Once upon a time, not so long ago, Soft Tip darts was regarded as the poor relation of the “adult game” or “real darts”. Here we explore the change in attitudes and how SoTi & Steel Tip now compliment each other almost completely.
The increasing popularity, and global reach, of darts, seems to know no bounds. Regardless of association, code, nationality or region darts is booming. Participation, TV viewing and live event attendance are steaming ahead. Much of this has been led by UK/European steel tip darts. The PDC, in cooperation with broadcasters, have developed the game as a product and exported it globally. However, alongside this, huge expansion can be seen in the rise of Soft Tip darts (SoTi).
Less than a decade ago many professional, or even serious, players would laugh out loud at the idea of playing soft tip. The plastic tips, funny knobbled boards, lightweight darts and larger scoring segments seemed to generate a certain snobbery and derision. This view of SoTi as a kind of inferior/junior version of “real darts” could be said to be short-sighted at best and at worst plain foolish.
A look below the surface revealed a less straightforward picture with some interesting developments. Manufacturers, never known to miss a revenue stream, seemed keen to try to tap into this area whilst at the same time enshrining the superior status of the steel tip format. The big names, in the U.K. & Europe, have long since manufactured many of their arrows in SoTi versions. Unicorn, for example, had an extensive range of their player darts and marquee named products in SoTi options at least the late 1990’s. They clearly demarked the ranges between Steel Tip & Soft Tip or Touch. Whether this was an attempt to build a parallel SoTi culture in the UK/Europe market or mainly to supply to North America is unclear.
Dart players will always seek out competition, glory and yes of course cash! Some had spotted an additional avenue in the growing SoTi events in North America and elsewhere. At the time Steel tip darts beginning to regroup but could not support large numbers of players to the level of earning a living. Famous players including Larry Butler and the legendary Paul Lim opted to play the BullShooter SoTi events from the early ’90s to supplement their incomes and claim a World title or two. They were later joined by Peter Evison & John Part. Dart Maple’s 2008 Bullshooter World SoTi title came whilst he was reigning PDC (steel tip) World Champion making him unique in holding both at the same time.
The SoTi format, mainly North American at that time, was not a one-way street, players such as Darin Young and Mensur Suljovic progressed in the opposite direction. Both claimed versions of the SoTi World Champs in the 2000s as well as later gaining great steel tip success. John Part as a unique position by holding both a soft tip and a steel tip World title at the same time.
During this time the SoTi game was building rapidly in mainland Europe, South Korea, and especially in Japan. By 2011 the game had a very large following and what would become the Dartslive SoTi system and organisation was in place. That year $1million (HKD) was the prize for a World SoTi Championship held in Hong Kong. Who should pop up to claim the crown, you guessed it, Paul Lim.
Shortly after this, a partnership between the PDC & Dartslive was established allowing the Dartslive Champion to play in the PDC World Championship at Ally Pally. Lim has returned many times since. In many ways, this has closed the circle between SoTi and Steel tip darts. Both now have solid structures and organisations in place. Each has areas were they are the more dominant format, SoTi is still most popular in Japan, The Far East and the USA. But each now has a much stronger presence in the others’ backyard. PDC Stars such as Adrian Gray & Lewis has excelled in their events.
For the spectator, the popularity of live streaming, and then YouTube clips of the action, seems to be made for the establishment of and building a huge following on new media. Traditional TV coverage may not be the ultimate aim of SoTi organisations. The variety of SoTi with multi-game formats may build a different type of viewing behaviour and base. Many non-UK social players prefer Cricket (tactics) to 501 and the differing outshot methods may well provide a complimentary viewing experience, rather than a tribal following.
Currently, the rise of SoTi seems a win-win scenario for all concerned. In the UK & Europe manufacturers and players seem to be attracted to the interaction that SoTi can provide. Products such as Target’s Nexus board allow players to log in and play each other in real time reliably and retain statistics and information. Live sessions involving their professional payers have proven very popular. The other side of the scale has seen Steel-Tip, and its heroes, expanding into areas formerly dominated by SoTi. Whether they play the PDC (Steel Tip) events organised around the globe or within the affiliated Leagues/Tours now springing up in Asia, Europe and elsewhere. By the way, Paul Lim just claimed two wins and two runner ups on the newly instituted PDC Asia Tour!
Manufacturers have spotted the opportunity to cross into new markets and expand those that already existed. The influence of Japanese and other Asian manufacturers and the different approach has been felt within steel tip markets. Players who excel and or hugely popular in these regions are being snapped up by every major player in the business. New products connected to SoTi are in development, as are crossover products, who knows where it may lead.
Recent lockdown streamed events between such superstars as Phil Taylor, Raymond van Barneveld and Mikuru Suzuki have added to the merging of the differing styles in the minds of the watching audience.
So enough of the snobbery, SoTi is accessible, interactive, popular and perfectly suited for the social media / tech-dominated culture in which we live.
Over the coming months and years, DartsWorld will keep you up to dart with events, results and developments from the SoTi format. We expect to see as much development, if not more, from this format as in longer established steel-tip.
A version of this article appears in Darts World 570
Additional editing was contributed by James Lincoln