THIS F1 LIFE
THE VIRTUE AND VALUE OF VIRTUAL F1
Pat Symonds on the strengths of Esports
We have witnessed some great races this year and both the British and US Grands Prix provided a level of excitement and uncertainty sustained right to the end. I was fortunate enough to attend another great race recently, and although it was another demonstration of Mercedes domination, they were closely hounded throughout the race by Toro Rosso. In addition, to witness this I had to travel no further than Fulham Broadway.
I am talking, of course, about the F1 Esports Pro Series. You may find it hard to accept that someone who has been involved in the sport for over 40 years can get excited about a virtual manifestation of F1 racing, but believe me it is good. The boundaries between gaming and professional virtual racing are becoming blurred, and the ever-changing demographic of our world may one day promote a similar blurring of the margins between simulated and actual sport.
The F1 Esports series is just two years old and for 2018 introduced the concept of the Pro Draft. This involved all the F1 teams – all except Ferrari, that is, who seem once again to have some difficulty accepting the changes that modern society brings – selecting drivers to represent them. They were chosen from 66,000 unique players, who between them made 400,000 qualifying attempts. Scores from qualifying resulted in 40 drivers from all over the world attending the Pro Draft at Silverstone over the British GP weekend, where they were put through several physical and mental challenges – the results of which were scrutinised by scouts from the nine official F1 Esports teams.
The competitors were subjected to fitness tests, interviews as brand ambassadors, kart races and of course Esports events themselves. On the Monday after the race a live show attended by Max Verstappen (an avid Esports enthusiast) announced the 16 drivers that made the Pro Draft to complete the team line-ups.
During the summer break contracts were signed ready for the Autumn competition to start. During three evenings, three races were held at each event. These covered 25% of the distance of a real grand prix, as drivers battled for points toward the championship. Last year’s champion Brendon Leigh, a 19-year old from the UK who was snapped up by Mercedes, remains the man to beat. It is a mark of the importance of the sport that Brendon shed 20kg as a result of the fitness regime he imposed on himself to prepare for 2018.
The finals, held in late November, comprised three further 25% distance races, while the final race, Abu Dhabi, was held over 50% distance and counted for double points. Just like in real F1, the prize fund – $200,000 this year – goes
PERHAPS THE QUESTION WE NEED TO ASK IS WHETHER ESPORTS IS A STEPPING STONE TO THE REAL THING OR WHETHER IT IS A VERY DIFFERENT ACTIVITY THAT WILL STAND ON ITS OWN
to the teams based on their position in the teams’ championship. The teams in turn have arrangements with the drivers and pay them on the basis of a retainer and a results bonus. Also, just like the real thing, the competition is governed by 63 pages of rules and guides, all of which have to be followed to the letter.
Perhaps the question we need to ask is whether Esports is a stepping stone to the real thing or whether it is a very different activity that will stand on its own as a more inclusive form of entertainment. At the 2018 Race of Champions, a number of players contested the EROC event with the winner being judged not just on their simulator results but also on lapping the real track in a real car. Considering Brendon Leigh had not driven any form of car two weeks before the event, it was a tribute to simulation that he was even able to compete. On one hand we see examples such as Jann Mardenborough, now a professional driver having won the Nissan GT Academy virtual series, on the other we have the opportunity, through fans playing the games, to increase understanding of our sport.
While I think there is much we can learn from Esports, and
I’ve been advocating for some time that we use it as a virtual test environment for changes to both technical and sporting regulations, I also think virtual competition is a sport in itself. In some areas, such as Fortnite, gameplay has to remain virtual. In some spaces, such as football games, it allows for inclusion where that might otherwise be inhibited by the physical constraints of the players. In racing, it allows competition in a field where financial constraints may preclude many would-be competitors from participating. While I doubt racing simulations will ever reach the levels of popularity of League of Legends, they have a place, and when we consider the 2018 F1 Esports events each achieved around 25 million social media impressions, we can see that place is substantial.
F1 Esports also allows us to reach a younger, digitally aware demographic that we don’t currently speak to directly but who are our future fans. Recent scrutiny by Arity, a technological research company, found that half of US millennials do not think it worth owning a car. This is causing much concern to the motor industry and should concern us. We must provide access to a sport that can be otherwise inaccessible. It is easy and cheap to pick up a tennis racquet and play, it is neither easy or cheap to race a car.
To dismiss Esports as ‘just a game’ is short-sighted. To embrace it and embed it as part of the rich tapestry that is made up by all forms of motorsport provides a way to grow our sport and provide a future that is as rich as our past. Formula 1 may be the penthouse of a metaphorical high-rise but Esports may be as important a foundation for our fans as karting is for our drivers.
The second F1 Esports series involved nine of the 10 F1 teams and included a Pro Draft
Brendon Leigh claimed more success for Mercedes as he took a second F1 Esports title