Virtual motors, real racing: The success story of esports

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.”

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Real-world sackings: Formula E driver Daniel Abt was sacked by the Audi team after roping in a professional gamer to clandestinely replace him in a virtual race. Nascar star Kyle Larson lost his real ride, too, for using racist language in a public channel.