It was a day we had been looking forward to for a long time: March 14th was the day that MotoGP Unlimited was to be launched on Amazon Prime. The series was due to be available in 170 different territories around the world.
As midnight passed in Europe, social media lit up with responses to the series. And unfortunately, those responses were very far from positive. Not because of the content of the documentary series, but because of the editorial decisions apparently made by Amazon Prime. In the UK and US, the only version available was the dubbed version, where actors have voiced over everyone speaking in their own language. In Australia, India, and some Southeast Asian countries, MotoGP Unlimited was not available at all.
The problems reported seem to be a result of decisions taken by Amazon, rather than either Dorna or The MEDIAPRO Studio, the producers of the show. But the process by which these decisions were made is very hard to fathom.
In most territories, particularly in most European countries, the series is offered with a range of choices. In my own case (based in The Netherlands, and with an Amazon account with an address here), I have a choice of the original audio – where each of the participants speaks their own language, with English subtitles – or a number of different dubbed languages: English with audio description (where all speakers are dubbed in English and the action is described, for the visually impaired), Spanish, Italian, French, and German. In addition, there are multiple options for subtitles.
However, for anyone based in the UK or the US, those options do not appear, according to reports from people in those countries. There, the only option is the English dubbed version, and the choice of subtitles.
This attracted a tidal wave of criticism. UK and US-based fans consistently complained about the quality of the dubbing, and branded the series 'unwatchable'. Their hopes for the series had been dashed.
The good news, for UK viewers at least, is that this is a "technical issue", and is due to be resolved soon. Adam Wheeler of On Track Off Road contacted Amazon UK and was told that the original version will also be available.
How much of a disaster is this botched launch for MotoGP's hopes of finding a new audience? Firstly, it is worth noting that the outrage on social media cannot be taken to be representative of the entire audience. The sample of people commenting are self-selecting, and as a rule, people tend to comment far more often if they have a negative opinion of a development. People who are content with a product tend not to take to Twitter to broadcast the fact.
Secondly, the people who started complaining in the early hours of Monday morning are the die-hard fans who stayed up in anticipation of seeing the series. As a rule, these are already committed MotoGP fans who are well aware of how the riders and team staff speak, and what their native language is. Hearing them dubbed by English actors (variously described as like "a 50-year-old hedge fund manager" and "an accountant" by some Twitter wits), and not having the option to choose the original language naturally raised their hackles.
How non-fans will experience the series is another question. They are unlikely to be as committed to hearing the riders speaking in their own languages as the die-hard MotoGP fans. How they see the series is much more likely to be set by how gripping the series is as a whole.
It is also very early for non-fans to have actually seen the series for us to get an idea of how it will be received by them. Unlike MotoGP fans, they haven't been sitting by their TVs, phones, or tablets waiting for the series to finally hit the Amazon Prime video platform.
This, however, is a bigger problem. Despite having already watched one episode, the series is not showing up on the homepage of the Amazon app. It only appears once the Documentary category is selected. If the aim of the series is to make MotoGP known to a wider audience and attract new viewers, then getting the series noticed is the biggest priority.
Also in the same category is the decision by someone in Amazon not to launch MotoGP Unlimited in Australia, India, Indonesia, and other territories at the moment. A press release issued today by Dorna states that the series "is already available on Prime Video in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, as well as North America."
Given that Jack Miller is one of the characters the series focuses on, and that he is a major star in Australia, it seems bizarre that the series is not available in his home country. Similarly, given the importance of the Southeast Asian markets, and the potential for growth in the Indian subcontinent, not making the series available in Southeast Asia and India seems like a gross error. Let alone the fact that the series is not yet available in Indonesia, where the country is due to host its first grand prix in 25 years.
Whether the backlash from fans on social media is exaggerated or not, the launch has not created the hype which Dorna will have hoped for for the series. With Valentino Rossi having retired, the series was already facing a loss in viewership (though thankfully, the progress Dorna has made in turning the series into one of the closest and exciting racing series on the planet has limited the damage from the departure from the series' biggest media star). Being snowed under by negative comments will not encourage non-fans, or even fans, to watch it.
A solid start
Which is a shame. So far, I have only watched one episode, and what I saw was enough to make me want to watch more. The first episode is spent on the first three races of the 2021 season, the two races in Qatar and the first round at Portimão, which requires giving the viewer a very basic grounding in the format of MotoGP, in terms of practice, qualifying, and racing. As a result, the first half of the episode does not provide very much which is not readily available to anyone with a MotoGP.com video pass. There is race footage, and the kind of behind the scenes footage we sometimes get on the MotoGP.com website, and especially in the "Unseen" series of videos.
But as the episode goes on, there is a little more background revealed. There is a focus on the human side, with the struggles of Jack Miller, and the injury narratives of the returning Marc Marquez and Jorge Martin's massive smash at Portimão colliding. We get a more honest assessment of Marquez' injury, and the work he has to do to recover. We get to hear the fears of Jorge Martin's father Ángel. We get the first glimpses of insight into the complexity of Maverick Viñales' character. The first hints of who will emerge as the heroes and villains of the series start to emerge.
What there isn't is manufactured drama: in 2021, there was no need, there was drama enough. Characters and attitudes are revealed, sometimes inadvertently. Razlan Razali's affront at being snubbed by Valentino Rossi when he asked for an autograph back in 2005 was a telling insight into the situation in the team. And Paolo Ciabatti's reaction when Jack Miller crashed at Portimão – quietly saying just "Jack" – gave a hint at how high expectations are inside the factory Ducati garage, and how low the tolerance for failure.
We know from the trailer and from those who attended the premiere in Paris and Madrid that the drama around Maverick Viñales leaving Yamaha and the departure of Petronas from the SIC squad feature heavily. I am hoping that the episodes which follow provide greater depth, and more of a look behind the scenes of the sport. The chosen format – following the season chronologically, rather than focusing on a particular topic for each episode, as F1's Drive to Survive does – imposes a particular narrative structure on the series, but when used skillfully, that can help to shine a light on the characters and personalities inside the sport.
As an aside, I also listened to the dubbed version with audio description. Though I do not know whether the dubbed voices in this version are the same as in the version without the audio description (I presume they are, as simply from a cost perspective, it would not be worth getting them dubbed twice), the dubbed voices were no worse than any other dubbed movie in other languages. Dubbing invariably loses something, though it can be a good alternative for those who are unable to read subtitles for whatever reason.
The dubbed version was at least linguistically more accurate than the English subtitles. Translating the Spanish/Italian "pilotos" as "drivers" rather than "riders" is a particular pet peeve of mine, though that is in no small part due to my own antipathy towards cars. Overall, the English subtitles, at least for the English closed caption version, were rather poor, mostly as a result of having been done by someone with no familiarity with the sport or knowledge of the terminology and jargon in use.
Will MotoGP recover? Of course it will. The sport is in rude good health, and as the opening round of the 2022 MotoGP season showed, still full of surprises. The impact of the botched launch of the MotoGP Unlimited series will soon be forgotten, especially if the series gets a wider roll out and the option to watch in the original audio version is restored everywhere. Once the wave of disappointment from the hardcore fans dies down, we might start to get a better sense of how successful the series has been.
In any case, MotoGP has little to lose and much to gain. The worst case scenario is that MotoGP Unlimited is canceled after the second series (currently being filmed) is released. In that case, MotoGP goes on as before, a wildly popular but slightly niche sport featuring the best racers and racing on the planet. Anything more than that is a bonus.
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