Quokka Kicks

Can Virtual Adventure Thrive on the Internet? A Brazen New Web Site Says Yes. But Is This Digital Expedition into the Unknown a Revolutionary Way to Experience Sports, or a Business Disaster in the Making?

Dec 1, 1999
Outside Magazine
After days of rain and sleet forced us to hunker down in a tiny portaledge, the snowflakes scudding along the dry granite rock face are a relief. Nearly a mile above base camp on the Great Trango Tower in Pakistan, 18,500 feet above sea level, we begin heading up a beautiful, soaring dihedral. It's a fantastic pitch, but extremely slow; who'd have thought a wall this huge, with such massive features, could be so sparsely cracked? Jared Ogden is leading this section—his foot is just above my head—and we have a little over 2,000 sheer vertical feet to go. The weather could turn dangerously nasty again any minute. I shiver at the thought, but the views of the Karakoram Range propel me forward. Yet then, shamelessly and without so much as a word to Ogden and the other climbers, I bail out. I'll check in again tomorrow, but right now I'm going to rummage around in the fridge for an Anchor Steam, grab some Tostitos, and watch Rugrats with my kid.

Welcome to the world of virtual adventure, where risk means running your laptop on battery power and stamina is measured by how well you can endure maddeningly long download times. I wasn't up there on that monster wall; I was just patching together the experience from the digital graphics, physiological readouts, maps, uploaded photographs, and daily e-mails supplied to the San Francisco— based Quokka Sports Web site—Quokka.com—by climbers Jared Ogden, Mark Synnott, and Alex Lowe, who were making a dazzling first ascent up the northwest face of Great Trango Tower this past summer. Sadly, it was Lowe's last expedition before he was killed in an avalanche on the Himalayan peak Shishapangma in early October. In a dramatic sign of how extensive the burgeoning ties between adventure and the Internet have become, news of the Lowe tragedy broke on MountainZone.com—a Web site devoted to mountain sports like skiing, climbing, and snowboarding—which was a sponsor of Lowe's Shishapangma climb and had been covering it online with photographs and audio and e-mail dispatches from the climbers. (Seattle-based MountainZone was also one of the sponsors of the Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition, and it broke the news about the discovery of George Mallory's body last May.) In the peculiar new world that links daring climbers to adventure-voyeurs peering at computer screens, even death in an avalanche high on the slopes of a Tibetan peak has become dot-com accessible.

This unsettling immediacy is just one of the many novel phenomena propagated by Internet concerns marketing virtual adventure. Of course, there have been other attempts to lure armchair thrill-seekers with promises of you-are-there digital immediacy in the last few years, notably Microsoft's now defunct Mungo Park, which tried injecting celebrities into the adventure (Lyle Lovett motorcycles in Chile! Dr. Ruth goes to Papua New Guinea's Islands of Love!). Discovery.com, the Web partner of the cable-TV Discovery Channel, has offered digital coverage of events such as the Eco-Challenge adventure race; early next year, ESPN.com is planning to launch an X Games/lifestyle site called, inevitably, EXPN. (This magazine's Web site, Outsidemag.com, offers Q&As, news, event coverage, and forums, along with archived content from its print sibling.) But MountainZone, which went on line in March 1996, is the closest thing to head-to-head competition in the adventure arena that Quokka is facing.

Quokka is making by far the loudest claims to have come up with a way to give Web surfers a rush of synthetic adrenaline and "immersive" excitement. The company, originally conceived as a Web site for hire, splashed onto the scene with its production of the Whitbread Round the World Sailing Race in 1997-98. It evolved into a stand-alone sports entertainment site—Quokka.com, launched just last March—and has covered events ranging from sailing (the 27,000-mile Around Alone Race) and climbing (an expedition to China's Karakoram Range and, of course, Trango) to car racing (the Championship Auto Racing Team competitions). Quokka's self-promotion has been as extreme as the events it presents. "The most freakin' amazing 24-hour live sports coverage available today," blasted its ad campaign, part of a media blitz last spring that cost the company between $5 million and $10 million, according to Advertising Age. "We're first movers in this space," boasts Brian Terkelsen, Quokka's 35-year-old vice-president of sailing and adventure programming, with characteristic Quokka swagger.

Being first, alas, may not be such a good thing. Virtual adventure is as yet an unproven genre on the Internet, one still desperately trying to work out the kinks, figure out where the profits are going to come from, and find an audience. Quokka has had a fragmented audience profile from the start, given the disparate nature of what it covers and the fact that events like sailing and mountain climbing have generally not been considered spectator sports. Meanwhile, the site is expanding its coverage, having added 500 Grand Prix motorcycle racing and, more important, a joint venture with NBC to cover the Olympics through the year 2004—a move that could either put the company on the map or prove that immersive sports aren't a viable Internet commodity. Its staff has increased from 50 last year to nearly 300. Indeed, Quokka may be in a race with time. An initial public offering of stock fizzled in July, reflecting deep skepticism in a marketplace where successful Web sites tend to hawk sex or shopping, and Quokka's bandwidth-greedy multimedia content is so technologically demanding that successfully providing it to users who lack state-of-the-art Internet connections is sometimes a hit-or-miss business.

And a bigger, more basic question still looms: Can a fledgling Internet company go up against corporate behemoths like the three major networks, ESPN, Fox Sports, and CNN/SI—which Quokka may eventually be vying with for rights—and revolutionize the way we experience sports?


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