Almost as soon as the coronavirus led to racing engines around the world being turned off, so the simulators were fired up and motorsport went virtual. Much like Zoom video calls, Joe Wicks, home baking and online shopping, esports has enjoyed a lockdown-sized window of opportunity in which to showcase itself.
The result has been a surge in interest, fuelled by real-world drivers, manufacturers and championships out to fill the void until real racing can resume. It started with established esports organisers. As the Formula 1 circus headed home after the last-minute cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix, Veloce Esports and Torque Esports set up ‘all-star’ events, both featuring real-world drivers, including F1 stars Lando Norris and Max Verstappen, and leading sim racers. F1, Formula E, Indycar, Nascar and others quickly launched virtual championships, and sport-starved TV broadcasters jumped at the chance to fill their schedules, giving the already rapidly growing activity a huge profile.
“The last few months have been really cool,” says Jack Nicholls, who commentates on F1 for BBC Radio 5 Live and Formula E on TV but started his career covering esports and has commentated on several current series. “Esports is big, but it has still only been for gamers, and ‘real-world people’ turned their nose up at it to a certain degree.
“The drivers who have got into it now is exciting. We’re watching Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button racing in esports, and there was a huge grid for the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual.” For championships and manufacturers, esports helped them maintain a media presence during lockdown. Nicholls estimates an esports race might achieve 10% of the exposure of a real contest – but at significantly less than 10% of the cost.
Formula E established the Race at Home Challenge, using it to raise money for Unicef. Hannah Brown, the championship’s strategy boss, says: “We weren’t sure what reach we would achieve when we started, but the take-up from broadcasters was great. It also attracted different viewers, so it has been really useful.”
The official series helped draw in star names. While some, including Norris and Verstappen, regularly compete in esports, many were new to the discipline. Bruno Spengler, who usually races a works BMW M8 GTE, tried sim racing for the first time only last year. He now says that it “teaches real driving feeling”, adding: “Because the right racing line in the simulator is also the right racing line on the real race track, I can take many of my experiences in the simulator with me into the real racing car.” Thanks to television coverage, it’s not just drivers who have been given fresh exposure to esports. “I know a commentator who thought esports was stupid but covered one event and at the end said ‘wow, that was a proper race’,” says Nicholls. “Well, yeah. It’s virtual motor racing. The motors are virtual, but the racing is real.”
It almost looks real, too. Modern sim-racing software such as iRacing, rFactor 2 and F1 2019 features incredibly realistic graphics. With the likes of the F1, Formula E, Indycar and Nascar broadcasters using their regular commentators and graphics, the results were impressive. “The F1 Virtual Grand Prix series was the best example,” says Nicholls. “While the game itself isn’t the most realistic there is, when you’re watching Charles Leclerc and Alex Albon fight it out in the cars they really drive, it’s so close to watching reality.”