Formula 1's eSports Series another attempt at attracting real fans through the virtual world

The Lotus F1 Team, best known as the last team Kimi Raikkonen won a Grand Prix for, had announced a ‘World Simulator Championship’ on 1 April, 2013. The plan was ambitious and futuristic — it included linking every team on the grid (strangely Lotus isn’t on the grid anymore) via their factory simulator and getting them to race in the virtual world. The catch? It was an April Fool’s Day prank, one that had a very prominent Formula 1 journalist and a rival team fell prey to.

Cut to 21 August, 2017 — Formula 1 actually announced their own eSports Series, one that would allow fans and gamers around the world to battle for the title, Formula 1 eSports Series World Champion.

Formula 1 has ventured into the virtual world with their eSports Series. Image courtesy: Twitter @F1

Formula 1 has ventured into the virtual world with their eSports Series. Image courtesy: Twitter @F1

Here's what we know about the eSports Series so far:

- Anyone can register via the official website (It might be easier to get a parental nod to race in the virtual world, and the simulators don’t need you to be Jenson Button-type fit and you won’t have a weight disadvantage. Go register!)

- Qualification rounds start 4 September onward (circuits: Suzuka and Monza).

- Forty drivers will be shortlisted for the semi-finals in London, on 10 October (London is becoming a key city for Formula 1, will they host a race someday too?)

- Twenty finalists will go head-to-head to compete for the inaugural Formula 1 eSports Series Champion.

Under Bernie Ecclestone’s reign, Formula 1’s commercials thrived whereas the global fan base stagnated, or one could argue, dipped. For the millions of fans that still follow the sport, there’s an increasing worry that younger millennials aren’t taking to Formula 1 and it is only the older generation that follows the sport. The flaws could be identified in the product as well as the marketing efforts undertaken by the sport.

Given his background as a used-car dealer, Ecclestone seemed more comfortable cracking multi-million dollar commercial sponsorship deals rather than breaking his head over arresting the decline in fan base, or attracting younger audiences. In fact, in 2014, he exclaimed that "younger fans were irrelevant" and that the sponsors of the sport were interested in the "80-year-old, Rolex-wearing Formula 1 fan".

Thankfully, Ecclestone’s brattish statements didn’t drive sponsors away from the sport. However, there was an increasing number of fans (especially the ones with marketing backgrounds such as us) that believed that by not focusing on its marketing efforts, Formula 1 was missing the bus, the ship and the plane!

But in less than nine months after ousting Ecclestone as the sport’s chief executive, Liberty Media, the new owners, have made strides in positioning the sport to attract newer and younger fans. We still wonder how almost every kid who grows up with ‘dinky’ cars doesn’t naturally become a Formula 1 fan at an age when he aspires to drive cars, and drive them fast. But this is the product-level problem, so we will leave it for later.

Liberty Media’s first step towards attracting the millennial was when they relaxed the social media publishing rules for the teams and drivers in the paddock. The second was when they announced a partnership with Snapchat in July 2017. The eSports Series is yet another solid push towards attracting fans that could be made interested in real racing via attracting them in the virtual world. That old-time fans like us aren’t too excited by the Formula 1 eSports Series is a good indication that the millennial might just be!

Is Formula 1 a sport or entertainment or both? This question has been doing the rounds for the owners and fans since a few decades and the eSports Series will definitely up the entertainment and social quotient of the sport. If the interest in the eSports Series takes off, the avenue for in-game sponsorship revenue could open up for Formula 1. This is a good brand extension for the sport.

The global interest, in terms of gamers and sponsors, in the gaming industry is well reported. In fact, Formula 1’s foray into this territory is delayed and could have been activated much earlier with ease. The ‘Official Formula 1 Game’ has been around for a few years via Codemasters, and organizing a virtual gaming challenge for a team that organizes a multi-country real racing championship every fortnight would be a cake walk. (We would still vote for ‘Grand Prix 3’ as the best racing game yet.)

However, Formula 1’s series isn’t unique to Motorsport. Strangely, McLaren, one of Formula 1’s 10 teams, announced their programme called the ‘World’s Fastest Gamer’ in May this year. The winner of the McLaren programme would get a chance to be the team’s simulator driver — a career-changing opportunity for a gamer. But is a stable career opportunity a greater pull for the gamers, or is prize money the ultimate honour?

Formula E, FIA’s all-electric racing series, conducted their first ever gamer vs pro driver (or virtual vs real racer) ePrix in Las Vegas last year. The starting grid for their ePrix was interesting. Felix Rosenqvist of Mahindra Racing was the only real racer to make it to the top 10, the other nine being gamers! The winner, Bono Huis, took home a winning cheque of $200,000. Across the Pacific, there is the iRacing eSport World Championships — one that includes the NASCAR among other series.

Formula 1 is the pinnacle of Motorsport, but little has been revealed if their eSports Series will be the pinnacle of virtual racing. Will gamers get to go head-to-head against the real racers? Would existing drivers — the Leiws Hamiltons, Fernando Alonsos and Sebastian Vettels — be allowed to participate? And what about the real racers from the junior category? Simulator training is an important part of their development cycle.

Outside of Vettel and Hamilton, the drivers who are out of contention to win the real Drivers’ Championship might just fancy their chances and maybe they’ll finally get to race the faster virtual racing cars of Mercedes or Ferrari. Also, given Max Verstappen’s affection for the PlayStation and the demography that he falls under, would he want to participate too?

Finally, would racing in virtual cars mean the end of mechanical reliability issues for the drivers? Well, at Formula E’s Vegas ePrix, the reigning Formula E Champion Lucas di Grassi was unable to compete because of reliability issues with his simulator. In a world that’s increasingly going virtual, we are glad that some problems still remain in the real.

Updated Date: Aug 24, 2017 16:42 PM

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