Esports and motorsport: how F1 has moved online

Published: 10 April 2020

► eSports and Coronavirus
► How motorsport is changing
► Streaming live events to those in lockdown

You don’t need telling that right now that things are difficult in terms of organising …well, anything that involves being outside your house. If you do: sorry, we’ve all got to stay indoors now. Which is making things especially tricky for sport, just as we got to the part of the year when a lot of big leagues and series kick off again.

Until around the end of February 2020, like everything, motorsport seemed untouched. Chinese rounds had been cancelled early in the year, but Formula E raced in South America and Marrakech and drivers and teams headed to Sebring for the World Endurance Round, only for it to be cancelled with some of them mid-air. Formula One cancelled the Australian Grand Prix, hours before Free Practice 1 was supposed to start and with the entire paddock assembled. Then Indycar cancelled St Pete and finally even NASCAR pulled the plug, with only a few regional series even trying to carry on testing.

With full lockdown either in place or coming in a lot of countries, the likelihood of sports events running any time soon is getting more and more remote. The F1 calendar is now postponed up to Montreal and Le Mans, scheduled for mid-June, is pushed back indefinitely.

It’s bad timing, for populations cooped up in their homes who could really do with something to distract them. Whether you watch motorsport for the fast cars or the bleeding-edge technology or to see the limits of human skill and machine endurance pushed lap after lap or just for the burst of wide-eyed, kid-like hope that your team or driver is going to do well this weekend, you’re cut off from that supply of serotonin and well… there’s not a lot else going on to replace it.

Fortunately, for decades now there’s been another form of motorsport. Well, the motor bit of that might be a misnomer, since nothing spins but the fan in your gaming tower but it’s a different way of throwing cars around on track. It is, of course, the video game experience that distinguishes itself from Mario Kart by calling itself sim racing.

Since mid-March 2020, regular online races have been organised by – variously – a huge new motorsport publication, the most successful F1 game media house/sim facility/Extreme E team, existing esports teams and Formula One, GT racing promoter SRO, Indycar and NASCAR themselves.

It’s obvious there’s a gap to fill, but an empty slot in the Sky Sports F1 schedule is more likely to be packed out with re-running The Johnny Herbert Story than well, said racing driver competing against one of One Direction.

Exactly, so why should I care?

Since the Australian Grand Prix’s cancellation, esports and media company Veloce, new motorsport specialist publication The Race and (as of Sunday) Formula One themselves have run online races. Indycar and NASCAR have joined in too and Team Redline, a sim-racing team with current F1 drivers in their competition lineup, have set up a new league for pros missing the track.

There’s no point trying to split hairs on who had the idea first – but both Veloce and The Race announced their alternatives to the Australian Grand Prix within a few hours of its cancellation.

esports f1 ferrari

Veloce are particularly prominent in F1 esports and partner the Alfa Romeo team for the official tournament and are invested in by two-time Formula E champion Jean-Eric Vergne, who’d posted on Instagram asking other drivers to join him for some virtual racing. They grabbed their own content creators and esports stars – and McLaren F1 driver Lando Norris – and announced ‘Not The AUS GP’ for Sunday evening, the morning after the IRL event was cancelled.

Rupert Svendsen-Cook told me that the team scrambled the event together, almost surprising themselves with it. ‘We came up with the idea on Thursday evening. We were announced and rolling Friday lunchtime with a grid ready to go. It was incredibly exciting and I can only thank and be in awe of the amazing team for pulling it together – two of them slept in the office each night to ensure we were ready for Sunday.’

The Race’s event was organised by Torque Esports, over a similar crunch. Speaking to Torque CEO Darren Cox he said the plan started forming at the same moment, with the team thinking ‘’We should do something if the Grand Prix isn’t happening’ and that their event, The Race’s All-Star Race, was put together in an overnight scramble between tech and phonebooks to secure the grid of drivers.

Which might sound like a lot of effort to go to, to build a virtual race. After all, if you’ve got a console and the F1 game or Gran Turismo or something, you can go and set up a lobby and invite your friends and be racing them in less than five minutes depending how many updates you need to download first.

Esports isn’t an amateur thing, though. This wasn’t a case of ‘just getting some F1 drivers and YouTubers to play a computer game.’ They do enough of that by themselves, frankly and they’re hardly the McElroys in terms of entertainment to just listening in. You have to actually organise an event and arrange commentators and make sure it won’t all crash just when everyone’s tuned in. (More on that story later)

Under non-coronavirus conditions, to hold a star-quality sim race you’d try and do it in situ. Esports definitely does have a real-world dimension to the tournaments, and both World’s Fastest Gamer and F1 have been holding their annual esports programmes as LANs, which is to say doing it in an arena with everything directly linked up rather than over the internet.

It’s the easier, more reliable way – it’s more expensive but the risk of something going wrong is so reduced and the credibility of it being a tangible, attended event so much more believable for sports fans that pretty much all series-endorsed sim racing has been run that way. Even the FIA’s official Gran Turismo championship travels the world, which in principle it doesn’t have to. Maybe it just comes down to, when we can, no matter how we’re doing it, it’s more fun to compete together. But these are different times.

‘Traditional’ sim racing, the amateur leagues organised on rFactor and iRacing that have slowly been professionalising, is pretty much exclusively online. It’s how no one really noticed for ages that Lando Norris and Max Verstappen both did it in their spare time and were on the same team – either you’re part of the community that watches it or you’re not, but it’s small enough to not have the kind of crossover power that forces you to take notice.

So marrying up the two; a big, publicised media event under the scrutiny of the “real” motorsports world and community-organised competition, was suddenly a difficult table plan to draw up.

All-star grids

One surefire way to get people to pay attention to sim racing, in lieu of real-life Formula One, is to get the actual drivers involved. The problem is, most of them have been a bit busy driving their real F1 cars and therefore, not concentrating on honing exactly how to extract the maximum from an in-game equivalent.

Plenty of drivers have at least a rudimentary simulator setup at home but a lot of them won’t use it for more than actual “proper” practice, with the not-quite-a-game racing simulators, a method of machine learning setups and scenarios they need during their upcoming IRL sports.

Plenty of drivers aren’t, however, in their usual homes or also haven’t found the space – at a premium in Monte Carlo – for a big gaming rig. So if you want to assemble a line-up to create broad appeal to bored motorsports fans, there’s another few logistical steps. Darren Cox said that the drivers had been keen to sign up – and help each other. ‘The first thing was to get drivers interested. We’d got ex-F1 world champions who’ve never sat in a sim before scrabbling round to get one put together.’

esports lando

Veloce had similar barriers, with their US director Ryan Tveter (also a racing driver himself) flying to Miami to get Stoffel Vandoorne a basic sim setup to compete. Svendsen-Cook said that it was always key to them to go beyond the existing sim community, to put on the event, ‘Esports presents a fairly level playing field and allows all abilities to compete. We’re not ‘sim’ racers and we don’t like that niche as it’s just too small. But when we can combine a grid like we did on Sunday with F1 drivers, Ex F1 drivers, a Real Madrid goalkeeper, big name F1 YouTubers and pro gamers. You’ve pulled on basically every corner of the fanbase for the sport. It’s casual fun, the competitive element is just an element and the fans absolutely love it.’

Cox said the same, that the grid was a deliberately mixed bag to create a ‘club racing’ feel. ‘They all helped each other with setup. It’s like being in a pre-grid for a national club race, some of these guys who’ve never done this before and are used to having ten engineers around them before a race start – and now it’s just them and the sim.’

BMW went a step further, making their factory motorsport engineering crew available to Maximilian Guenther while he was competing. What a pit wall engineer could do in terms of reassuring a sim racer remotely is probably quite limited – but keeping busy isn’t just a triviality, right now.

Why bother getting real athletes?

If the pro drivers aren’t prepared and aren’t that good at playing the games compared to their virtual counterparts, what’s the point of getting them involved? The all-star races so far have been chaotic and unprofessional, compared to “proper” racing, virtually or on-track, with errors from unfamiliarity and deliberate bad driving creating more chaos than an 80s stock car rally.

Is it funny? Yes. But it’s hardly an advert for the true competition in esports. That’s not really the point, though.

I spoke to Simon Fitchett, Torque’s performance coach, about the psychological element of all this. He made the switch to esports after years in Formula One as a physical trainer, also retraining as a psychologist to better manage athletes’ complex mental needs.

He said, maybe not surprisingly, that the challenges of being shut in were not totally new in gaming. ‘The first year I was in esports, with all due respect to the drivers, some of them weren’t as worldly and lacked social skills outside their circles.’

I had to admit that sounded quite a lot like motorsport people, myself included and Fitchett agreed – ‘When you’re in F1, it’s everything, the entire world. They almost think there’s no life outside the circus, it’s a bubble and it’s not a real bubble.’

esports f1 driver

Which is a very distressing thing for thousands of people – millions, including fans – to have just been cut off from indefinitely. If gamers struggle to adapt to the real world then at least some ‘real’ sports people are going to struggle getting into the virtual. ‘It’s a difficult time – fourteen days of quarantine, a month, can bring up all kinds of things in people, even mentally strong ones. We don’t know how we’ll react until it comes to it.’

Collective distraction, live entertainment and the opportunity to literally connect to something, over the internet, is incredibly important. Veloce Esports presenter Haydon Gullis said just after the first event that even their standard streams are acquiring more attention as people reach out for entertainment, ‘A lot of people are quarantined and sat completely outside their normal, everyday routine and with scary events happening.

‘We do streams all day, every day and we’re getting hundreds of continuous viewers, just for non-star, open racing. The longer people go without normality, the more it’s becoming a lifeline.’

Is it a success?

In terms of numbers, yes. In terms of entertainment then it depends on your take but if it’s between watching the queue for an Ocado delivery or some well-commentated virtual mayhem then it would seem pretty sulky to insist on looking away.

The Race’s first All-Star event got 52,000 viewers during its live showing and a subsequent 550,000 in the first 24 hours it was available on YouTube. That might not be Super Bowl viewing figures but it’s big.

Veloce’s event (maybe because they picked more directly from stars with existing gaming audiences and corroborated numbers, to be fair to The Race) was even more impressive. #NotTheAusGP had over 170,000 concurrent live viewers, including Lando Norris hitting over 100k on his own stream, becoming the top live session on Twitch.

Again, it’s less audience than the Australian Grand Prix would have achieved but a lot more than a Sunday night race would normally attract – so the uneasy marriage of IRL and virtual that we’ve all found ourselves in is working, at least as far as sim racing is concerned.

One of Veloce’s media crew Aarav Amin, whose YouTube channel has 345,000 subscribers for his witty F1 game content, told me he was nervous before the event because it seemed so competitive, despite the idea of online racing being second nature to him, ‘I’m not going to lie to you, before the streams went live and we started Qualifying, I was absolutely bricking it. I generally don’t care too much about how I perform in F1 online races, it’s not my domain, I usually just need to be quick enough vs AI drivers to make a good video. But Sunday, at 45 past 5, my heart was racing a little. Nerves I haven’t had since I did League Racing in 2014.’

He said the success was immediately obvious, though, ‘After it was all over though, just a massive high feeling, realising you just shared a virtual track with actual pro drivers, many of whom you’ve watched & cheered on before is something I will never forget or take for granted. It’s moments and events like the ‘Not The…AusGP’ which make me so proud to be part of Veloce Esports, they’ve literally made a lot of our wildest dreams come true in the last year.”

As more sporting events have been cancelled, the series have gone from one-off events to regular weekend meetings. And there’s more being added constantly, with some of the most ubiquitous commentators bouncing across virtual broadcast studios with surreal speed.

Cox said they hadn’t planned a championship, at least at the start of this ‘But will we be racing every weekend until this is over? Absolutely.’

While it’s unlikely, given half the chance to get back on track in the flesh, many drivers would hang up their boots and gloves for some nice slipper socks. But it has oddly given F1 a bit of a moment in the spotlight – during a Twitch-wide charity streaming event, Lando Norris got 15 minutes on the site’s main feed to show an F1 2019 race alongside fellow IRL drivers on his channel.

With a predictability he took well at the time, his game crashed instead and he had to improvise chat instead. But even a temporary introduction to the sport via someone bubbly and charismatic, who clearly understands how Twitch works even if he can’t make the game run, is one of the highest-concentrate exposure events to new, young audiences motorsport will have had in decades.

It’s just a game, though…

Well, yes. And no. Saying computer games are ‘just’ anything now is like saying football’s just a playground kickabout – they’re a colossal industry, with the narrative end of things passing Hollywood for value over a decade ago and the competitive structures creating multimillion-dollar tournaments that fill stadiums.

Most people, unless you’ve been self-isolating for way longer than the current problems, have played a computer game against someone else. Whether it was Pokemon or Pong, we all get the concept that these are ways you can interact with someone (or multiple people) who’s trying to, within the rules of the game, win against you.

Which is the essence of sport. It’s just that sport as we know it is now a superstructural thing worth billions and billions and we’re still publishing thinkpieces titled “Games: Not just for kids now” on a six-monthly broadsheet cycle.

Take League of Legends. It’s a sort of five-a-side fantasy brawl where the idea is to capture the enemy team’s base and it’s been filling arenas for years with fans keen to see it played live. 100 million people watched it’s World Championships last year, including 44 million concurrent viewers and all of that will have been via Twitch.

If, like me, you spend about 30% (ok, possibly more given lockdown) of your day doodling about on the internet watching things then Twitch needs no introduction. But if not then this weird new world where everyone mentions it every five minutes is probably a bit baffling: Twitch is basically Sky for millennials and Gen Z. It’s a streaming service but unlike Netflix, the point is to watch live.

Most of – though not all – what gets streamed is games. The most popular streamers are funny, likeable personalities who kind of recreate, remotely, the feel of sitting with your friends round a console. And there’s also the sport broadcast bits, which are streamed from official channels (and on players’ own) and have proper commentary (casters) and analysis segments before and after matches. Although most content is free, you can pay monthly subscriptions to get extras and support your favourite streamers or teams.

Popular streamers, teams and tournaments are sponsored – by big brands, like F1 constructors Honda and Mercedes Benz. You might find the screaming, dubstep-infused, motivationally-heavy ads they run during esports events kind of alien compared to the Riviera-based saloon car slides of an F1 ident but that’s called ‘playing to your market’ and esports sponsorship costs a hell of a lot less than building a power unit every year just to risk getting insulted on track.

Why watch pretend race cars?

There’s loads of reasons people watch motorsport and two popular ones that come up are the noise and the danger; the atmosphere, basically. So why would you watch a computer game, where you get none of either?

Well, I hate to break it to you: if you’ve been watching motorsport on telly then you don’t get that, either but you probably find a good Grand Prix compelling if you’re sitting in your lounge with a cup of tea. Maybe even more than if you’re standing, windswept at Becketts, trying not to drop your travel mug and crane your neck to find out if Q1’s finished yet.

A lot of what makes sport great to watch, in your own home, is that you can see people doing technically cool stuff, follow along and have it explained to you. You can access enough information to put together your own opinions, pick a favourite and see what happens to them – we all manage it every Olympics with horseback laserquest or whatever other event you’ve literally never heard of but get insanely overinvested in for three hours because you understand enough to get what’s going on.

So: pretend race cars. Here you are, on the sofa with your cup of tea. If you were just watching footage of someone’s game, with no commentary and no clear idea of even where they were on track or who they were or what you could expect, it’d be nothing more than a screensaver with sound effects that only the near-catatonically stoned could enjoy.

And that’s kinda where sim racing started. Online leagues were strictly for enthusiasts and a bit… well, I’ll be honest, it was fairly unwatchable unless you were really interested in the technicalities. Which I would kind of say I am, with IRL racing except it turns out I do still need to know who’s in what car and what’s going on and why I should care about it. Which it’s relatively hard to get a grip on watching fake Carreras go round the old Brands Hatch layout without anything in the way of camera angles, commentary or graphics.

With audiences mostly happy getting their race car kicks with well-prepared graphics and sexy intro sequences in the real world, the genuine application of sim-racing to its real-world parallel wasn’t enough allure. So it sort of flew under the radar.

Yes, as sim games like iRacing and rFactor (the two most popular ‘accurate’ sims, now used by some race teams) got closer and closer to real life it was much cheaper to buy a bucket seat, a steering wheel and a couple of monitors than schlep for a track day at the Nordschliefe but there’s plenty of car enthusiasts with garages full of beloved projects that thousands of teenagers aren’t going to watch a stream of.

Without an audience, there was never much of a prize pool or investment in broadcast. So sim racing never broke out when other games did – while Dota was commanding the first seven-figure prize pool in esports, sim racing was just about moving into having commentary.

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By Hazel Southwell

Formula E and esports journalist; batteries, memes, sleeping in airports