FEATURE: Is Esports Racing Becoming The New Grassroots Path Into Motorsport?

by Aaron Gillard
Cem Bulokbasi - Esports - Toro Rosso

Intensity, excitement and action. Those are often the common definitions surrounding racing. All on the line. Battling the wheel of their vehicle to perfect every lap they complete, fearing that one mistake could throw away the race win. Everyone on track has their own story on how they made it here. Everyone has a point to prove.

That was the intense atmosphere, moments before lights out at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi for the final of the 2017 F1 Esports Series. The first of its kind, and the first time these gamers get to be in the spotlight within the biggest Motorsport series in the world.

The gamers who sat in their simulators came from different backgrounds. Racing drivers who failed to make a career into Motor Racing, often made the jump into Esports and use their skills in that field. Others come from a background with no racing history, but a passion for the sport and invested heavily on the best equipment for the toughest tournaments in Esports.

The sport itself has grown massively in the last decade and has seen investors, sponsors and businesses grow an interest within the sport and put loads on money on the line. It’s a sport that has seen game developers change their blueprint of their games to allow an Esports element and competitive nature into it for the market.

Competitive racing in particular is a field that has a large community itself and has many leagues both experienced and rookie players can enter in. Forza Motorsport 7, Gran Turismo Sport, F1 2018, iRacing and rFactor 2 are some the platforms most competitive organisations use to host competitive racing.

Atyaf e-Racing Lando Norris

Credit: Atyaf e-Racing/McLaren Shadow

The Esports platform has allowed racing drivers to practice at home as well as practicing for an upcoming race weekend at their team’s factory. F1 stars such as Lando Norris and Max Verstappen use racing simulators to race with the best Esports drivers and to squeeze some extra practice in before an F1 weekend.

“Without a doubt, gaming has played a significant role on my journey to F1 and it is an area I put a lot of effort into perfecting alongside my racing duties,” said Norris to Atyaf e-Racing prior to his debut F1 season.

“Not only do I use gaming and simulations to hone my skills in the cockpit, I do it for fun and really enjoy competing against friends and professionals. I had a sim at home when I was younger and it proved invaluable in developing my race craft so although it isn’t “reality”, esports has nonetheless made a huge contribution to the reality of me reaching the highest levels of motorsport.”

Real-life sporting organisations have began noticing the rise of Esports and looked into combining the two together. Formula 1 – arguably one of the biggest sporting organisations in the world, created the F1 Esports Series. The series saw over 64,000 players enter the first series alone, which was narrowed down to 40 for the semi-finals in London. The final took place at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, where Brendon Leigh took the series’ first championship.

Leigh was no ordinary gamer. He had no racing history from his parents or relatives. He was an average fan with a job, earning enough to pay the bills and his equipment. Born from Reading, Leigh spent his spare time racing, whilst obtaining a full-time job as a kitchen porter in a restaurant within the Berkshire town. His victory in the Esports series grew his status within the Esports and Formula 1 world as the first champion, but his presence online grew as gifs of him ‘waving his finger in dismiss’ over an incident that occurred on during one of the final races in Abu Dhabi became a common image within the F1 community.

“Previously I was mainly doing smaller leagues and then on bigger leagues side such as Apex Online Racing I was doing that week in, week out and that’s where I mainly learned my craft in terms of racing and that really did pay off in the final” said Leigh on how he started his competitive racing career.

“I saw the announcement for it on Twitter and that’s how I got hooked and into the idea of it. I didn’t expect it as big as it was with the media attention around it. I expected it to be slightly smaller, but obviously it was quite a shock to see how much media attention they are around it because it really helped me.”

Brendon Leigh - Mercedes Live Event

Credit: FTP Edelman/F1 Esports Series

Leigh’s rise to success created attention to the series and launched season two in 2018. The difference is that the official F1 teams who race in the real-life F1, can enter. We saw nine of the ten teams join, with the exclusion of Ferrari. These teams set up their own Esports facilities for their drivers to train and prepare for the series. Mercedes AMG Esports team even have their base in the same location as the official F1 team in Brackley.

The second Series saw a $200,000 prize pool split between the teams determined on the position they finish in the team’s standings. For 2019, the prize money has increased to $500,000. During season two, the introduction of a draft system decided where the 40 gamers who earned the spot in the series will join from the nine Esports teams. The ‘draft’ often seen from American sports such as the NFL, NHL and NBA, allows the teams to individually pick a player to join their team over a selection of rounds. These selections were done by people within the F1 teams, including actual F1 drivers like Verstappen and Pierre Gasly.

Max Verstappen - F1 Esports - Draft

Credit: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images for Red Bull)

Hype Energy eForce India fielded a strong line-up for the 2018 F1 Esports Series with hiring Marcel Kiefer and Mads Sørensen prior to the season. They also picked up runner-up in the 2017 F1 Esports season, Fabrizio Donoso Delgado in the first round of the 2018 Pro Draft. The team ended the season fifth overall in the standings. The three worked together at Force India’s (now known as Racing Point) base at Silverstone and at the GFinity Arena in London. Kiefer competed in majority of the rounds during the Esports series and delivered well by finishing fourth overall in the Drivers’ championship.

“We have been working nearly every single second together that we’ve got,” said Kiefer. “It was a bit difficult for Mads because he has also a normal job where he works 10 hours a day, but for Fabrizio and me it’s a bit easier because we focus only on Esports. We’re testing quite a lot and just practicing all the time.”

The latest discussion on Esports drivers is whether they can transfer their skills from the simulators to the real world. Academies and programs such as the Nissan GT Academy has proven this theory to be strong, with Jann Mardenborough being the most successful driver to come out from the series having raced in the likes of GP3, SuperGT, Blancpain and FIA European Formula 3. Mardenborough was also one of the drivers to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Nissan Motorsports.

At the 2019 Race of Champions in Mexico, eROC race winner James Baldwin and 2018’s winner Enzo Bonito both beat drivers whose profession is to race around the world. Bonito, who raced in the F1 Esports Series with McLaren Shadow, beat both FIA Formula E race winner and champion Lucas di Grassi and IndyCar champion Ryan Hunter-Raey. Their achievement within a big sporting stage sparked the question whether they can make racing a real profession of theirs.

Marcel Kiefer - F1 Esports

Credit: Marcel Kiefer/Hype Energy eForce India

“All of us have got the talent. People sometimes call it ‘arcady’ the game. but I think it’s still driving and understanding how the physics work and gaining every single bit of advantage,” commented Kiefer whether Esports drivers can make the transition to real-life racing.

“It’s the same in real Formula 1. They test so much, they do so much work behind the scenes, 24/7, the whole year, and it’s the same for us. We have the dedication, we know what we have to do, we have some driving experience, we also drive sometimes in real-life to improve the driving. I think it’s definitely possible to see us maybe even in Formula 1.”

The ground of Esports has been something has been heavily picked up around the world as investors and racing teams are taking note. McLaren’s CEO Zak Brown described Esports as a the new ‘grass roots of Motorsport’ and has invested into its Esports programs with their ‘World’s Fastest Gamer’ and their McLaren Shadow team. Leigh’s success in the F1 Esports Series has led to him taking his skills onto the real race track in the BRSCC’s National Formula Ford championship, his first crack at single-seater racing.

Motorsport is an expensive sport to invest in and there is no guarantee that every driver will succeed and make a profit from it. The lucky ones pick up sponsors, prize money and promotion to other series. But those who don’t, often are left behind. But Esports can present a chance for drivers to jump in and showcase their racing skills in the virtual world, or even a launch back in the Motorsport platform.

Virtually Entertained’s Managing Director Ben Rossiter-Turner views this theory differently and thinks existing drivers will turn to the Esports platform, rather than Esports drivers jumping into the field of Motorsport.

“Whenever you do that virtual to real thing, you always have that mention that someone did it first, which is fine to an extend,” said Rossiter-Turner.

“But it is a lot of money running someone or a academy like Nissan GT Academy which at one point it has six winners a year. Six winners to go and find a race seat in Motorsport, you might be spending £200.000 to £500,000 per winner and that’s without marketing, getting them through the driver development program and through the TV show. So that’s very, very expensive.”

Rossiter-Turner’s Virtually Entertained work as the event organisers and planners for some of the biggest Esports stages in the world. The corporation partnered with the Motorsport Network Group and formed the Le Mans Esports Series, starting at the Autosport International Show in 2019. They also work on series such as DiRT Rally and NASCAR: The Heat with their Esports competition.

“I think you’ll see it go the other way. I think you’ll see more real drivers go into the virtual,” stated Rossiter-Turner.

Red Bull Esports Team Roster

Credit: Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

“If you want to go race in real-life, it’ll cost you huge amount of money, huge amount of sponsorship or ‘daddy’s money’ or your own money. There are sponsors out there that are willing to back some people. but not everyone with the talent can get to the top. All they can see is these big price figures come up, barring in mind that prize money is quite rare really in Motorsport. It’s more common I think already to find prize money in the Esports spectrum, than it is to find it in real-life.”

The theory of seeing racing drivers making the step into Esports is coming into full circle with former MP Motorsport driver in the Formula Renault series, Jarno Opmeer joining Renault Sport Team Vitalty for the 2019 F1 Esports Series. Opmeer isn’t the only one who made the transition from a racing career into Esports.

Both Red Bull Racing Esports stars Graham Carroll and Cem Bolukbasi all started from racing in junior formulas, before financial troubles halted their racing process. Now, the two are part of an Esports team controlled by one of the strongest F1 teams in the world.

Whether Esports can launch a career in Motorsport for the successful gamers or opens a gateway for existing drivers to enter, the sport is growing and there is a real interest from investors to make the jump into the virtual world and make a profit from the competitive nature of video games.

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