sushi at Tao, takes home the million-dollar prize with his third first-place finish.
Not wanting a repeat of the morning, I bow out early of whatever evening festivities were to take place for this final night. Back in my hotel room, looking over the vast expanse past the suburbs of Las Vegas and Henderson, I feel good. Not because I am completely sober or because I had just had some of the best Uni in my life. I feel good because I find something new I really enjoy. Before that weekend I wouldn’t have given Supercross another look. Like NASCAR or Monster Jam or going to the dentist, Supercross was something I just didn’t consider to be for me. Playing this game allows me to see the passion people have for motorsports. My desire to do better at it for the sake of a hands-on, to dive as deep as I can in one weekend into the culture around it, has me looking at this sport with optimism instead of my usual shallow, Fraiser-watching, Chaucer-reading left coast liberal cynicism. Suddenly, I give an eff, and as I search for the next event in a stadium near me for the 2018 season – Oakland in February – I see myself giving an eff for a very long time.
Now, as for Monster Energy Supercross – The Videogame, when Toniolo says it’s roughly 85% complete I believe it. Because while the game looks outstanding in action, there are a few troubles I come across. The racing is sound, but the physics still need work. Several times I don’t so much as land on another racer but just kind of float on top of them until I gently touch the ground. There are a few awkward crashes and wipes that really don’t seem to be my fault. The cutscenes leading in and out of each race look straight out of an early PS3 game – which Toniolo says Milestone is aware of and working on – and the rain effects hitting the screen look pretty cheap.
But beyond the physics issues, those graphical annoyances are easy to look past when the game is just this damn fun. All 17 tracks from the 2017 Supercross season will be included when it launches next year and the Monster Energy Cup track will be available as DLC sometime after that. Monster Energy Supercross – The Videogame will launch on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on February 13, 2018. The Switch version will hit a few weeks after that.
[Disclosure: Travel provided by the publisher.]